Chip Kelly likes to curl the edge of his lips into a wry smile when asked about momentum, the UCLA football coach giving away his feelings on the topic before uttering a word.
His team proved his point, to an extent, last season. The Bruins lost their first three games and finished 4-8, failing to sustain their upward trajectory from late in the 2018 season.
UCLA heads into its first spring practice Tuesday with all the momentum of a Stonehenge rock. The Bruins were humiliated during a three-game losing streak to end 2019 that included blowout losses to Utah and USC to go with a season-ending splat against California.
They retained beleaguered defensive coordinator Jerry Azzinaro while bidding farewell to their top running back, tight end, linebacker, defensive back and kicker. Those departures will create enticing opportunities for the more than 90 players who are expected to participate in spring practices, easily the largest number since Kelly’s arrival.
Much of the focus will remain on the coach who last season seemed to acknowledge he was not getting the job done.
“You’re as good as what your record says you are,” Kelly said after dropping his first two games last season on the way to compiling a 7-17 record at UCLA, the worst two-year start for any coach at the school since James J. Cline went 2-10-3 in 1923 and 1924.
Here are five questions facing the Bruins heading into the spring:
Who will replace Joshua Kelley as the every-down running back?
This appears to be a two-man race between Brittain Brown, a graduate transfer from Duke, and Demetric Felton Jr., the small but fleet-flooted playmaker who opted to return for his senior season.
The 6-foot-1, 205-pound Brown was productive in 2017, rushing for 701 yards and seven touchdowns in his only college season not plagued by injuries. He was limited in 2018 and 2019 by shoulder issues.
Felton may be better suited to occasional carries as a change-of-pace running back, allowing him to also be used in the slot to maximize his speed. He was underwhelming in his one start last season in place of an injured Kelley, running 23 times for 71 yards against Cincinnati, an average of 3.1 yards per carry.
Brown is not expected to arrive in time for spring practice, giving the Bruins an extended look at Felton as well as fellow running backs Martell Irby, Kazmeir Allen, Keegan Jones and Jahmon McClendon.
Can quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson hold onto the ball and show more consistency?
Thompson-Robinson was among the most electric players in the Pac-12 Conference at times last season, piling up a school-record 564 yards of offense during the Bruins’ crazy comeback against Washington State and accounting for four touchdowns against USC.
But there were also a handful of shaky showings, and a season-long inability to avoid turnovers. Thompson-Robinson had 12 passes intercepted and lost seven fumbles, his 19 turnovers among the most of any player in major college football.
Some of the fumbles came as a result of big hits but others were more befuddling, the ball just slipping out of his hands. He’ll have to be much better in this department for the Bruins to take a significant step forward in 2020.
Where did all the tight ends go and what does it mean for Kelly’s offense?
Kelly said after his arrival that he geared his pro-style offense toward maximizing the Bruins’ bevy of tight ends because he considered them a strength of the team, but their ranks have thinned considerably in recent months.
Devin Asiasi opted to declare for the NFL draft, and Jordan Wilson and Matt Lynch announced they were departing as graduate transfers, leaving UCLA with just two tight ends who caught passes last season in walk-on Greg Dulcich and Mike Martinez. None of the incoming recruits are tight ends, meaning the Bruins might have to initiate a few position switches to replenish their depth at the position.
The big question is whether the team’s lack of proven production at that spot prompts Kelly to change a scheme that sometimes put as many as four tight ends on the field at once.
Can Azzinaro justify his boss’s decision to keep him around?
In his last six seasons as a defensive coordinator, at three different schools, Azzinaro has presided over defenses that ranked Nos. 112, 102, 100, 89, 105 and 110 in total defense nationally.
Kelly has said he focused on Azzinaro’s ability as a teacher and his schematic preferences instead of his rankings. Kelly’s allegiance to Azzinaro runs deep, the two having worked together since 2009. Azzinaro was Oregon’s defensive line coach under Kelly before performing in that same role in subsequent stops with the Philadelphia Eagles and the San Francisco 49ers.
Kelly rewarded Azzinaro by making him UCLA’s defensive coordinator upon their arrival before the 2018 season, the first time Azzinaro had held that title since being co-defensive coordinator at Duke from 2004-06. But another poor showing in 2020 would put pressure not just on Azzinaro but his boss, given Kelly’s dogged refusal to make a change at that position.
Azzinaro was the only Bruins assistant coach with an expiring contract to receive just a one-year extension, indicating that his seat may be warming to an uncomfortable level. The defensive staff has undergone a mini-makeover with the addition of defensive backs coach Brian Norwood and defensive line coach Johnny Nansen.
Has UCLA’s next star linebacker arrived?
The Bruins prioritized linebackers in their most recent recruiting class, realizing they would lose all four starters after last season. Their haul of seven linebackers included Damian Sellers, a rangy prep standout from Scottsdale, Ariz., who could become the next star pupil at the self-proclaimed LBU.
Linebackers Mitchell Agude, Myles Jackson, Caleb Johnson, Kenny Mestidor and Choe Bryant-Strother are among the early enrollees who can participate in spring practice, with fellow linebacker Jeremiah Trojan scheduled to join the team in April after enrolling for the spring quarter.
They will compete with a handful of experienced incumbents, including Leni Toailoa, Carl Jones and Bo Calvert, with plenty of playing time to go around. The Bruins will be seeking to put far more pressure on the quarterback after logging 27 sacks in 2019, tied with Stanford for seventh in the Pac-12.