The Bruins are thin all over the roster.
Coach Chip Kelly said UCLA football (2-8, 2-5 Pac-12) had just 57 scholarship players available out of the 105 on the roster at practice Tuesday.
“You can look at it as, ‘Oh, that’s poor me,’” Kelly said. “No, it’s not; it’s a great opportunity for guys like (redshirt freshman linebacker) Jayce (Smalley), for (redshirt freshman linebacker) Donovan (Williams), for (redshirt freshman cornerback) Shea Pitts, for (redshirt freshman linebacker) Winston Anawalt – we’ve got a bunch of guys who are stepping up and making plays.”
The Bruins have the fourth-largest percentage of underclassmen in the country, and many of them are just starting to get playing time.
Redshirt sophomore guard Michael Alves said that the younger Bruins are talented, but the reason their talent hasn’t already translated to playing time or wins is because of their underdeveloped technique.
“In high school, it’s not as strict, the practice isn’t all that, so you kind of get recruited more off of talent than technique,” Alves said. “Once they get a year under their belt and they get a full offseason, their technique’s going to improve a lot and I think we’re going to be able to see their potential.”
But like Kelly, Alves had no shortage of underclassmen to praise.
“(Offensive line) coach (Justin) Frye just wants to get some new guys in there,” Alves said. “I think (freshman offensive lineman) Jon Gaines is going to be good, I think (freshman offensive lineman) Alec (Anderson) is also going to be pretty good. A lot of the young guys, actually, are very talented. (Freshman offensive lineman) Baraka (Beckett) is very talented. All of those guys are very talented.”
One of the players Kelly highlighted Monday was Smalley, who picked up two assisted tackles against Oregon in his first time playing on defense. He had previously played four games exclusively on special teams, and he picked up his first career tackle for a loss against Arizona State on Saturday.
“It was the same thing as practice,” Smalley said. “Practice is up-tempo as can be, so going into the game, it wasn’t really much of an adjustment, not any slower.”
After Smalley made the transition from special teams to defense, Kelly said he was impressed with the walk-on’s performance despite the lack of depth around him.
“(Smalley) has been a real good addition to that group,” Kelly said. “Obviously, we’re down in numbers really at that position – we only had three healthy bodies coming in, so (Smalley) has really stepped it up and I think a lot of our young guys have stepped it up and that’s the cool part.”
As a special teams specialist, Smalley did not record a tackle, but he said that Kelly gave him just as much attention as any other player.
“(Kelly) really genuinely cares about each and every one of us,” Smalley said.
There are injured Bruins across the depth chart, but the linebacker corps has been hit hard.
Sophomore linebacker Jaelan Phillips is out for the season with a concussion and senior linebacker Josh Woods has missed the entire season with a knee injury. Smalley said that despite the fact they have been out of the lineup, they have still been around to help him adjust to his new role.
“If I ever need anything, I can reach out to any one of them,” Smalley said. “I’m sure they would help me without hesitation.”