Bruins are hoping familiarity matters as they open camp in second season under Chip Kelly

UCLA defensive lineman Atonio Mafi (56) looks noticeably slimmer and quicker at fall training camp than during spring practice.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Wave after wave of defensive linemen lunged at a blocking sled, pounding the blue foam cushion with one hand and then another. The thudding was accompanied by a gruff voice.

“Watch your stride,” UCLA defensive coordinator Jerry Azzinaro instructed the players before nodding his approval at their attentiveness. “That’s good. There you go.”

Across the field, coach Chip Kelly twirled a whistle around his hand as he observed a drill. Players scurried from one practice station to another. Whistles continually blew.

The Bruins were a blur of activity Wednesday as they opened training camp on a warm, overcast morning. Hip-hop blared over loudspeakers but it was as if the players moved to their own internal soundtrack, vigorously thrusting their bodies into foam cushions and each another.

Coach Chip Kelly says there are meaningful differences already between this UCLA team and last season's.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

It was a first glimpse at the 2019 Bruins, and a brief one. Practice access to reporters was limited to 30 minutes of stretching, walkthroughs and light drills. Players and coaches were not made available to speak with the media afterward because of the team’s final exams schedule.

Coaches confined their talking to giving pointers.

“A little wider,” inside linebackers coach Don Pellum told linebacker Shea Pitts after observing his stance as Pitts held a blocking cushion at the line of scrimmage.

For the returning players, the routine seemed, well, routine. Kelly said last week at Pac-12 Conference media day that the Bruins would benefit from an increased familiarity heading into his second season.

“You don’t have to explain why we’re meeting at this time or why we’re doing this or why we’re doing that,” Kelly said. “You can rely on the older guys to make sure the younger guys understand it, so it’s huge.”

Senior linebacker Keisean Lucier-South had to deliver his input Wednesday while wearing shorts and a hoodie. He will sit out training camp and at least the season’s first three games while addressing academic shortcomings, but he provided encouragement by clapping as his teammates completed a drill.

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The practice was the first in nearly a year for senior linebacker Josh Woods, who sat out last season and was limited in the spring after suffering a knee injury in training camp.

Receivers Theo Howard and Dymond Lee were the only players wearing yellow jerseys to signify they were recovering from injuries. Howard wore a cast on his right forearm and Lee is still rounding into form after being limited in spring practice because of an ankle injury.

The group of quarterbacks had doubled in size since the end of spring practices, with presumed starter Dorian Thompson-Robinson and backups Austin Burton and Chase Griffin joined by newcomers Colson Yankoff, Blake Kirshner and Chase Artopoeus.

Thompson-Robinson, who recently said he intended to run more this season, appeared agile as he rolled out and threw a tight spiral.

The biggest body makeover might have belonged to defensive lineman Atonio Mafi. He looked noticeably slimmer and quicker than he did in spring practices, apparently having made fewer trips to his favorite fast-food place in recent months. Kelly recently said that Mafi weighed about 360 pounds after reporting to school last year at well over 400 pounds.

Coming off a 3-9 season that gave the Bruins their fewest victories in 30 years, the team is embarking on its own transformation. Kelly said last week that he already has seen meaningful changes.

“We’re getting more consistent work on a daily basis from our guys, and that’s what’s going to pay off,” Kelly said. “You can’t have really, really highs and really, really lows; it can’t be like this. It has to be a slow, steady pace and focus and concentrate on what you’ve got to do that day. But I think the players we have now understand that.”