Chip Kelly had a curious greeting for reporters before taking the first question Saturday.
“Good morning,” the UCLA coach said. “Happy Monday.”
Game week had finally arrived, with a twist.
Everything on the Bruins’ schedule was moved up by two days as a result of playing their season opener on the road against Cincinnati on Thursday. Kelly said his team began formal preparations for the Bearcats on Saturday, when they completed an abbreviated practice in shorts and jerseys without pads.
A large group of players wore black jerseys to signify they were part of a scout team intended to mimic Cincinnati’s starters. Presumably, extra attention was paid to whoever wore No. 9. That would be quarterback Desmond Ridder, who helped guide the Bearcats to a 26-17 victory over UCLA in the opener last season at the Rose Bowl.
Ridder relieved struggling starter Hayden Moore during Cincinnati’s third series and never let go of the job for the rest of the season, leading the Bearcats to an 11-2 finish that included a victory over Virginia Tech in the Military Bowl.
Ridder, a redshirt sophomore, is similar to UCLA counterpart Dorian Thompson-Robinson in that he’s not one-dimensional.
“He’s a really good quarterback,” Kelly said of Ridder, “but I think what sets him apart from some other guys is he actually runs like a running back. Sometimes it’s almost like a two-back offense back there” because of Ridder’s presence.
Ridder threw for 20 touchdowns and had only five passes intercepted on the way to becoming selected the American Athletic Conference’s newcomer of the year. He also ran for 583 yards and five touchdowns.
He’ll be able to hand the ball off to a bevy of talented running backs. Michael Warren ran for 1,329 yards and a school-record 19 touchdowns last season, including 142 yards and three touchdowns against UCLA. Tavion Thomas averaged 5.6 yards per carry last season and Gerrid Doaks returns after sitting out all of 2018 with a groin injury.
The Bearcats’ offensive line may not be as stout as they had hoped. James Hudson, who took every repetition at starting left tackle during spring practice, was denied immediate eligibility after transferring from Michigan.
That led to a public spat between Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell and Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, with Fickell saying the Wolverines refused to support Hudson in his bid to play immediately and Harbaugh countering that the decision rested solely with the NCAA.
It was reminiscent of the verbal volley Kelly fired at Washington earlier this month, claiming the Huskies blocked transfer quarterback Colson Yankoff’s attempt to become immediately eligible at UCLA.
The biggest question surrounding Cincinnati is how much of a drop-off it will suffer on defense after the departures of linemen Cortez Broughton, Marquise Copeland and Kimoni Fitz, who combined for 15 sacks and helped the Bearcats rank No. 13 nationally by holding opponents to 111 yards rushing per game. The rest of the Bearcats’ defense returns nearly intact.
“What stands out when you look at them from a defensive side is that the linebackers and secondary are really good players,” Kelly said.
For the first time since they resumed practice last month, the Bruins did not have anyone wearing a yellow jersey to signal they were recovering from injury.
Receiver Theo Howard and left tackle Alec Anderson, the final members of the yellow brigade in recent days, were wearing blue jerseys like the rest of their teammates on offense. Anderson, who recently underwent surgery on his right leg, worked off to the side of the field with a trainer, completing a series of stretches and sprints during the portion of practice open to the media.
Kelly said that linebacker Tyree Thompson (foot surgery) was the only player ruled out for the opener. Running back Joshua Kelley, who returned last week after being limited for most of training camp by a knee injury, appeared to move without restrictions despite wearing a bulky knee brace. Howard wore a black wrapping around his injured right wrist, with Kelly saying the receiver had transitioned to a splint.