Some wanted to go elsewhere. Others quit football. A handful headed for the NFL. One moved closer to home. Another was dismissed from the team.
All had something in common: They were no longer playing for UCLA under coach Chip Kelly.
Sixty-three players who had eligibility remaining have departed since Kelly’s arrival in November 2017, complicating his rebuilding efforts and putting the Bruins at risk of possible penalties because of low Academic Progress Rate scores.
Receiver Theo Howard became the latest defector last week, announcing that he was headed for the transfer portal to better position himself for the NFL draft after sitting out most of this season because of hand injuries.
“Some team is getting a special person, family and player,” tweeted Jim Mora, who recruited and coached Howard for two seasons as Kelly’s predecessor. “I’m sad to see yet another top player we recruited leave such a great University.”
Kelly blamed the high number of departures on the quick-fix availability of the transfer portal, allowing those who weren’t playing an easy way out, but significantly more players have left his program than other Pac-12 Conference teams that hired coaches at the same time.
Arizona, Arizona State and Oregon State each have had about 30 players leave since they made coaching changes before the 2018 season, according to reporters who cover those teams.
“I mean, if we’re talking about numbers here,” said former UCLA offensive lineman Josh Wariboko-Alali, who left after the 2018 season, “you could say, yeah, this is definitely scary to see.”
Tracy Pierson, who has covered UCLA football for Bruin Report Online since 1999, dubbed UCLA’s exodus “The Chip Kelly Purge” and said there was no comparable flight of players under previous coaches Bob Toledo, Karl Dorrell, Rick Neuheisel or Mora.
“No new coach transition comes close,” Pierson said.
The Bruins (1-5 overall, 1-2 Pac-12), who face Stanford (3-3, 2-2) on Thursday night at Stanford Stadium, might not be struggling so mightily for a second consecutive season had Kelly not lost the equivalent of half a roster.
Nine of the departees are playing for other Football Bowl Subdivision schools this season and a handful of others, including former five-star high school prospects Jaelan Phillips and Mique Juarez, intend to do so in 2020 after UCLA declared them medically unfit to play because of injuries.
That manpower could have helped UCLA, particularly on a defense that ranks as one of the worst in the nation. Converted running back Brandon Stephens is starring at cornerback for nationally ranked Southern Methodist, Brandon Burton is starting at safety for New Mexico and defensive back Will Lockett has 6½ tackles for loss at Sam Houston State.
Meanwhile, Kelly is scrambling just to fill out a depth chart.
“Your numbers are down, and you’ve got to try to replace them. … It’s just part of the process now and it’s kind of the landscape of what college football is all about right now,” Kelly said.
The defections are a big reason Kelly has relied on so many underclassmen. Thirty of the 51 Bruins who played against Oregon State this month were freshmen and sophomores, and UCLA’s roster comprises 52.5% freshmen, tying it with Virginia Tech for the second-highest percentage in the nation behind Oklahoma State’s 57.1%.
The Bruins are the only one of those teams with a losing record. Virginia Tech and Oklahoma State are 4-2, with the Cowboys posting a 52-36 victory over the same Oregon State team that defeated UCLA 48-31 at the Rose Bowl.
Kelly said his most recent freshman class of 43 players included 23 walk-ons because each class is capped at 25 scholarship players, preventing him from replacing everyone who left. The Bruins also added two graduate transfers and four junior college players.
“You could have 35 scholarships available but you can only replace 25, so you’re down,” Kelly said. “So I think we were at 76 [scholarship players] to start the season this year, so we’re down nine scholarship players that other people in our league have. … You can’t replace them in one class, you have to take it over time.”
The players who left UCLA each had their own stories but most fit into a few categories. A large chunk, as Kelly noted, wanted more playing time. Five departed early for the NFL. A handful had to medically retire, though some who were barred from playing at UCLA have found other schools willing to clear them.
Receiver Damian Alloway departed because of a confluence of factors, including family issues and falling lower on the depth chart than expected given he felt he was on the verge of a breakout season. He caught a 58-yard pass in the 2018 spring game but found himself playing for Mt. San Antonio College that fall after realizing he probably wouldn’t be in a position to make those kinds of highlights for the Bruins in games that counted.
