Five questions facing UCLA football heading into spring practice

UCLA coach Chip Kelly walks on the sideline during a win over Hawaii in August.
UCLA coach Chip Kelly walks on the sideline during a win over Hawaii in August. The Bruins open their spring practice sessions Tuesday.
(Kyusung Gong / Associated Press)

Chip Kelly’s back!

Depending on one’s perspective, that statement might prompt either the flashing of a thumbs-up or a less wholesome digit.

The happy-he’s-back camp can point to the usual talking points involving the UCLA football coach. There’s the upward trajectory, Kelly earning a new four-year contract after the Bruins’ record improved from 3-9 to 4-8 to 3-4 to 8-4. There are the quality imports who have made Kelly a king of the transfer portal. There’s that high-octane offense.


The detractors just sigh. You call that improvement? Kelly had nowhere to go but up after posting a 7-17 record through his first two seasons. He has brought in so many transfers mostly because his high school recruiting has lagged. And have you seen the defense?

Chip Kelly will coach under a new contract in 2022, but UCLA left itself on the hook for a relatively small amount if things go sour over the next two seasons.

Feb. 25, 2022

A showdown against nationally ranked North Carolina State in the Holiday Bowl was supposed to bring some clarity about the state of the program before the Bruins had to back out hours before kickoff because of a COVID-19 outbreak.

Kelly hired a new defensive coordinator without revealing what happened to the old one — he could have retired or headed to the North Pole, for all anyone knows — as part of a staff makeover.

The returns of quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson and running back Zach Charbonnet should keep the offense humming, but there are significant holes to fill on both sides of the ball.

Here are five questions facing the Bruins as they open spring practice Tuesday:


Can Bill McGovern upgrade the defense?

New York Giants' Bill McGovern watches against the Detroit Lions
Former New York Giants linebackers coach Bill McGovern will be overseeing UCLA’s defense this season.
(Paul Sancya / Associated Press)


UCLA’s new defensive coordinator didn’t have to do much to make news; he just had to speak.

McGovern made the rounds with local beat reporters upon his hiring, a departure from tight-lipped predecessor Jerry Azzinaro, who never conducted one interview in his four seasons with the team. It’s sort of hard to blame Azzinaro considering his defenses were either mediocre or among the worst in the nation.

McGovern hasn’t been a defensive coordinator since holding that post in 2012 at Boston College but said he’s ready for the challenges presented by college offenses in 2022.

The Bruins will present multiple looks, McGovern said, while trying to pressure the quarterback. McGovern will spend the next month assessing possible playmakers while starting to formulate his plans for what lineup and formations the team will unveil in its season opener against Bowling Green on Sept. 3 at the Rose Bowl.


Who will Thompson-Robinson throw to without his top receivers?

UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson calls a play against California on Nov. 27.
(Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)


The security blankets are gone. Tight end Greg Dulcich and wide receivers Kyle Philips and Chase Cota, who combined to make 119 of the team’s 207 catches (57.7%) last season, have departed, Dulcich and Philips leaving for the NFL and Cota transferring to Oregon.

That leaves Kazmeir Allen as the leading returning receiver after he made just 17 catches in 2021. Who will join him as one of Thompson-Robinson’s top targets?

The most likely answer is Duke transfer Jake Bobo, who caught 74 passes for 794 yards and one touchdown last season for the Blue Devils. Other candidates include returning players Kam Brown, Matt Sykes, Logan Loya, Colson Yankoff and Michael Ezeike as well as speedy newcomer Jadyn Marshall.


Which transfers will make the biggest impact?

Hawaii linebacker Darius Muasau, left, breaks up a pass intended for Fresno State wide receiver Jalen Cropper.
Hawaii linebacker Darius Muasau, left, breaks up a pass intended for Fresno State wide receiver Jalen Cropper in October. Muasau will be at UCLA spring practice.
(Marco Garcia / Associated Press)

If all goes well, this will be a difficult question to answer.

Twin edge rushers Grayson and Gabriel Murphy (North Texas) will have a chance to start immediately upon the departure of Mitchell Agude, the team’s most disruptive defender.


Cornerbacks Jaylin Davies (Oregon) and Azizi Hearn (Wyoming) could significantly bolster a secondary that must replace starters Jay Shaw, Quentin Lake and Cam Johnson.

Linebacker Darius Muasau, who gobbled up running backs and receivers while logging 108 tackles and seven sacks last season at Hawaii, could turn the middle of the field from the free-for-all it’s been in recent seasons to a no-man’s land.

Offensive tackle Raiqwon O’Neal (Rutgers) could protect Thompson-Robinson’s blind side if he moves into the left tackle spot vacated by NFL-bound Sean Rhyan. He could also reprise his role as a modern-day William “Refrigerator” Perry after the 6-foot-4, 305-pound O’Neal ran for two touchdowns with the Scarlet Knights.


Will a running back emerge to complement Charbonnet?

UCLA running back Zach Charbonnet carries the ball against USC in November.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

He’ll have to for Kelly’s run-heavy offense to maintain its productivity.

Charbonnet is as durable as they come. He ran for a team-leading 1,137 yards and 13 touchdowns last season as part of a time share at the position with Brittain Brown.


But with Brown having exhausted his eligibility, Charbonnet is going to need a new running mate. The top options are redshirt sophomore Keegan Jones and Deshun Murrell, the cowboy hat-wearing redshirt freshman from Brent, Ala.

It would be a big leap for either player given that Jones ran for just 66 yards in 26 carries last season, averaging 2.5 yards per carry, while Murrell redshirted. Allen could contribute on his usual reverses and jet sweeps but won’t get a heavy workload barring a position switch.


Who will fill the holes on the offensive line?

With Rhyan and right tackle Alec Anderson having departed, this will be one of the biggest story lines of the spring.

O’Neal is likely to start practice at left tackle given his experience at the position where he made nine starts at Rutgers last season, earning honorable mention All-Big Ten honors as selected by Pro Football Focus.

There is more uncertainty at right tackle, where redshirt freshmen Garrett DiGiorgio and Thomas Cole will likely battle for the job, if they’re not overtaken by precocious true freshman Sam Yoon.


Sam Marrazzo will probably be the starting center again after an injury hampered 2021, with Jon Gaines II and Atonio Mafi the starting guards.

The collective goal is replicate last season, when the Bruins generated a Pac-12-best 36.5 points per game while allowing 23 sacks, tied with Washington for the fourth fewest in the conference.