Chip Kelly knows he can’t lean on his past under new UCLA contract
The last time Chip Kelly stood in front of a microphone and answered questions about his UCLA football program, it was late December, and the Bruins were one day away from playing North Carolina State in the Holiday Bowl.
Kelly, who had led UCLA to its first winning season since 2015, still did not know if he would be back for a fifth season, even after an 8-4 campaign that included a 62-33 demolition of rival USC at the Coliseum. The assumption was that the Holiday Bowl would be quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson’s last college game, and there was certainly a chance that star running back Zach Charbonnet would be joining him in the NFL draft.
Of course, the bowl game would be canceled due to issues with COVID-19 within the UCLA program, leading to some mild controversy. But ultimately, the Bruins were stripped of a major opportunity to put an exclamation point on a 2021 season that felt restorative to some UCLA fans but still somewhat lacking to others.
Quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson is happy to have returned to UCLA, putting off a shot at the NFL to attend to unfinished business in Westwood.
UCLA athletic director Martin Jarmond clearly decided it was good enough, announcing in January that Kelly and the school had agreed to a four-year contract extension that would pay him $22 million during that period (per year, that would be less than the $5.6 million he was paid in 2021).
Kelly stepped back in front of reporters once again Thursday morning before UCLA’s second spring practice, and, in his mind, not much had changed since he and the school renewed their commitment to each other.
“I come to work every day, so my day hasn’t changed since I’ve been here,” he said. “I came here to give every effort I can to be a part of this great school and in the great community. Just excited to be here.”
Evidently, Kelly wasn’t the only Bruin who wanted to remain in Westwood. Thompson-Robinson decided to come back for a fifth season, using his extra year of eligibility due to the pandemic, despite Kelly having gathered positive feedback from the NFL.
“We wanted him back in the worst way, but I can’t tell him for selfish reasons, ‘You shouldn’t go,’ ” Kelly said. “The information we had, he would have been a really draftable guy and had an opportunity to make a team this year.”
Thompson-Robinson’s surprising turnabout is the best reason to think UCLA can take the next step, which would be winning the team’s first Pac-12 South division title since 2012.
“He has a ton of reps under his belt that he has in his catalog in the back of his brain,” Kelly said. “Like, I’ve been in this situation before and this is what happened. He’s displayed great leadership with all the younger guys. To have the quarterback really be a leader and coming back for Year 5 has really been huge for us.”
Charbonnet, who rushed for 1,137 yards and 13 touchdowns, also bucked the trend of running backs going pro as soon as they’re eligible and is back for more.
But not everything has stayed the same. Kelly decided to fire veteran defensive coordinator Jerry Azzinaro to improve a unit that finished 70th nationally in total defense and 107th against the pass.
The returns of Dorian Thompson-Robinson and Zach Charbonnet provide some clarity, but UCLA has plenty of questions heading into spring practice.
To find a replacement, Kelly leaned on his past relationships, hiring Bill McGovern, who coached linebackers under Kelly with the Philadelphia Eagles. The Bruins overhauled most of the defensive assistants, hiring UCLA alum Ken Norton Jr. as inside linebackers coach, Ikaika Malloe as outside linebackers coach and former USC assistant Chad Kauha’aha’a as defensive line coach.
“I think all those guys, with Bill and Ken Norton Jr., they bring vast experience in the National Football League and some of the new things going on in that league that are trickling down to college football, and then blending it with what we do,” Kelly said. “So we’re not throwing the baby out with the bathwater.”
Kelly’s decision to change up his defensive staff was a sure sign that the Bruins want more than 8-4.
“You actually gotta build momentum every day,” he said. “We’re in a society now where what you did yesterday really doesn’t matter.”
Go beyond the scoreboard
Get the latest on L.A.'s teams in the daily Sports Report newsletter.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.