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Might UCLA alter its tight end heavy offense? Chip Kelly says no

Greg Dulcich scores a touchdown against San Diego State.
UCLA tight end Greg Dulcich has nine catches in two seasons with the Bruins.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

UCLA’s tight ends have barely made a blip at the college level, combining to make 13 catches.

It’s apparently enough to convince coach Chip Kelly that he should continue to make the position a focal point of an offense that sometimes features as many as four tight ends on the field at once.

“No, we actually really like our tight end group,” Kelly said Monday when asked whether his team would change its offensive approach.

Making the tight ends a priority seemed logical in Kelly’s first two seasons at the school given that UCLA had the talented Caleb Wilson in 2018 and the productive Devin Asiasi and Jordan Wilson in 2019.

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Now that they’re all gone, the Bruins head into 2020 with a cast that’s, mostly, unknown. Redshirt sophomore Greg Dulcich, a former walk-on, has made nine catches in his first two college seasons, and sophomore Mike Martinez made three catches as a freshman.

Plenty of new players will be expected to play a big role in UCLA’s linebacker corps this season. Are they up to the challenge?

The team will also be counting on redshirt sophomore David Priebe, who primarily saw action on special teams last season, and redshirt freshman Michael Churich, a walk-on who has not played at the college level.

A wild card could be redshirt junior Evidence Njoku, a transfer from Miami (Fla.) who is waiting to find out if the NCAA will grant his request for an eligibility waiver. The brother of UCLA receiver Charles Njoku and Cleveland Browns tight end David Njoku, Evidence made one catch with the Hurricanes while starting his career at receiver and moving to tight end.

Njoku sparked laughter from his teammates when someone not on the team challenged him to a race this summer at Drake Stadium on campus.

“The guy was like, ‘Hey, man, I’m faster than you, I bet I can beat you,’ ” Dulcich said recently. “And then Evidence raced him on the spot, and he beat him.”

Quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson singled out Njoku for making the drudgery of practices a joy.

Evidence Njoku carries Nicholas Ducheine over his shoulders on the sidelines.
Miami’s Evidence Njoku carries off Nicholas Ducheine as they celebrate a win over Louisville on Nov. 9.
(Wilfredo Lee / Los Angeles Times)

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“His energy and the things that he brings every day are definitely contagious and something you want on the team,” Thompson-Robinson said. “That’s who I’m trying to model after right now in terms of a leadership role of trying to bring guys with me.”

Practice protocols

Kelly said the Bruins were using both of their practice fields, sometimes running two teams simultaneously, to maximize spacing and reduce the possibility of spreading COVID-19.

Team meetings are held outside, as are any position meetings involving more than 20 players.

“The bigger the numbers get, you’d rather be outside than inside,” Kelly said, “so those are some of the adjustments we’re making.”

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Training camp already has had an unusual feel even minus the pandemic modifications because it’s being conducted while players have started school. The team is limited to 20 hours of practices and meetings a week, just like it is during game weeks.

Chip Kelly knows UCLA’s success weighs heavily upon the defense improving significantly this season. What changes have the Bruins made to address the issue?

Instead of piggybacking meetings with practices, some meetings have to be held in the evenings to accommodate class schedules.

“It’s a unique year,” Kelly said, “and we all have to be extremely flexible in how this thing is going to operate if we’re going to have the opportunity to get on the field and play in November.”

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The team was pleased to welcome back its student managers Monday, alleviating the need to have players and other staffers tape ankles and fill essential practice roles.

Get out the vote

Four days before they open the season against Colorado on Nov. 7, the Bruins will take a break. It won’t be out of laziness but civic duty.

All college teams will be barred from practices and competitions on Tuesday, Nov. 3, as part of a new NCAA bylaw designed to encourage athletes to vote.

“Certainly understand it,” Kelly said, “and I think it’s the right thing to do.”

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The coach said he would tweak his practice schedule that week, starting game preparations on Sunday instead of Monday, before taking Tuesday off.


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