Alloway returned to UCLA as a student and is working toward a degree he hopes to obtain in May, allowing him to spend his final two years of eligibility elsewhere as a graduate transfer. He thanked Kelly for helping prepare him to thrive at another school but said he wasn’t surprised the coach’s business-like approach has led to a wave of departures.
“I would say it kind of made it hard to play football for him for some of those guys, you know what I’m saying?” Alloway said. “Football is already a mentally draining sport in every other way and then his kind of formula could take some guys over the edge.”
“It’s not a secret that coach Kelly has his rules and morals and stuff, and if you kind of don’t fit that or you don’t agree with that, then he’s on like a no-tolerance policy, like you can leave,” Alloway said. “He’s not making anybody stay there; a lot of guys choose to leave, but he has a really strict thing going on over there and I respect him a lot. Hopefully it wins him some games; it hasn’t really yet.
UCLA’s lack of success under Kelly, who is 4-14 in his first 1½ seasons, was another factor cited by those who have left.
“I wanted to get an experience of winning championships and a championship culture,” said Wariboko-Alali, who intends to use his final season of eligibility in 2020 at another school as a graduate transfer. “I just want to contribute to and play at an elite level at my next school.”
The departures have left UCLA in a bind beyond wins and losses. The Bruins could be on the verge of potential penalties as the result of low APR scores stemming in part from heavy roster turnover. Players who leave the school in bad academic standing cost it points in the APR, which is widely used as a gauge of academic success.
UCLA’s multiyear APR score of 948 released in May was the lowest in the Pac-12, largely because of the 881 the team achieved in 2017-18 during Kelly’s first year on campus. Should UCLA’s four-year number fall below 930 next spring, the Bruins could be subject to a loss of scholarships, reduction in practice time or a postseason bowl ban.
Kelly put the onus on players to realize they needed to maintain acceptable grades regardless of whether they intended to leave.
“One of the things that the student-athlete has to understand is that to transfer you have to be in good academic standing too,” Kelly said, “so you can’t be on academic probation at one university and be able to transfer and play for another university. So it’s in their best interest if they’re looking to play somewhere else that they’re in pretty good shape academically so that their options are open.”
As scores of former UCLA players can attest, their options are open.
Waving goodbye to Westwood
Receiver Theo Howard last week became the 63rd player to leave UCLA with eligibility remaining since coach Chip Kelly was hired in November 2017. Here’s a look at the departures:
Alex Akingbulu, OL — Plays for Fresno State as a graduate transfer
Matt Alaimo, TE — Starting for Rutgers after transferring to be closer to his New Jersey home
Winston Anawalt, LB — Walk-on departed before spring practice in March
Damian Alloway, WR — Self-described “free agent” hopes to play for Utah in 2020
Chase Ault, DB — Walk-on departed before the 2018 season
Connor Beadles, TE — Walk-on left before spring practice in March
Antonio Brown, WR — Walk-on departed in January
Brandon Burton, LB — Also played defensive back. Has moved into the starting lineup at New Mexico
Zachary Byrge, RB — Walk-on left before spring practice in 2018
Xan Cuevas, LB — Walk-on graduated in fall 2017 with one season of eligibility remaining
Clayton Demski, OL — Walk-on departed before the 2018 season
Denzel Fisher, DB — Committed to West Virginia but never joined the team because of poor grades
Giovanni Gentosi, RB — Ran for 50 yards and a touchdown at Rice in his final college season in 2018
Jackson Gibbs, QB — Grandson of Hall of Fame coach Joe Gibbs transferred to Appalachian State
Kenroy Higgins II, RB — Became a sprinter for UCLA track team but intends to be a dual-sport athlete elsewhere in 2020
DeChaun Holiday, LB — Departed before spring practice in 2018
Theo Howard, WR — Senior became the first Bruin to announce he would depart after this season
Jimmy Jaggers, TE — Medically retired before the 2018 season because of repeated concussions
Andre James, LT — Signed with the Oakland Raiders as an undrafted free agent after leaving college early
Rahjae Johnson, DB — Walk-on departed before fall training camp
Rahyme Johnson, LB — Redshirt this season at San Jose State after departing UCLA in February
Stephen Johnson III, WR — Has one season of eligibility remaining after graduating in June
Mique Juarez, LB — Hopes to play for Utah in 2020 after being medically barred from playing at UCLA
Nick Juels, QB — Walk-on quit football before the start of spring practice in 2018
Austin Kent, P — Lost the starting job before Kelly’s arrival and left the team before the 2018 season
Jordan Lasley, WR — Drafted in the fifth round by the Baltimore Ravens; has been released by three NFL teams
Will Lockett, DB — Has made 38 tackles, including 61/2 for losses, for Sam Houston State
Michael Mapes, DB — Walk-on departed before spring practice in 2018
Will McClure, WR — Walk-on graduated in spring 2018 with remaining eligibility
Alex Michaelsen, LS — Long snapper walk-on left before spring practice in March
Kolton Miller, LT — Selected 15th overall in the 2018 draft by Oakland, becoming a starter for the Raiders.
