A New Era in Westwood
By: Nathan Wetmore
For the past five seasons, Chip Kelly has been trying to revive football here in Westwood. The three years immediately before Kelly’s arrival was the Josh Rosen era, a period with a less-than-encouraging number of wins even with a projected first-round NFL quarterback (although any NFL fan can remember how well Rosen lived up to those expectations). Kelly, of course, had an extremely successful stint with the Oregon Ducks in the early 2010’s leading them to a championship game, still the only appearance by a Pac-12 team. He then coached in the NFL with the Eagles and 49ers while Jim Mora and Josh Rosen were running UCLA; when both he and UCLA were struggling in these respective positions, it created an opportunity for both. After firing coach Jim Mora, Chip Kelly came to town along with freshman quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson to attempt to bring some life back to the blue and gold.
It took a couple years to establish the culture and scheme he wanted as well as a couple of years for Thompson-Robinson to get his feet under him but once they did, UCLA football was back. Breaking into the AP Poll Top Ten briefly this past season, UCLA put the nation on notice with its quick strike offense, dynamically athletic quarterback, and unrelenting run game. The success was so high in fact, that along with crosstown rival USC, they decided to leave the Pac-12 altogether for a historically more football dominant conference: the Big Ten. A team who has always played the Oregons, Arizonas, Stanfords, and Cals was now going to be facing off with all time programs like Michigan and Ohio State, in a conference known for their toughness, size, and strength. This begs the question: is UCLA ready for the challenge?
An Offensive Juggernaut
Chip Kelly is after all an offensive coach, so one might expect the strength of UCLA to be their offense. That would be correct. Particularly in the past two years, UCLA has made scoring a touchdown in less than two minutes of game clock to be almost expected. Deep shots to receivers like Jake Bobo, Kaz Allen, Greg Dulcich, and Kam Brown as well as long runs by Thompson-Robinson and Charbonnet have UCLA fans accustomed to putting up big numbers on the offensive side of the ball. However the Big Ten are no slouches either. Teams like Ohio State always rank among the best offenses in the country. So how do the Bruins stack up?
Looking at the total yards per game, of course higher is better. It is clear from the graph that UCLA should have no issue in the Big Ten matching their midwestern firepower, as they had better numbers than any Big Ten team last year specifically. We can further break this number down into the yards coming from pass plays and those coming from the run game:
Again with higher numbers being better, UCLA would have finished third in the Big Ten last year in passing yards per game. This is pretty impressive all things considered. Being in the same breath as the air raid attack of teams like Ohio State who usually lead the Big Ten in passing certainly bodes well for the Bruins’ ability to continue to remain elite offensively. However these stats come with some caveats. While of course UCLA will still have Chip Kelly and his scheme in 2024 when they join the Big Ten, the offensive weapons will be different. Incoming players that could make an impact in this department include number two ranked freshman quarterback in the nation Dante Moore, one of the top transfer portal wide receivers out of Berkeley in J. Michael Sturdivant (755 yards, 7 touchdowns), two 4-star receiver recruits Jeremiah McClure and Grant Gray, and any other potential recruits and transfers the Bruins might sign after the 2023 season. Additionally, UCLA sorely missed current Denver Broncos tight end Greg Dulcich in 2022. With only 393 receiving yards by all tight ends in 2022 compared to 725 by Dulcich in 2021 alone, UCLA had only two receivers break 400 yards this past season. It’s clear that tight end should be one of Chip Kelly’s points of emphasis in the 2024 recruiting class if he intends to keep up with the ability to spread the ball and firepower of the Big Ten teams.
The real dominant force of the Bruin offense over the past couple of years however has been the run game. With an offensive line full of veterans, a dominant do-it-all back in Zach Charbonnet for the last two years, and a quarterback in Thompson-Robinson who loves to run, UCLA typically makes quick work of an opponent’s front seven averaging around 225 rush yards per game for the last three straight years. Chip Kelly should have no issue competing with the running backs of the Big Ten if these stats are any indication. However, with Thompson-Robinson and Charbonnet being drafted in this year’s NFL draft along with two of their lineman Chip Kelly will have to continue to find some new players. Time will tell if incoming number one transfer running back Carson Steele, who posted over 1,500 yards and 14 touchdowns with Ball State in 2022, can keep up Kelly’s suffocating run game.
