Five schools in the Pac-12 hired new football coaches this offseason, but nobody will have more eyes on them than Chip Kelly and the Bruins.
UCLA will open its 2018 campaign Saturday against Cincinnati at the Rose Bowl, and Kelly said he is not underestimating the Bearcats’ ability to spoil his Bruins coaching debut.
“They have a second year in (Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell’s) system at all three phases, so we expect them to be really well coached,” Kelly said. “When you watch film, they play extremely hard and they play with great effort.”
Despite Kelly’s praise, Cincinnati is coming off back-to-back 4-8 seasons, which bodes well for UCLA’s odds of starting the season on a positive note. A win would mark the sixth time in the last seven seasons that the Bruins open with a victory.
Redshirt senior wide receiver Christian Pabico said that although UCLA has had ample time to study and watch film, the opening game of a season tends to be harder to prepare for.
“Always with the first game I think that’s what you get with it – you’re not really sure what to expect,” Pabico said. “Obviously, you’re judging off film from last year and maybe their spring game, but I think we’re just going to have to kind of prepare for everything.”
Preparation aside, success on the field starts with the quarterback, and Kelly still has an important decision to make regarding his own starter.
As it currently stands, the quarterback competition appears to be a three-horse race between graduate student Wilton Speight, freshman Dorian Thompson-Robinson and the incumbent – redshirt sophomore Devon Modster.
Kelly said Friday that he would let the players finish out camp over the weekend before meeting with his staff this past Sunday to discuss their options.
Pabico gave all the quarterbacks praise at practice last week and said that he has faith in whoever Kelly decides to move forward with.
“I wouldn’t go as far as to say someone has (been) separated,” Pabico said. “I think all the quarterbacks are doing a really good job and ultimately that is going to be up to coach Kelly anyways so for me, I’m just focused on what I can control.”
No matter who ends up earning the starting job for the Bruins, they will likely face off with the Bearcats’ quarterback Hayden Moore.
The senior accumulated 31 touchdowns through the air and over 4,300 yards as the full-time starter for Cincinnati. Moore has also shown his ability to tuck the ball and run, rushing nearly eight times per game last season and averaging 3.4 yards per carry.
The presence of a dual-threat quarterback could pose a challenge for UCLA considering it lost its lead defensive signal caller and senior middle linebacker Josh Woods to a season-ending knee injury last week.
“(Woods) was probably one of the smartest guys I’ve ever met on the field and off,” said junior linebacker Lokeni Toailoa. “It’s just little things that he would see that other guys just didn’t see.”
Junior linebacker Krys Barnes will take over more play-calling duties, but redshirt junior linebacker Tyree Thompson will be tasked with filling in during Woods’ absence.
Thompson, who began his collegiate career at Sacramento State, said the opportunity to play an important role so early in his Bruins career is not something that he will take for granted.
“It’s just been a humbling experience because now I have – I wouldn’t say more pressure, but I just have to keep performing,” Thompson said.
UCLA and Cincinnati will kick off at 4 p.m.