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Saying ‘everything’s year to year,’ Chip Kelly explains his transfer-heavy recruiting

UCLA wide receiver Titus Mokiao-Atimalala catches the football during the team's Spring Showcase in Los Angeles.
UCLA wide receiver Titus Mokiao-Atimalala is one of eight transfers who are candidates to snag starting positions for the season opener.
(Kyusung Gong / For The Times)

As a result of UCLA’s recruiting under coach Chip Kelly, high school players are becoming an endangered species.

Just check the numbers. The size of each of his high school recruiting classes has dwindled, from 27 players in 2018, to 22 in 2019, to 20 in 2020 ,to 18 in 2021 and 11 in 2022. For the Class of 2023, the Bruins have only six players who have orally committed.

Meanwhile, the number of transfers has soared. UCLA imported two transfers in Kelly’s first season, three in his second season, five in his third season and eight in his fourth season. When the Bruins trot onto the Rose Bowl field for their season opener against Bowling Green on Sept. 3, their roster will include 13 new transfers.

Don’t expect those trends to change given what Kelly called a “year-to-year” approach to roster construction in the transfer portal era.

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“It’s no longer, you’re bringing in 25 freshmen, then we’ll redshirt them all and develop them and five years from now, we’ll be good,” Kelly said Tuesday. “Five years from now, you’re probably not gonna be around, so everything’s year to year. We don’t really look at it as recruiting anymore, we look at it as team-building, so how do we build the best team for the 2022 season and that’s a combination of high school [players] and transfers.

Quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson is determined to lead UCLA to success and prove his doubters wrong in his final season with the Bruins.

“You can’t predict what the market’s gonna be like because you don’t know who’s going in the portal. It’s not like the NFL where you know in free agency that this guy’s contract’s up, he’s going to be a free agent, you know who to identify then. So you just have to stay on top of it and be in front of it.”

Among the transfers Kelly has brought in since the end of last season, eight — edge rushers Grayson and Gabriel Murphy, receivers Jake Bobo and Titus Mokiao-Atimalala, defensive tackle Jacob Sykes, cornerback Azizi Hearn, linebacker Darius Muasau and offensive tackle Raiqwon O’Neal — are candidates to snag starting positions for the season opener. None of the team’s true freshmen are likely to start that game.

The unspoken message to recruits: Be ready to contribute quickly if you expect to become a Bruin.

UCLA has high expectations for this season with an easy schedule to start things off. The Bruins open training camp Friday.

“I think the days of, ‘Hey, let’s take a flier on this kid, I think he may be a developmental kid, he hasn’t really shown much, but he’s got some height, weight and speed and we’ll just see if he pans out,’ you’re not gonna do that now because you could potentially not have a scholarship for a kid who can come in and start for you next fall,” Kelly said.

Welcome back

Jon Gaines II might have been the Bruins’ happiest camper upon his return to practice this week. His father, Jon Gaines, just received a long-awaited kidney transplant.

The team encouraged the senior guard to return home to a Milwaukee suburb to be with his father once the family learned a kidney had become available. Jon Gaines had both of his kidneys removed more than three years ago because of cancerous growths, necessitating dialysis while he waited for a transplant.

UCLA lineman Jon Gaines II and his teammate hope their success helps his father secure a hard-to-find kidney donor that would massively improve his life.

His son was flying home during the surgery but arrived in time to see his father wake up.

“He was really relaxed when he first got up,” the younger Gaines said, “you know he was on the pain meds and there was a giant scar where he got the incision, but I’d say probably two days after he was up and joking around.”

The transplant will allow Jon Gaines to see his son play more often during his final college season. Previously, the elder Gaines had to schedule dialysis sessions in Southern California as many as 10 weeks in advance to ensure the availability of facilities.

An impromptu celebration erupted once Jon Gaines II returned to the practice facility this week.

“When he got back, we were all over him,” center Sam Marrazzo said. “You know, just loving up on him cause that’s my brother right there.”

UCLA coach Chip Kelly addresses the media for the first time at summer camp, saying he’s not part of the process when it comes to name, image and likeness.

Line them up

Although converted defensive lineman Tyler Manoa has worked at left tackle and Siale Taupaki has been exclusively at right tackle in early practice sessions, Kelly said the positions had become essentially interchangeable.

“I don’t think it’s specifically you have a right tackle that’s just a run-block guy and the left tackle is pass-block guy,” Kelly said. “Most of the time when you’re in spread formation, both tackles are exposed, they don’t have a tight end attached to them at all, so they both have to have a similar skill set.”

The other players competing for the starting tackle spots are O’Neal, Garrett DiGiorgio, Josh Carlin and Bruno Fina. As in years past, Kelly said he intended to put his best five offensive linemen on the field and use an eight-man rotation.

Marrazzo, who was limited to two games last season because of a left knee injury, said he was fully recovered.


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