Chip Kelly is measuring UCLA’s success on his terms as expectations grow
Chip Kelly seeks victories that never show up on his record. They can come midweek, in late summer, when there’s nothing more tangible at stake than another training camp practice.
“To have a really good Wednesday,” Kelly said last week when asked about his ambitions for 2019. “That’s our goal.”
Nobody seems to mind that Saturdays didn’t go so well for UCLA during the coach’s return to the college game. A losing record in his debut season with the Bruins hasn’t diminished hopes for happier times among a handful of high-level donors and athletic department officials who recently spoke with The Times.
The widespread expectation continues to be that Kelly will make a program that hasn’t been to the Rose Bowl game since 1999 a sustained national power despite the underwhelming initial results.
“Going 3-9,” said one booster who has donated a small fortune to the school, “changed nothing as far as the impression of Chip.”
UCLA released its depth chart ahead of its season opener against Cincinnati, with Dorian Thompson-Robinson listed as its starting quarterback.
The booster, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he believed publicly revealing his identity could compromise his standing within the athletic department, said a winning record would be a plus in Kelly’s second season, which starts Thursday with the opener at Cincinnati.
Far more important, the booster said, is continuing a trajectory that builds off the end of last season. The Bruins averaged 31 points and 475 yards of offense over their final four games, when Kelly’s playcalling always seemed to be one step ahead of his counterparts.
Those numbers sparked reminders of Kelly’s dizzying success at Oregon. The Ducks routinely pummeled opponents on the way to a 46-7 record under Kelly, winning three Pac-12 Conference titles and playing for the national championship at the end of the 2010 season.
Anyone waiting for Kelly to unveil a timetable for achieving those sorts of things at UCLA will be sorely disappointed. He has never laid out a plan, publicly or privately, for reaching a major bowl game or the College Football Playoff by any deadline.
“We’ve always approached it on a daily basis, not a long-term basis,” Kelly said. “Never been that way, never will be that way.”
Kelly was never going to replicate his Oregon results at UCLA, at least initially. The Bruins played a school-record 21 freshmen last season, including quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson, and were rocked by a rash of defections and injuries as well as a lack of discipline that led to the suspension of six players before the opening game.
Kelly also realized that he had tremendous leeway after signing on at a program that has not been a significant player on the national level in two decades. The coach treated his first season at UCLA “like an extended spring training,” according to one booster, continually tinkering with his scheme and personnel.
The team started 0-5 and ended up losing more games than Kelly had during his stint at Oregon, though that didn’t necessarily make it a lost season. The coach implemented a sports science program that players have praised for keeping them healthy and rested, and making them bigger, faster and stronger.
“We’re not dictated by the record. We have a plan going in and we’ll always follow that plan.”
— Chip Kelly
As Kelly evaluated his players, they mastered his schemes. That familiarity could allow a team that has nine returning starters on offense and 10 on defense to increase the tempo, becoming more aggressive. It’s the first time since 2015 that UCLA will go into a season without wholesale changes on offense.
“We were watching film the other day and everyone is just so much better” than last season, redshirt freshman receiver Kyle Philips said. “All the guys are playing a lot faster, everybody knows their role and what to do.”
Players have also gushed about a culture change in the locker room. The team has become a player-run program, linebacker Jason Harris said, allowing coaches to focus on blitzes instead of bed checks. Kelly said the team achieved its highest grade-point average ever during the spring quarter, when 31 players earned at least a 3.0 GPA while completing 12 units or more.
Predictably, there have been some bumps on the road to redemption. Linebacker Keisean Lucier-South, the team’s top returning pass rusher, must sit out at least the first three games because of academic shortcomings. And UCLA announced Sunday that linebacker Bo Calvert would be sidelined indefinitely because of unspecified NCAA rules.
Repeated recruiting misses have triggered some anxiety among fans, though Kelly has said he doesn’t see his future aligned with the stars allotted to the players he has signed; he expressed confidence that his recruiting classes have stocked the team with enough high-character talent to succeed.
The surest way to erase any lingering doubts about Kelly after four middling NFL seasons and a clunker in his return to the college game is to pile up the victories that usually come only on Saturday. There is a high level of confidence among boosters and athletic department officials that it will happen based on Kelly’s track record at Oregon and his reputation as an innovator.
But there are limits to the patience. The same booster who said early results aren’t important also acknowledged that Kelly won’t be able to go 3-9 indefinitely; the coach will need to have some success by the end of his third season to remain considered the home run hire who invigorated the fan base upon his arrival in November 2017.
Although UCLA’s schedule this season includes No. 4 Oklahoma and consecutive road games to open Pac-12 play, it eases up considerably in 2020, when the nonconference opponents are New Mexico State, Hawaii and San Diego State.
Of course, the Bruins don’t want to wait another year to win. But neither success nor failure appears capable of altering the approach of their coach.
“We’re not dictated by the record,” Kelly said. “We have a plan going in and we’ll always follow that plan.”
Go beyond the scoreboard
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