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UCLA Sports

UCLA aims to make season opener at Cincinnati the beginning of a turnaround

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UCLA coach Chip Kelly talks to reporters prior to practice Aug. 14 in Westwood.
(Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)

The defense was horrendous. The special teams were worse. The offense needed until November to resemble something conceived by Chip Kelly.

UCLA players didn’t just hear the criticisms about last season, they spent the last nine months steeping in them.

The harsh words drove them during workouts, meetings and film sessions that showcased just how far they had to go.

“We’ve got a lot to prove this year to everybody,” senior linebacker Krys Barnes said, “and to ourselves, and to our program and our alumni who know that we’re coming out here ready to shock the world.”

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The road to redemption could start Thursday evening at Nippert Stadium, where UCLA opens the season against Cincinnati. That the Bruins are three-point underdogs against a team from the American Athletic Conference reveals just how far they’ve fallen.

What they unveiled in 2018 wasn’t just a one-year blunder.

UCLA is coming off a three-year stretch in which its 4-8-6-7-3-9 records read like a Powerball jackpot but are in fact its darkest period since Bill Barnes closed his coaching tenure with a third consecutive losing season in 1964.

Lokeni and Leni Toailoa should play big roles on UCLA’s defense as linebackers. They also have created a number of new dictionary entries for the Bruins.

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Kelly was hired to reverse the downturn that started under predecessor Jim Mora, but his early rebuilding efforts yielded a 3-9 record that gave the Bruins their fewest wins in a season since going 3-7-1 in 1989.

Playing a school-record 21 true freshmen led to growing pains that their coach hopes will result in significant second-year gains.

“Teams that have experience, that’s the one thing you can’t teach,” Kelly said. “It’s a matter of throwing them in the mix and letting them sort through all those situations. But then, when they get to those situations again, they have tangible evidence on how to execute it one way as opposed to another way because they’ve been in it before. So I think that will be beneficial to us.”

Officially, UCLA returns 18 starters, the second-most in the Pac-12 Conference. But one could easily bump that figure up to 19 because sophomore quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson started seven games last season after relieving the injured Wilton Speight before halftime of the opener against Cincinnati.

The situation facing Thompson-Robinson that day in his college debut illustrated the challenges facing his team.

Christaphany Murray manned center as a true freshman, making him the first UCLA player to do so since 1982. Running back Joshua Kelley was a month away from becoming a breakthrough star. The offensive play calls were purposefully bland to compensate for Thompson-Robinson’s newness.

“I was young, inexperienced, didn’t really know the offense, had three weeks under my belt with this team and stuff like that,” Thompson-Robinson recalled of a performance that ended in a 26-17 defeat. “And looking now, it’s a lot different, this whole team is a lot different, the attitude is different and everything about it.”

Speed is everywhere. Running backs Kazmeir Allen and Keegan Jones were high school state sprint champions, and there’s some debate as to whether they’re the fastest players on the team. Cornerback Darnay Holmes and receiver Jaylen Erwin are also among those in the mix for that designation.

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The Bruins might open the season against Cincinnati with true freshman tackle Sean Rhyan in the starting lineup, and he might be their next big thing.

The team remains exceedingly young, with 64 freshmen and 23 sophomores on the 119-man roster, but unlike last season there’s at least some experience at almost every position after the Bruins played 12 true freshmen against Cincinnati.

“That first year, it was kind of cloudy for some of the things,” said Murray, who moved to guard later in the season upon the return of center Boss Tagaloa from a suspension, “and now it’s like I know what I need to do.”

Most Bruins are now in the know. The projected starting lineup against the Bearcats includes five seniors, eight juniors and eight sophomores, not to mention 31-year-old graduate transfer punter Wade Lees.

Left tackle Sean Rhyan is likely the only true freshman who will start, though Jones and linebacker Carl Jones (no relation) are other true freshmen who could contribute.

The players aren’t the only ones with something to prove. Kelly must satisfy a portion of the fan base still vacillating about whether the Bruins hired the “Oregon Chip” who went 46-7 in four seasons with the Ducks or the “NFL Chip” who flamed out after four seasons at football’s highest level.

Beating the team that handed Kelly his first loss at UCLA would be a good start. Junior safety Quentin Lake said payback for last season’s loss to the Bearcats at the Rose Bowl was “mandatory,” though it would be just the first shush in a season intended to quiet the doubters.

“Last year didn’t go our way,” redshirt freshman receiver Kyle Philips said, “so we’re just super pumped to get out there and prove everyone wrong.”


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