Cracks starting to show in Chip Kelly’s UCLA strategy? Longtime observer thinks so

UCLA coach Chip Kelly looks on during the Bruins' loss to San Diego State on Saturday.
Are the historic minor weaknesses in Chip Kelly’s coaching strategy starting to transform into major problems for the UCLA coach?
(Getty Images)

Mark Saltveit didn’t just write the book on Chip Kelly, he wrote two of them.

The author chronicled Kelly’s dizzying rise as Oregon’s coach as well as his more turbulent first two years with the Philadelphia Eagles that preceded flameouts with both his first NFL team and the San Francisco 49ers.

What Saltveit has seen over the first 14 games of Kelly’s UCLA career, which went further astray Saturday with a 23-14 loss to San Diego State, jibes with some of the trends that emerged in his latter NFL years.


He can be stubborn. He can be loyal to a fault. He cedes control of the defense to others who may not be properly equipped to run it.

Chip Kelly has made history taking the Bruins to depths unfamiliar to even one of the country’s most underachieving football programs.

“With the benefit of a little historical perspective,” Saltveit, who has continued to watch Kelly from his home in Portland, Ore., said Sunday by telephone, “I think we’re seeing some long-term tendencies that were always problematic with Chip Kelly coming to fruition.”

One of the biggest may be Kelly’s continued abandonment of a high-speed offense in favor of a complex pro-style scheme that’s more difficult for college players to master. A coach whose teams set records and dazzled fans at Oregon has presided over a UCLA offense that’s averaging just 14 points and 239.5 yards of offense through the season’s first two games.

It doesn’t help that the Bruins (0-2) have committed six turnovers and are being run by a sophomore quarterback who’s in just his third full season of playing the position at a high level, but those factors may be all the more reason for Kelly to simplify his approach.

UCLA coach Chip Kelly walks off the field following Saturday's loss to San Diego State at the Rose Bowl.
(Getty Images)

“Throwing all this NFL-type complexity at kids,” Saltveit said, “that’s kind of going away from the things that got him successful in the first place.”

Kelly acknowledged Saturday that he’s only as good as his record, and it’s almost historically bad. He’s 3-11 with the Bruins, putting him well behind the 14-game starts of predecessors Jim Mora (9-5), Rick Neuheisel (6-8), Karl Dorrell (6-8) and Bob Toledo (6-8), each of whom eventually was fired.

The only Bruins coach to get off to a worse start was Harry Trotter, who went 2-11-1 from 1920 until late in the 1922 season. Trotter lost his final two games that season, including a 7-6 setback against Caltech, and was finished at the school.

“He may have just had a magic situation that he walked into at Oregon and he’s just going to be chasing it the rest of his life trying to recapture the magic of that.”

— Mark Saltveit

Kelly, who’s in only the second year of a five-year, $23.5-million contract, presumably has at least a few more seasons to reverse his early misfortunes, but fans may not be as forgiving as the school’s athletics administrators. The crowd of 36,951 at the Rose Bowl on Saturday was the smallest for a UCLA season opener at the venue and the fourth-smallest since the Bruins moved there in 1982.

The team’s defense has been just as baffling as its offense, giving up a combined 47 points to teams that have managed a total of six points in their other two games. Some have questioned Kelly’s hiring of defensive coordinator Jerry Azzinaro and inside linebackers coach Don Pellum, two longtime pals, instead of younger, hungrier assistants with more upside.

“I hate to criticize someone for loyalty to their friends,” Saltveit said, “but [Kelly’s] getting millions of dollars a year, so you’ve got to get the job done first.”

UCLA coach Chip Kelly hit a new low in a tenure that continues to veer wildly astray, his team falling to the Aztecs, 23-14.

Kelly’s recruiting struggles also worry fans longing for better days. UCLA’s 2019 recruiting class ranked No. 40 nationally, according to 247 Sports, and its 2020 class ranks No. 67 with three months left before the early signing period. Saltveit said the Bruins lagging in this department is not a surprise given Kelly’s efforts at Oregon.

“He got some great talent there, obviously,” Saltveit said, “but I’m not sure how many players he can personally take credit for, so this may be catching up with him as well.”

Maybe Kelly’s early UCLA stumbles could have been predicted given his trajectory. Is it possible that a coach who went 46-7 with the Ducks and has gone 31-46 since, including 5-25 at his last two stops, could have lost his touch?

“He may have just had a magic situation that he walked into at Oregon,” Saltveit said, “and he’s just going to be chasing it the rest of his life trying to recapture the magic of that.”