This post was updated Aug. 19 at 7:58 a.m.
Injuries can make or break a season.
With less than two weeks until the season starts, coach Chip Kelly said UCLA football is in a much better position than last year in terms of preseason injuries.
“We have been 92 to 96% participation rate in camp,” Kelly said. “That’s outstanding. You get that many guys participating every day, that’s really good.”
The Bruins were plagued by injuries in the 2018 fall camp and throughout the rest of the season, forcing Kelly to play younger or less experienced players at key positions.
Then-senior linebacker Josh Woods was expected to lead the linebackers last season before multiple torn knee ligaments sidelined him for the entire season and left a crop of underclassmen to cover the position.
And at the quarterback position, then-graduate transfer Wilton Speight was set to start under center for the Bruins, but lasted less than half a game before getting injured. Speight suffered several other injuries throughout the rest of the season, ultimately appearing in just seven games.
Sophomore quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson, who took over for Speight as a true freshman, also battled injuries all season, leading to inconsistency at the position last fall.
But redshirt sophomore defensive back Jay Shaw said the lack of injuries this fall has served to create more stability throughout the team, increasing communication.
“It’s just nice now that we’re in a flow of things compared to last year,” Shaw said. “Last year, if you had questions, you couldn’t really ask anybody because nobody really knew (the system) like that. It was more of, ‘We got to learn this thing together,’ where now, it’s like, ‘I know what I’m doing, he knows what he’s doing, he knows what he’s doing,’ so now we could communicate.”
Kelly has attributed the lack of injuries to football performance coordinator Frank Wintrich, who he said has now had a full year to implement his system of strength and conditioning with the team. Kelly said the last year under Wintrich is making the difference in soft-tissue injuries, such as those related to muscles and ligaments.
“The things that nag you in camp for most people are the soft-tissue injuries,” Kelly said. “Now, if you get a concussion or a broken arm, there’s nothing that strength and conditioning can do about it, but the amount of soft-tissue issues are really down and (Wintrich) has had a year to implement his system in terms of how he’s done that. … We train at a really high level, but our guys were prepared to train at a really high level this year.”
Redshirt freshman defensive back Elisha Guidry said the focus on the recovery aspect of training has made a positive difference in his preparation for the upcoming season.
“It took time to adjust, but once we got into it, it helped me grow a lot, it helped me grow physically, helped me get a lot more body control,” Guidry said. “They do a lot of stuff with recovery, with just the different stretching, … the food we eat, it’s different and helps us recover, so it’s just done a lot. Especially in the education, so now we know our bodies hurt, and we know how to get them back.”
Though Kelly said the overall number of preseason injuries has gone down, there have still been some big players sidelined, including redshirt senior running back Joshua Kelley — who suffered a knee injury at the beginning of the month. While Kelley has made progress in previous weeks and has rejoined the rest of the team for some drills, his status is still unknown for the UCLA’s first game against Cincinnati.
Kelley was the primary running back last season, recording six 100-yard rushing games and finishing the season season ranked eighth in the NCAA in rushing yards per game with 113.
In addition, redshirt freshman offensive tackle Alec Anderson and redshirt senior linebacker Tyree Thompson both underwent surgery in the last few weeks for injuries – Anderson for his knee, and Thompson for his foot. Both have undetermined return timetables.
Junior defensive back Darnay Holmes has also donned a yellow jersey as a result of an undisclosed injury that he apparently suffered recently. Holmes was the only Bruin to be named to the preseason All-Pac-12 team, and is expected to spend time both at cornerback and as a kick returner in 2019.