Defense Wins Championships
Offense is probably not the concern Bruin fans have when envisioning a Big Ten schedule two seasons from now. In the biggest moments and the biggest games it is more likely to be the UCLA defense that lets it slip, which can cost them games. To make matters worse, the Big Ten is a conference known for stout defenders in offense-suppressing conditions up in the frigid Great Lakes. The main factor that will control the Bruins’ destiny is whether or not they can slow down the high powered offenses the Big Ten has to offer.
Now that we are looking at defensive yards per game, note that a lower number is better. This number represents the yards per game the opponent is gaining against UCLA. The graph very blatantly shows UCLA’s defense ranks among the bottom half of the Big Ten. This will definitely be an issue against an Ohio State receiver group that is usually the best in the nation or the powerful offensive lines of Wisconsin or the elite run game at Michigan. The Bruins moved previous defensive coordinator Bill McGovern to an off the field role (although he sadly passed away this May) and hired Baltimore Ravens safeties coach D’Anton Lynn to replace him this offseason, so it remains to be seen if UCLA can improve on this side of the ball in their last year in the Pac-12. The incoming 2023 class of defensive players are mostly around the three-star range, and combining this with the prediction of star Bruin linebacker Laiatu Latu possibly being a first round pick in the 2024 NFL Draft, Chip Kelly needs an outstanding defensive recruiting class in 2024.
When it comes to defending the run, the Bruins are about average by Big Ten standards. With a powerful offense, this shortcoming shouldn’t be too much of a hole in UCLA’s roster. The real issues come up when looking at the pass yards allowed per game.
Remembering lower numbers are better when it comes to defense, UCLA has been near or at the bottom of the barrel when compared to the Big Ten in passing defense. Bruin fans of recent years can remember one too many times their team was closing in on a victory when another team like Utah or Fresno State magically scored a touchdown in the final minutes to secure a loss for UCLA. This is perhaps the biggest hurdle to overcome as UCLA transitions into the Big Ten. The passing games of coaches Jim Harbaugh of Michigan and Ryan Day of Ohio State are likely stronger than any the Bruins face in the Pac-12. The UCLA secondary will need to be the most improved group going forward if they want to have a shot at being elite in the Big Ten.
Are We There Yet?
After looking through the stats of UCLA and the Big Ten, some clear strengths and weaknesses have been identified. But, there is so much that is impossible to predict when answering the questions of how well the Bruins will fare in their new conference. The biggest one is some of what’s already been mentioned: player turnover. Most of UCLA’s stars from 2022 have moved on to the NFL leaving room for freshmen and transfers to fill their spots. 2023 will be a big test year to see if these players can fill the shoes of their predecessors and continue the dominance UCLA has exerted over the past couple seasons. It will also be a huge test year for the defense and D’Anton Lynn, son of former Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn, to see if those defensive numbers can improve before the team ships off to the land of ‘The Game’ (Michigan vs Ohio State) and Penn State’s whiteout.
The changes for the 2023 season are known, but what is impossible to predict is future recruiting. It’s hard to say what new faces will be Bruins in 2024, as well as what new faces will be in the Big Ten. By the time UCLA and rival USC join in the fun, players like CJ Stroud, Caleb Williams, JJ McCarthy, and many other stars of these teams will probably be in the NFL and the teams will look pretty different compared to today. However what can be penciled in are the coaches. Chip Kelly, Lincoln Riley, Jim Harbaugh, Ryan Day, new Wisconsin coach Luke Fickell are all likely not going anywhere in the next few years. The question of if UCLA will succeed in the Big Ten really comes down to how well can Chip Kelly build a scheme and game plan against these other coaches. College football is an ever shifting sport simply due to the structure of college only lasting a few years. If UCLA wants long lasting success out of their football team, it boils down to the culture and the ethos of those in the driver’s seat.
With the clear progression of the program Chip Kelly has built over the last five years, he has established an expectation of excellence. He has huge pull and success in the transfer portal as of late and will likely continue to do so. With a final year in the Pac-12 to dip their toes into the post-Thompson-Robinson era, as well as see how a new defensive coordinator can improve the secondary, the Bruins are in a great position to gear up for the big conference switch in 2024. If Chip Kelly puts an emphasis on continuing his run game dominance, as well as recruiting tight ends and defensive backs, the UCLA Bruins will finish in the top five of Big Ten play in 2024.