UCLA’s Chip Kelly not afraid to lean on young players in big roles

UCLA coach Chip Kelly
UCLA coach Chip Kelly watches players go through drills at practice Wednesday. A handful of freshmen are in the running for starting jobs.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Darnay Holmes and Kyle Philips were outnumbered as they lingered on the edge of the end zone to field punts.

Everywhere they looked stood a UCLA newcomer.

There were Keegan Jones and Christian Grubb, freshman running backs. Nearby was Jaylen Erwin, a junior college transfer receiver. Completing the group of punt returners was Charles Njoku, a freshman receiver.

It was a similar story with the quarterbacks. Returners Dorian Thompson-Robinson and Austin Burton flung passes Thursday morning alongside freshmen Chase Griffin, Chase Artopoeus and Colson Yankoff.


The Bruins opened training camp this week with 48 newcomers -- 42 freshmen and six transfers. The expectation is that many will contribute immediately. Even though the team features 10 returning starters on defense and eight on offense, coach Chip Kelly is known for rotating players frequently. Last season, he played a school-record 21 true freshmen.

“The numbers will tell you that some of those young kids are going to have to play because we don’t have a lot of older kids at certain positions,” Kelly said Thursday before practice. “Those kids are going to have to get on the field.”

Sean Rhyan, the most highly touted freshman on the team, might push for the starting left tackle spot. Erwin, one of the fastest players on the team, is a candidate to start at receiver. Jones, Grubb and fellow freshman running backs Jahmon McClendon and Sitiveni Kaufusi could all get carries this season.

J. Brady McCollough examines the 25 biggest storylines in college football heading into the season. The second installment looks at what’s ahead for USC and UCLA.

July 31, 2019

A handful of the newcomers, including Erwin and Griffin, arrived in time to participate in spring practice. Others first set foot on campus in June to commence workouts with strength and conditioning coach Frank Wintrich.

Kelly said the team’s veteran players had helped ease the transition for the newcomers.

“Our older kids did a really good job of getting the younger kids up to speed on things,” Kelly said, “so I was really happy with how well the young kids kind of showed up on their first day of training.”

Bruins making the grade?

Although UCLA’s most recent Academic Progress Rate scores for football were the worst in the Pac-12 Conference, there are signs those figures may improve. Kelly said the team’s cumulative grade-point average of “like a 2.89” was its highest ever for the spring quarter.


The Bruins also presumably won’t be shedding as many players over the next few years after losing about 30 to transfer or medical retirement since Kelly’s arrival in November 2017. Transfers can negatively affect a team’s APR scores if the players are not in good academic standing at the time of their move.

UCLA’s multi-year APR of 948 was significantly lowered by the 881 it scored for the 2017-18 school year. Schools can lose scholarships, face practice restrictions or receive a postseason ban if their multi-year score falls below 930.

“The issue with the APR is it’s a four-year rolling thing that occurred before we got here, and you can’t go back,” Kelly said. “You can’t change something that happened in the class of 2014 because that’s just the way it is, so our job is to make sure that the classes from ’19 on continue to do a really good job academically, and as those numbers get added to the cohort, then hopefully your numbers will go up.”

Kelly is among the coaches who conduct class checks, something he said he’d done at every coaching stop.


Having bulked up to about 275 pounds, sophomore outside linebacker Elijah Wade is also getting repetitions along the defensive line in an attempt to add versatility. … The Bruins have added a giant television screen on one side of their practice field to show instant replays as part of their teaching efforts. “They’ll be able to utilize some instant feedback out there,” Kelly said. … Kelly said receivers Theo Howard and Dymond Lee were wearing yellow jerseys as a precautionary measure as they worked their way back from injuries. Howard wore a pink wrapping around his right wrist in practice Thursday, and Lee is rounding into form after suffering an ankle injury that limited his participation in spring practices. Kelly said Lee could be cleared to fully practice in the next day or two. … UCLA received two votes in the preseason USA Today coaches’ poll.