UCLA’s first 0-2 start since 2010 obfuscates the amount of progress accomplished in the direction of coach Chip Kelly’s plan to rebuild the program.
But what is clear is that any measure of success the Bruins attain this season will heavily depend on their freshmen.
A staggering 20 true and redshirt freshmen played last Saturday against Oklahoma, and the youth infusion will continue when UCLA football (0-2) hosts Fresno State (1-1) Saturday night.
“We’re kind of heading in the right direction,” said graduate transfer right guard Justin Murphy. “We saw more success as far as sustaining a drive against Oklahoma than we did against Cincinnati, so that kind of shows us that we can do it. We just need to sharpen a couple more tools and kind of get over that hump to put the ball in the end zone.”
That hump is partly due to Kelly relying on so many first-year players for major contributions, especially offensively.
Communication issues in the first two games plagued UCLA for 11 sacks allowed, which ranks 128th out of 129 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in the country. Kelly’s anemic offense also ranks outside the top-100 in scoring and total yards per game.
Fresno State is on the other end of the experience spectrum.
Coach Jeff Tedford’s squad returns 100 percent of its rushing touchdowns, 95.4 percent of its rushing yards, 94.7 percent of its receiving touchdowns and 83 percent of its receiving yards. Quarterback Marcus McMaryion started the final 11 games of last season and finished with 2,726 passing yards and 18 combined passing and rushing touchdowns.
The Bruins’ rushing defense will likely face a running back-by-committee since no Bulldog averages more than 47 yards per game, although they have registered seven rushing touchdowns this season.
Last week, UCLA held its opponent without a 100-yard rusher for the first time since 2016. According to sophomore defensive end Martin Andrus Jr., breaking that streak could provide a mental boost for the defense.
“If you don’t have the mindset that you’re going to stop the run, then you’re not going to stop it,” Andrus said. “So you got to go into the game telling yourself that you’re going to stop the run.”
However, the other side of the trenches hasn’t been a bright spot for UCLA.
True freshman quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson is a victim of 10 sacks, and the offensive line is still getting up to speed with true freshman center Christaphany Murray adjusting to the responsibilities of a new position.
“(We’re focusing on) the basic fundamentals of blocking, the basic fundamentals of identifying what front we’re facing and what’s the proper call and the proper scheme to run against them and everybody being on the same page,” Kelly said. “It’s improving, but it still needs to improve.”
While Thompson-Robinson has been a frequent target for opposing defensive linemen and linebackers, he has yet to commit a turnover. Fresno State has only recorded two sacks this year but has shined in the turnover department – it leads the country with eight takeaways.
Inside linebacker Jeff Allison leads the Bulldogs with 21 total tackles this season after recording 126 last year. Fresno State ranks among the top 50 teams in most major defensive categories, but UCLA has an X-factor in true freshman running back Kazmeir Allen, who went to high school less than an hour away from Fresno, California.
Allen burst onto the scene with a 74-yard touchdown sprint through Cincinnati’s defense to kick off his career, but Oklahoma held him to only 42 yards on 10 carries. Although he’s acclimating to the physicality of the college level, his speed makes him an immediate threat to defenses.
“Just run at that speed, and everything will settle for itself, and you’ll find yourself in the end zone a lot,” said senior running back Bolu Olorunfunmi, describing his advice to Allen. “That’s the number one thing I tell him. I mean, you have that speed. Use it. You’re a special kid.”
And as far as Kelly is concerned, Allen isn’t the only freshman with the potential to be special.