Un-Connon Opinions: UCLA football’s disappointing results could be the end for Chip Kelly
UCLA football coach Chip Kelly is 10-21 in his time in Westwood and has yet to achieve a winning season with the Bruins. Kelly is also 0-6 in nonconference play with UCLA but returns the second most production out of any team in the country heading into the 2021 season. (Andy Bao/Daily Bruin)
By Sam Connon
Feb. 5, 2021 1:38 p.m.
Chip Kelly’s first three seasons in Westwood have been full of excuses.
Those excuses have been justifiable, but they are still excuses nonetheless.
The team wasn’t built of Kelly’s hand-picked recruits, the Pac-12 had evolved in his six-year absence since he coached up in Eugene, disgruntled players transferred out of the program in droves, injuries to key players disrupted position groups and a pandemic cost him a layup nonconference slate, among other things.
But come next season, the well of excuses will have run dry.
Kelly will finally have his ducks in a row, as UCLA football is returning the second-largest share of its 2020 production in the country, according to ESPN’s Bill Connelly. Losing running back Demetric Felton and defensive lineman Osa Odighizuwa to the NFL will certainly sting, but other departures such as pass-catchers Evidence and Charles Njoku, linebacker Leni Toailoa and defensive backs Elijah Gates and Rayshad Williams are eased by the fact that many were already injured or riding the bench this past season.
New COVID-19 policies also allow productive graduate transfers like safety Qwuantrezz Knight, cornerback Obi Eboh, offensive lineman Paul Grattan and running back Brittain Brown to return for an extra year of eligibility they wouldn’t otherwise have, rewarding Kelly for building a transfer-heavy team last season.
Rising senior quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson will be back for his third-straight year as the full-time starter with virtually the same receiving corps and offensive line that helped him post career numbers last fall. Overall, the offense returns the third most production out of any unit in the country, and none of the projected starters will be holdovers from the Jim Mora era.
Only four players on the 2021 roster will have played a snap under Mora, meaning this experienced, veteran team is Kelly’s through and through. No more behind-the-scenes complaining about players not fitting Kelly’s system – this is his roster and if it doesn’t fit, that’s on him.
In addition to the top-tier returning talent, Kelly also managed to haul in the nation’s 30th best recruiting class for the upcoming campaign. That’s his best since he got to UCLA, and it doesn’t even include the four Power Five transfers he was able to poach either.
The Bruins’ 2021 class has been a long time in the making, addressing needs of offensive line depth, edge rushers and constant running back turnover. To Kelly’s credit, he was very precise and purposeful in targeting this group of incoming freshmen and transfers, and the expectation is they will fit his system as well.
That system has failed UCLA over the past three seasons under Kelly, as he has yet to put together a winning season and sits at 10-21 since arriving in Westwood. That’s a far cry from his 46-7 record at Oregon, but if Kelly expected the Pac-12 to be a cakewalk immediately upon his return, he was clearly sorely mistaken.
The lack of success relative to conference foes USC, Stanford and Oregon in recent years isn’t the only arena in which Kelly has struggled. He’s also 0-6 in nonconference play. An upcoming matchup against LSU will make it difficult to flip that into a 3-0 nonconference record in 2021, but he still gets the benefit of facing two Group of Five opponents in that stretch as well.
UCLA should be a conference power or at least a respectable program in West Coast circles. If Kelly falls to 1-5 or 0-6 against Group of Five teams, he simply isn’t bringing the Bruins to where they need to be.
And if the solid influx of freshmen, a familiar veteran core and two inferior nonconference opponents aren’t enough for Kelly, that’s when new Athletics Director Martin Jarmond needs to step in.
Jarmond is no stranger to firing coaches, even if he hasn’t had to do so at UCLA since arriving last summer. Steve Addazio was Boston College’s football coach for seven years, the last three of which came under Jarmond, and he only finished under .500 once in that span.
An inability to win bowls or surpass seven wins forced Jarmond’s hand, however, and he booted Addazio in favor of former Ohio State co-defensive coordinator Jeff Hafley in 2019.
The buyout clause in Kelly’s contract disappears in January 2022, essentially making 2021 a contract year for Kelly. The bar should be set relatively high too since Jarmond has a history of not tolerating mediocrity.
Following a year of almosts for the Bruins, Kelly doesn’t have a lot of good faith left around him.
UCLA almost upset Oregon on the road, it almost held onto late leads versus rivals USC and Stanford, it almost got a full season out of Thompson-Robinson, and it almost made positive strives on defense.
In 2021, almost won’t cut it – Jarmond needs to give Kelly the ax if he isn’t able to crack eight wins with everything finally working in his favor.
It’s do or die for Kelly, whether he likes it or not.