Jerry Azzinaro stood near the back of the end zone on UCLA’s practice field Wednesday morning, hands on his hips as he observed players completing walk-throughs for kickoff coverage.
Wearing a long-sleeve white shirt and olive shorts, the Bruins’ defensive coordinator cast a striking silhouette. His white beard, glasses and stocky build complete with a belly that spilled over his waistline made him look like a shopping-mall Santa Claus.
As a buzzer sounded, indicating that portion of practice had ended, Azzinaro broke a minutes-long silence.
“All right, let’s go tackle!” Azzinaro bellowed.
His players needed the practice. UCLA’s defense is off to another stop-starved start in its second season under Azzinaro. The team has given up 467 yards per game, ranking No. 115 nationally among 130 Football Bowl Championship teams. The Bruins have also given up 31.7 points per game, ranking No. 101, on the way to losing their first three games for a second consecutive season.
Those rankings aren’t exactly an aberration for the veteran coach who has been universally lauded for his work as a defensive line coach while experiencing considerably less success in his stops as a defensive coordinator.
The last time Azzinaro, 61, ran a defense before coming to UCLA, it was just as bad. He was the co-defensive coordinator at Duke from 2004-06, when the Blue Devils compiled a 3-31 record with defenses that ranked Nos. 100, 89 and 105.
Before that, Azzinaro was the defensive coordinator during two one-year stints at Massachusetts, when the Minutemen featured a standout defense (ranking No. 13 among Football Championship Subdivision teams in 1994) and an awful one (ranking No. 110 in 1997). He had also previously been the defensive coordinator at American International College, a Division II team, for five seasons.
Azzinaro has been a constant on the staffs of UCLA coach Chip Kelly for a decade. Kelly hired Azzinaro when he became Oregon’s coach in 2009 before inviting him along to NFL stops with the Philadelphia Eagles and San Francisco 49ers. But Azzinaro had never served as Kelly’s defensive coordinator until they both arrived in Westwood before the 2018 season.
Didn’t Azzinaro’s lack of previous success in that role give Kelly pause?
“You don’t hire people on their rankings, you know?” Kelly said. “You hire people because of the type of teachers and the type of scheme [they favor]. … I’ve been around him for a long time, he’s a hell of a football coach, one of the best I’ve ever been around.”
Kelly noted that Azzinaro had significant input on his attacking 3-4 defenses at Oregon that generated the most turnovers in the nation from 2009-12. But while there may be some schematic similarities between those Ducks and these Bruins, the results couldn’t be any more different.
UCLA has forced just two turnovers this season, the fewest in the Pac-12. After going 3-9 last season, the Bruins are again on track to lose more games in a season than Kelly did during his four years at Oregon.
Kelly said his staff’s defensive coaching was a collaborative effort, mentioning that defensive backs coach Paul Rhoads and inside linebackers coach Don Pellum are former college defensive coordinators and defensive line coach Vince Oghobaase has experience in the NFL.
“It’s not just one person,” Kelly said. “It’s not like five guys think one way and then one guy says, ‘This is what we’re going to do.’ ”
Azzinaro’s gruff voice that carried across the practice field provided the extent of his quotes because he declined to speak for this story.
He has granted few interviews over the years and only grudgingly, making no apologies for his approach.
“If you try to be phony or try to be full of ... it presents problems,” he said in 2016. “I just try to do what I do.”
During the portion of practice open to the media Wednesday, Azzinaro stood on the back of a blocking sled to critique players on their form.
“Go fast with your hands!” he yelled as they shuffled from one blue foam pad to another, tapping them quickly.
Azzinaro’s contract that pays him $650,000 this season expires in February, giving him additional incentive to fix what’s wrong.
The Bruins have made notable progress with their run defense this season, giving up 188 yards per game in that category after giving up 199.4 yards in 2018 and 287.4 yards in 2017.
But a pass defense that was expected to be a strength has been abominable. Players have blamed breakdowns in communication and other lapses that have continually left receivers with 10-yard cushions.
“I think it’s just mental errors,” linebacker Josh Woods said, “people getting inconsistent all around the board.”
The Bruins are surrendering 279 passing yards per game, ranking No. 108 nationally. That figure could considerably worsen Saturday when UCLA plays at No. 19 Washington State (3-0), whose offense leads the nation with 476 passing yards per game.
Or maybe the Bruins will start making some plays. Nick Aliotti, the former Oregon defensive coordinator who worked alongside Kelly and Azzinaro when they were with the Ducks, said their coaching smarts and relentless work ethic gave him confidence that his old pals were on the verge of a turnaround.
“People are trying to put nails on the coffin before the corpse is even cold, and I don’t want to go down that path,” said Aliotti, now an analyst for the Pac-12 Networks. “Bottom line, if I’m conveying anything to you at all, these guys are good football coaches and they have not gotten dumb overnight.”
Kelly said before his first game with the Bruins that if they were going to be good, it would start with the defense. He may never speak truer words.