When Chip Kelly took over as head coach of UCLA to begin the season, it was widely expected that the Bruins rebuild would take a few years — or at least until Kelly could bring in his own recruiting class to run his system.
The beginning of the season appeared to prove that theory as UCLA struggled out of the gate, as an anemic offense combined with a listless defense went 0-5 to start the year. But the Bruins have rebounded of late, winning two of their last three games to have a fighting chance in the Pac-12 south division and show faith that the rebuild might be quicker than expected.
UCLA looks to continue its recent upwards trend when it visits Oregon in Kelly’s return home to the place that made him a college coaching legend. Kickoff is set for 4:30 p.m. and will air on FOX.
A lot of that improvement stems from the UCLA players buying into Kelly’s offensive system; one predicated on speed, quickness and getting the ball out in space. The biggest benefactor of this has been running back Joshua Kelly, averaging 126.
4 yards per game since Pac-12 play began.
Joshua fits the perfect mold for one of Chip’s running backs, 5-foot-11, 204-pound speedster who generates power with impressive explosiveness in his legs. He shows great patience at the line of scrimmage, often waiting for the hole to develop and then using a burst to speed to get into the secondary quickly.
Tight end Caleb Wilson is also a force to be reckoned with for the Bruins. The 6-foot-4, 235-pound pass catcher shows elite athleticism for his size, being a redzone mismatch with power and strength to go across the middle and catch the ball in traffic. He leads the team with 479 receiving yards, averaging 14.1 yards per catch.
"He can run and he can stretch the field," Oregon safeties coach Keith Heyward told The Oregonian. "He's a really, really good receiving tight end, kind of like Spencer Webb is for us. We got to do our job. We got to line up and play the right leverage, whatever the call is and make sure we cover him."
Theo Howard is nice compliment to Wilson, a 6-foot, 182-pound wide receiver who has 34 catches for 422 yards and two scores on the season.
"He's been really good for us on the perimeter, obviously. I think he's a tough matchup… a great route runner… very sure-handed guy,” Chip Kelly said of Howard. “He's one of those guys that has not been plagued by any of the drops. I think Theo's been a guy that's kind of a security blanket for the quarterbacks — he's done a really nice job for us."
Combined, these three players make up a dynamic duo who can win UCLA a game one their own. The only issue is who will be the one running the offense and distributing them the ball.
Quarterbacks Dorian Thompson-Robinson and Wilton Speight are locked in a battle for the starting spot.
Thompson-Robinson is the more gifted athlete with the better arm, leading the Bruins with 1,176 passing yards and six scores in a little over six games. He’s better suited to run Chip’s offense, having run a similar like style while in high school at Bishop Gorman in Las Vegas.
Speight is the opposite, a big-bodied, pro-style quarterback who gets the ball out quick but won’t beat you with his arm. He’s simply a game-manager but started last week with Thompson-Robinson out with an injury.
It appears Thompson-Robinson will start after practicing all week but as to how healthy he is, nobody truly knows. With him leading the way combined with the improvement the past couple of weeks, UCLA’s offense is capable of putting up big numbers.
Defensively, the Bruins are led by two players; defensive end Keisean Lucier-South and safety Adarious Pickett.
Pickett is the team’s top tackler (10.5 per game) and leader of the Pac-12’s third-best pass defense in conference play. The Bruins surrender an average of 217.6 yards per game with six interceptions. They have 29 pass break-ups on the season, forcing quarterbacks into tough and contested throws with their athleticism to stay with receivers.
Helping force those quarterbacks into inaccurate throws is Lucier-South, an explosive pass-rusher who leads the team with 10.5 tackles for loss and four sacks. He does a very good job of winning battles with either power or speed, forcing teams to double-team or “chip” him at the line of scrimmage.
As a whole, the Bruins have improved a lot. They give up 23.6 points per game in Pac-12 play, good for third best in the conference — compared to the 36.4 points per game they were surrendering during their winless start to the season.
With Chip leading the way, UCLA’s rebuild seems to be ahead of schedule. As to whether it’ll stay ahead largely depends on the outcome of Saturday’s showdown but rest assured, Chip will have the Bruins fired up and ready to go, knowing exactly what it takes to win in Autzen stadium.