Five questions facing UCLA football heading into spring practice

UCLA coach Chip Kelly walks back to the sideline during a time out in front of a group of Bruins players.
UCLA coach Chip Kelly and the Bruins are entering their final spring practices as members of the Pac-12 before switching to the Big Ten in 2024.
(Andres Leighton / Associated Press)
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Chip Kelly’s sixth year at UCLA is something of a fresh start.

There’s going to be a new starting quarterback. Another defensive coordinator. Heightened hope for that breakthrough season.

Going from 3-9 to 4-8 to 3-4 to 8-4 to 9-4 was considered good enough to land Kelly a new contract that basically assures him of being the Bruins’ coach for its first Big Ten season in 2024. But can his team do big things before it gets there?


The most highly decorated quarterback prospect in school history and the usual influx of transfers will help. So will a favorable schedule that includes another Football Championship Subdivision opponent in North Carolina Central.

USC and UCLA are leaving the Pac-12 for the Big Ten Conference in 2024, the two schools announced Thursday.

Dec. 14, 2022

One thing is certain: The team that takes the field Sept. 2 at the Rose Bowl against Coastal Carolina will look unlike anything that has come before it.

Five questions facing the Bruins as they prepare to start spring practice Tuesday:


Who will emerge as leading candidate for starting quarterback?

Quarterback Dante Moore laughs after a game with Detroit's King High
Quarterback Dante Moore of Detroit’s King High is widely considered ready to play at the college level.
(Junfu Han / Detroit Free Press)

Kelly isn’t going to name a starter in the spring, but a front-runner could emerge after 15 practices.

Will it be Dante Moore, the freshman phenom? How about Collin Schlee, a veteran transfer from Kent State? Or Ethan Garbers, the top backup to Dorian Thompson-Robinson in each of the last two seasons?


Moore has a commanding lead in hype, having earned five stars and the highest 247 Sports rating of any high school quarterback UCLA has landed in the history of the recruiting website. He’s also widely considered ready to play at the college level.

UCLA five-star quarterback prospect Dante Moore talks with The Times before the All-American Bowl on Saturday in San Antonio.

Jan. 7, 2023

Schlee is coming off one of the best seasons in Kent State history, ranking among the top 10 in yards passing (2,109), passing touchdowns (13) and completion percentage (59%).

Garbers is familiar with Kelly’s offense after having played in parts of 18 games with the Bruins, including a start against Utah in 2021. And let’s not forget about Justyn Martin, the redshirt freshman who once threw 13 touchdown passes for Inglewood High during a 106-0 victory over city rival Morningside.

Clues about who isn’t in the running could come once the next transfer portal window opens May 1.


Can new defensive coordinator D’Anton Lynn fix what’s broken?

East coach D'Anton Lynn, of the Baltimore Ravens, talks on the sideline during the East-West Shrine Bowl
East coach D’Anton Lynn, of the Baltimore Ravens, talks on the sideline during the East-West Shrine Bowl on Feb. 3 in Las Vegas.
(David Becker / Associated Press)

No. 102. No. 113. No. 69. No. 70. No. 86.

Those are the national rankings of UCLA’s total defense in each of its first five seasons under Kelly lieutenants Jerry Azzinaro and Bill McGovern. They’re also the primary reason Kelly has a 27-29 record despite his elite offenses.


After McGovern’s health issues pushed him into a role as director of football administration, Kelly finally looked outside his usual Rolodex of options for a young up-and-comer. D’Anton Lynn, 33, is the Bruins’ first defensive coordinator since Kelly arrived to not have worked for him previously.

UCLA is expected to hire Baltimore Ravens safeties coach D’Anton Lynn as its new defensive coordinator to replace Bill McGovern.

Feb. 22, 2023

The son of former Chargers coach Anthony Lynn, D’Anton has eight years of experience as an NFL assistant, most recently serving as safeties coach for the Baltimore Ravens.

Significant improvement on the defensive side of the ball could be just what the Bruins need to contend for their first Pac-12 title since 1998 in their farewell season as members of the conference.


Who will replace Zach Charbonnet?

UCLA running back T.J. Harden breaks the tackle of Pittsburgh defensive back P.J. O'Brien.
UCLA running back T.J. Harden breaks the tackle of Pittsburgh defensive back P.J. O’Brien to score a touchdown during the Sun Bowl on Dec. 30 in El Paso, Texas.
(Andres Leighton / Associated Press)

Kelly’s offenses have produced a 1,000-yard rusher in each of his four full seasons at UCLA, starting with Josh Kelley in 2018 and 2019 and continuing with Zach Charbonnet in 2021 and 2022. Who’s next?


The leading candidates are Ball State transfer Carson Steele and returners T.J. Harden and Keegan Jones. Harden looked like a star while averaging 10 yards a carry on the way to 111 yards and a touchdown against Pittsburgh in the Sun Bowl. Jones has shown some exciting bursts, mostly catching passes out of the backfield.

UCLA running back Zach Charbonnet shares a special bond with his sister, Bella, who has special needs. She helped inspire him to transfer from Michigan to UCLA.

Oct. 19, 2022

Steele could quickly become a fan favorite with his long blond locks, superhuman strength (he reportedly squatted 400 pounds as an eighth-grader) and pet alligator (Crocky-J, who resides back home in Greenwood, Ind.), not to mention his ability to bulldoze defenders. Last season, as a sophomore at Ball State, Steele piled up 1,556 yards rushing and 14 touchdowns while averaging 129.7 yards per game on the ground.


Is J. Michael Sturdivant the next great UCLA wide receiver?

California wide receiver J. Michael Sturdivant catches a pass against Washington State on Oct. 1 in Pullman, Wash.
(Young Kwak / Associated Press)

Anyone who watched California nearly upset the Bruins in November should remember J. Michael Sturdivant well. He was the fast, crafty receiver who caught five passes, including a 46-yard touchdown, while making defenders look lost.

The 6-foot-3 speedster led the Golden Bears with 65 catches as a redshirt freshman and finished with 755 yards receiving and seven touchdowns on the way to earning first-team freshman All-American honors from The Athletic, College Football News and the Football Writers Assn. of America.


California’s J. Michael Sturdivant announced Friday he will transfer to UCLA. He is expected to become a primary target for new quarterback Dante Moore.

Jan. 13, 2023

Having transferred to UCLA, Sturdivant figures to top a receiving rotation that should also heavily feature USC transfer Kyle Ford, Kam Brown, Titus Mokiao-Atimalala and Logan Loya.


Will there be a spring game?

No, but fans can get their football fix because every spring practice will be open to the public. There also will be alumni and former player or Wooden Athletic Fund events during each of the four Saturday sessions.

According to an athletic department spokesman, a number of factors, including field conditions, injury prevention and cost, went into the decision not to hold a spring game. Maybe it’s just as well. UCLA’s “spring showcase” under Kelly was usually just a glorified practice.