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UCLA’s Chip Kelly appreciates how players have switched positions to fill in holes

UCLA’s Chip Kelly appreciates how players have switched positions to fill in holes
UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson fakes a hand-off to running back Martell Irby during spring football practice Saturday morning at Spaulding Field. (Steve Galluzzo / For the Times)

When Josiah Norwood, who played quarterback in high school, asked to make the move to receiver, UCLA head football coach Chip Kelly thought, “Why not?” He likes how unselfish his players are and expressed his appreciation before Saturday morning’s spring practice at Spaulding Field.

“They want to contribute,” Kelly said. “It’s very simple… if I’m standing with six in this line and there’s only one guy over there, I’m going over there. They love playing football. They want to play. If I’m one of those guys, I think about it sometimes before the coaching staff thinks about it and it gives them an opportunity to see if they can get on the field. It’s about being passionate and wanting to play football and we have a lot of guys like that.

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The Bruins lost Caleb Wilson, whose 60 catches last fall were the most ever by a UCLA tight end and who led all FBS players at that position in receptions per game (5.0), receiving yards per game (80.4) and total receiving yards (965), but they have a host of others anxious to fill the void after he declared for the NFL draft in December.

“We’ve seen progress — obviously Matt Lynch has moved there and with Devin Asiasi, Jordan Wilson, David Priebe and Greg Dulcich we’ve had a good nucleus, then we’ve got Mike Martinez coming in, so we’re excited about where we are,” Kelly said. “Obviously, Caleb was the most productive tight end in the country, so there are a lot of catches to be had. From a positive standpoint, those guys are excited about the opportunity because they know how much we throw the ball to the tight end. They’ve done a really good job in the first half of spring ball and we just need to continue to build on that.”

The heir apparent to Wilson is Asiasi and Kelly expects big things from the redshirt junior who played in nine games last season after seeing no action in his first year in the program following his transfer from Michigan.

“He’s a little bit bigger than Caleb was. He’s up to almost 270 pounds now, and he’s more stout on the line of scrimmage,” Kelly said of Asiasi. “I don’t think he stretches the field like Caleb did. There are pluses and minuses with size, but he’s got the full skill set to do everything for us. He’s a really good receiver in the pass game, he was an integral part last year and he got a lot of valuable experience.”

Asiasi had six catches for 130 yards last season, including a 24-yard touchdown against Arizona.

“I have pretty big shoes to fill, but [Caleb] gave me a lot of good tips last year being under his wing,” Asiasi said after Saturday’s practice, which lasted almost two and a half hours. “He’s always at the facility working out, pushing me, so we’re always in contact. It’s not like he’s a stranger at all. What I learned from him most is to be your own worst critic. There are always things you can improve on every day. He’s never satisfied and he’s passed that down to me.”

Wilson likes how the coaches are putting him in different positions to create mismatches.

“The way we’re being used isn’t that much different than last year, but we’re definitely moved around a lot more to confuse the defense,” he said. “What have I worked on the most? Footwork in the run game, taking the right steps in blocking and defining routes more. Our biggest strength [at tight end] is our versatility, we all bring different skills. We’re our biggest enemy. We can be the No. 1 offense in the country if we come to play, execute and trust ourselves. We have all the right tools to be the best team in the nation.”

Lynch, who switched from quarterback to tight end earlier in the spring and knows the playbook as well as anyone, is adapting quickly as a pass catcher.

“Matt has really picked up the position very quickly… his transition from quarterback to tight end was almost seamless,” Kelly said of Lynch. “He’s a real student of football. Even on day one he didn’t look like a fish out of water, he looked like he really fit in there. As we continue to give him more reps in practice and get more film to coach him off of, he’ll be even better. I’m happy where he is right now.”

Norwood’s move leaves the Bruins with only three quarterbacks — Dorian Thompson-Robinson, Austin Burton and Chase Griffin — but Kelly isn’t concerned.

“It’s spring ball, we’ll have five [quarterbacks] when we come back to camp in the fall,” he said. “It’s nothing unusual. I think we only had three last spring too, so it’s no different than most teams at this time.”

Freshman running back Keegan Jones talked about adjusting to being an early enrollee:

“It’s a blessing to be out here and I’m picking up on the playbook a little bit. I’m still struggling on the signals but it’s coming along. You get with your coaches, go over what you’ve got to learn and study the playbook. The speed of the game is the toughest thing to adjust to. I come out of the backfield to catch more passes than I did in high school.”

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UCLA’s next practice will be Tuesday morning at Spaulding Field on campus.

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