Few teams have changed as drastically as the UCLA Bruins during the last year. There was the firing of Jim Mora, the hiring of Chip Kelly and then then the NFL Draft process for Josh Rosen and a number of other talented contributors. Only Kelly is going to have any tangible impact on the program this season. Before coming to UCLA, the former head coach at Oregon made the leap to the NFL with the Philadelphia Eagles in 2013 and for a few shining moments, looked like he was going to revolutionize professional football. That’s not what happened, of course, as he was out of a NFL job after 2016 and spent last year not coaching at all.
While Kelly was looking for his next gig, the Bruins were trying to bounce back from a disappointing 2016 campaign when they went 4-8 overall. They improved slightly, going 6-7, including 5-6 under Mora, who was let go in November. The Bruins were darkhorse contenders for the national title for a few years there, but never reached that lofty height, while deteriorating during Mora’s last two seasons.
When Do They Play Cincinnati?
The Cincinnati Bearcats will be the first team to greet the new-look Bruins, as they open their respective seasons in Pasadena, California on Sept. 1 in a game that will be televised on ESPN.
What They Do Well
It’s difficult to speak with a great deal of authority considering Kelly will clearly change a great deal about how UCLA does business. Last year, the Bruins were a very strong passing team, which isn’t a surprise considering Rosen’s talents. They ranked second in the Pac-12 and fourth in the country in passing offense (4,478 yards), while ranking 15th in offensive S&P+. Kelly is considered an offensive guru so this new Bruins team will still want to push the pace and rack up big yardage (and point) totals.
The strength in the passing game carried over to the defensive side of the field where the Bruins ranked second in the Pac-12, allowing only 196.3 yards per game through the air, albeit on a 130.72 rating.
What They Don’t Do Well
Mora was let go for a failure to deliver on high expectations, but his teams failed in other ways as well. Too often, the Bruins got in their own way, committing the third-most penalties in their conference (106). That total was better than only five other teams nationally, although the group behind them was actually pretty good, as it included Memphis, USF and the people’s national champion UCF. But UCLA did themselves no favors by turning the ball over too often while failing to create the type of pressure that might mitigate that issue. The Bruns coughed the ball up 22 times and forced only 13 turnovers, leading to one of the worst turnover margins in the Pac-12.
In addition to those shortcomings, UCLA was a pretty horrid defensive group, ranking 120th in the country in defensive S&P+ while opponents scored 36.6 points per game. Some of that had to do with just how often the defense was on the field, as a weak rushing attack led to a last place finish in the Pac-12 in time of possession. Kelly may help improve the rushing production, but for a guy known for a swift pace, the Bruins may still be out on defense too often in 2018. They’ll just have to hope the offense is powerful enough to make up for it, like it was at Oregon (which had some underrated defensive teams) during Kelly’s tenure.
Players to Watch
All the quarterbacks
Even if the Bruins only won six games last season, they had a bulk of NFL-ready talent. Rosen was obviously at the top of that list, as he went No. 10 overall in the draft. Rosen threw for 3,756 yards and 26 touchdowns last season and was a second-team All-Pac-12 performer. That means there is going to be a real challenge when it comes to finding a new quarterback. Wilton Speight used to play for Michigan and would seemingly have the inside track at the starting job because of his experience, but hyped recruit Dorian Thompson-Robinson, Devon Modster, Matt Lynch and even freshman Austin Burton will compete as well.
Bolu Olorunfunmi, RB
If Kelly is able to install his more run-heavy approach, Olorunfunmi should be a major beneficiary. He led the team with 565 rushing yards last season and made a few plays in the passing game. Plus, he can fly.
Soso Jamabo, RB
Jamabo will also get a chance to improve UCLA’s rushing attack. He was an excellent No. 2 back last season, rushing for 446 yards on 90 carries, while being a more prominent threat through the air.
Theo Howard, WR
Speaking of the air, the Bruins are still going to throw the ball sometimes, which means they need to replace Jordan Lasley and Darren Andrews, who combined for 2,037 yards and 19 touchdowns in 2017. Howard should step in as the No. 1 option. He had a strong season as the No. 3 target, catching 56 balls for 594 yards and four touchdowns.
Adarius Pickett, S
Pickett is the top returning tackler for this team, which lost first-team All-Pac-12 linebacker Kenny Young to the NFL. Pickett racked up 85 stops, and even had four for a loss.
Darnay Holmes, DB
The secondary will be a real strength thanks to Pickett and Holmes, who snagged a team-high three interceptions in 2017.
According to UC’s record books, this will be the first time these teams have ever played football against each other.
Would This Be Better as a Basketball Game?
If you have a decent short-term memory, then you’ll remember the Bearcats and Bruins have scrapped twice on the hardwood in the last two seasons, with UCLA winning in the 2017 NCAA Tournament and UC claiming revenge this past winter. They will meet yet again next season, this time at Fifth Third Arena on Dec. 19. These too programs have tons of successful history, so a hoops contest would be the preferred showdown. Luckily, we get both.
Luke Fickell could really do nothing wrong last season. With all the work he had to do in the wake of Tommy Tuberville, as long as the team went on the field each week it was seen as a success. Now that he’s had some time to build the recruiting base and get familiar with his team, Fickell needs to start doing much more.
A visit to UCLA is certainly upping the level of difficulty for this season opener. Even if Kelly and his squad need some time to find their footing, they have enough talent that they should win this one. If that does come to pass, then the important thing from a UC standpoint is seeing how competitive the game is and what improvements have been made that will aid the Bearcats as the year progresses.