UCLA and Chip Kelly embark on a season unlike any other hoping for change

Ben Bolch
·4 min read
UCLA head coach Chip Kelly looks on in the second half during an NCAA college football game against Utah.
UCLA coach Chip Kelly faces plenty of challenges heading into his third season leading the Bruins. (Rick Bowmer / Associated Press)

Virtual learning is over at UCLA, the instructors letting everybody run free in the land where the Buffaloes roam.

How far the Bruins make it against Colorado in the opening game of a shortened football season could go a long way toward determining their final grade.

“The cool part about it is, we’re like professors,” Bruins coach Chip Kelly said of his staff. “We prepare them for an exam and then our exam is on Saturday and we’ll see how we do.”

It probably won’t require a “A” to beat Colorado, one of only two teams the media projected to finish below UCLA in the Pac-12 South.

Chortles were undoubtedly suppressed on Zoom last month when Karl Dorrell, the former Bruins coach who now holds the same post with the Buffaloes, told reporters that his team was trying to win the conference. That’s a nice sentiment except when considering that Dorrell was hired as an emergency replacement for Mel Tucker in February … and hasn’t been a head coach since 2007 … and didn’t hold one spring practice because of COVID-19 … and has a converted safety as his starting quarterback.

Kelly faces his own issues starting Year 3 of a rebuild that has felt more like a teardown. One player on the team tested positive for COVID-19 this week, though it did not appear to endanger the Bruins’ opener.

Most of predecessor Jim Mora’s talent is gone now. Defensive lineman Osa Odighizuwa and running back Demetric Felton Jr. were the only Bruins to receive All-Pac-12 preseason honors after the media put them on the second team. Both players were recruited by Mora.  

Dorian Thompson-Robinson, another Mora recruit, is likely the Bruins’ most pivotal player. If the junior who started 18 games in his first two college seasons can become a top-tier Pac-12 quarterback, eliminating his tendency to fumble without being touched, then UCLA might enjoy its first winning season since 2015 while emerging from its worst four-year stretch since the 1920s.

Thompson-Robinson is among 22 players on the two-deep entering their third season under Kelly, meaning that 2020 might represent a full reflection of what the coach can accomplish after sputtering his way to a 7-17 start.

UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson (1) during last year's victory over Colorado.
UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson (1) during last year's victory over Colorado. (Kelvin Kuo / Associated Press)

“He trusts us fully,” Thompson-Robinson said, “and he’s gonna kind of let us play free and play to our strengths now.”

In Kelly’s most widely repeated metaphor, involving the giant timber bamboo, constant nurturing leads to explosive growth in the fourth year. The coach can’t wait that long for sprouts to emerge from his roster.

The Bruins must unleash some new stars on a defense that is replacing every starting linebacker while coming off two historically poor seasons.

Hello, Bo Calvert?

Nice to meet you, Damian Sellers?

More introductions will be necessary on an offense that must offset the departure of running back Josh Kelley to the Chargers.

“I think a shocker that’s gonna come to a lot of people that didn’t get to play a lot last year is Keegan Jones,” Thompson-Robinson said, referring to the redshirt freshman running back who didn’t get one carry in 2019 and recently acknowledged that he was not fully prepared to play college football.

Any chances of a winning season probably start with a victory over Colorado. The Bruins are 6½-point favorites and might be picked to win only one other game this season, against Arizona at the Rose Bowl.

Beating the Buffaloes would be psychologically purging on multiple fronts considering it would come against Dorrell and reverse a maddening trend after UCLA went 0-5 to start 2018 and 0-3 to open 2019.

It’s just one game in a seven-game, conference-only season that seems more precarious by the moment given the cancellation of two other Pac-12 season openers. It also could be the moment that calcifies whatever form UCLA's season will take.

“You don’t have any room to slip up in a shortened schedule, but each week we’re just trying to go 1-0,” nickel back Shea Pitts said. “So on our minds right now is, ‘Beat Colorado. Beat Colorado.’ ”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.