Devon Modster, QB — Third on UCLA’s depth chart, has become California’s starter after an injury to Chase Garbers
Marcus Moore, DL — Remains in the transfer portal, seeking a new home as a graduate transfer
Justin Murphy, OL — Departed after 2018 season for Houston, where injuries have forced him to medically retire
Chigozie Nnoruka, DT — Has climbed the depth chart at Miami while battling injuries
Chiemeka Ochi, DL — Walk-on departed before spring practice in 2018
Audie Omotosho, WR — Injury-plagued graduate transfer has made one catch this season for East Carolina
Ryan Parks, DB — Walk-on departed before spring practice in March
Paco Perez, OL — Remains in the transfer portal with hopes of playing again
Crawford Pierson, K — Walk-on left after the 2018 season
Jaelan Phillips, DE — Declared medically retired at UCLA, he enrolled at Miami and intends to play in 2020
Drew Platt, TE — Walk-on left before spring practice in March
Alex Rassool, TE — Walk-on graduated in spring 2018 with remaining eligibility
Keyon Riley, DB — Left the team before the start of the 2018 season for unspecified reasons
Moses Robinson-Carr, DL — Dismissed from the team before spring practice in March
Josh Rosen, QB — Selected 10th overall in the 2018 NFL draft by Arizona and later traded to Miami
Greg Rogers, DT — Waiting to make his debut at Southern Utah after leaving Bruins in spring of 2018
Colin Samuel, DB — Departed for Houston as a graduate transfer but is out indefinitely because of a knee injury
Sean Seawards, OL — Left team before the 2018 season for unspecified reasons
Octavius Spencer, DB — Joined Northern Arizona as a graduate transfer before being ruled academically ineligible
Jalen Starks, RB — Left the team before the start of spring practice in 2018
Brandon Stephens, RB — His move to cornerback has been part of Southern Methodist’s run into national rankings
Andrew Strauch, K — Graduate transfer has handled every kickoff for Utah this season and made one of two field-goal tries
Zach Sweeney, OL — Medically retired in September 2018 because of a shoulder injury
Ainuu Taua, DL — Tried to play for Nevada as a graduate transfer but failed a physical because of a bad knee
Graham Valentine, DL — Walk-on left before the start of the 2018 season
Jax Wacaser, OL — Medically retired before the 2018 season because of repeated concussions
Rick Wade, DE — Medically retired after the 2018 season because of a neck injury
Josh Wariboko-Alali, OL — Hopes to play next season as a graduate transfer at another school
Bryan Weitzman, OL — Walk-on left early in the 2018 season
Donovan Williams, LB — Walk-on departed after the 2018 season
Caleb Wilson, TE — Made the Arizona Cardinals’ practice squad after being the final pick of the NFL draft
Stephan Zabie, OL — Left the team before 2018 spring practice for unspecified reasons