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Duck Dive: UCLA Football 2020 Preview

SB Nation logo SB Nation 8/4/2020 hythloday1
a group of baseball players standing on top of a field © John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

Special thanks to David Woods of the Podcast of Champions for helping make sense of the UCLA roster on the Quack 12 Podcast. You can check out the episode HERE!

UCLA went 3-9 and 4-8 in the first two seasons under head coach Kelly, with a conference record of 7-11. I don’t see enough changes coming for this team to predict a significantly better outcome in year three, and much of what is changing portends the worse. The best thing the Bruins had going for them in terms of their win-loss record was missing both Oregon and Washington from the North in the 2019-20 cycle, but half of that just went away with the new 10-game conference schedule as they now have a road trip to Montlake.

a group of football players playing a football game © Photo by Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images

Offense

UCLA’s offense finished #71 in SP+ last year, and #80 or worse in every major raw statistical category. Unlike a lot of teams where I can find a few bright spots or problem areas and use them to tease apart better or worse functioning units, the failures of the Bruins’ offense appear to be systemic.

I’ve charted eight games UCLA played over the last two years under Kelly, and the remarkable thing isn’t that he’s changed offensive identity from his time at Oregon, it’s that the team has no identity whatsoever. Every game has a new playbook, personnel sets, and playcalling tendencies. I recorded about two and a half times more unique plays that UCLA ran in those games compared to the median Pac-12 team that I review. None of those plays are anything I haven’t seen before, they all exist in most college football playbooks, but rather than selecting a subset to focus on, Kelly is running all of them. On the podcast I called it the “kitchen sink” offense.

I was unable to detect a pattern in terms of trying to exploit matchup advantages with that week’s opponent, instead it appeared to be a very long attempt at experimentation and putting new stuff on tape just to be new. I’ve seen some teams run very complex offenses in an NFL mold (until I charted UCLA, Florida St’s very pro-style playcalling system in 2014 held my record for diversity and complexity), and I suspect that’s what’s going on here, just without the actual pro personnel to do it. As David put it on the podcast: “This is potentially a very good offense, but it requires NFL talent at the offensive line and NFL talent at quarterback, and if they get that that’s great, but before that happens this is not going to look very good, and I think that’s being borne out.”

After two years as starter, for me the verdict is in on #1 QB Thompson-Robinson - I think he’s a liability to the offense. His career passer rating of 130.5 is one of the worst among all multi-year starters. Between 16 interceptions and multiple fumbles, he’s personally responsible for more turnovers than almost any other NCAA player over the last two years. And both David and I spotted a pretty high rate of incorrect reads in the read-option run and RPO games which means he’s negatively affecting the rushing offense as well.

I would have thought that bringing in two four-stars, redshirt sophomore #7 QB Yankoff (a transfer from Washington, aka the Seattle Problematic Quarterback Zone) and true freshman Parker McQuarrie from the 2020 class, meant a real competition for the job. But David tells us that Kelly plans to stick with Thompson-Robinson almost no matter what. There’s reasonable depth at the position in terms of putative talent, but neither have thrown a ball in college and from their high school film I don’t know how well either fit into Kelly’s offense. So I’m not sure what will happen if the starter is injured and has to miss time as he has the last two seasons, as the rest of the QBs either transferred out or are walk-ons.

The third systemic flaw to UCLA’s offense is its poor offensive line play: it wasn’t great in 2018, got worse in 2019, and I think it’ll continue to worsen in 2020. The recruiting and roster management in this unit is particularly appalling, and that’s saying something for this program. (David goes further in blaming Kelly here, for not designing a scheme that works despite a malfunctioning line; I tend to believe that’s a unicorn and a bad line dooms your team no matter what offense you employ.) They lose two starters — center Boss Tagaloa and guard Christaphany Murray — but return three more plus three backups.

a group of people playing football on a field © Photo by John Cordes/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The new starting center will likely be #62 OG Clemens, who played left guard last year, with a walk-on #64 C Marrazzo continuing as backup. In 2019, the starting tackles were #74 LT Rhyan and #73 RT Burton, and I believe they’ll keep their jobs in 2020. But both were backed up by a rotational tackle, #70 OT A. Anderson, to keep them fresh, and David thinks Anderson in 2020 will move to guard because, despite not being the right body frame for it, he’s apparently the best option they have (if that can be believed).

Backup #57 OG Gaines returns; like Clemens, Anderson, and Marrazzo he’s far too underweight for the role. That’s not an issue for the other likely starting guard, #56 OL Mafi, who has the opposite problem: he was playing nose tackle for the defense last year at 365 lbs, much of which was clearly bad weight. David was amused at my expressed disbelief on the podcast, but assured us this is really happening.

That’s a seven-man rotation at the o-line; in my opinion all but two (Rhyan and Burton) are simply the wrong bodies for their positions. The rest of the roster are six mid 3-star freshmen who’ve never seen the field, and as such I think this unit is in even more trouble if they take a single injury.

By contrast, I don’t think the skill players are the problem here, or at least, they haven’t been the past two years. Over that time they had very productive players in running back Joshua Kelley, wide receiver Theo Howard, and tight ends Devin Asiasi and Caleb Wilson. Those players are all gone now, and between those departures and what David’s colleague Tracy Pierson called “The Purge” there’s a talented but limited roster from which to choose 2020’s starters.

a group of football players on the field © Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

The most intriguing is #10 RB Felton, whose deployment reminds me of Oregon’s De’Anthony Thomas specifically in 2013, when he was called on to be the primary back despite his stature, and then was used all over the field as a receiver as well. Unlike Thomas’ 6.2 yards per rushing attempt that year, however, Felton averaged just 3.8 YPC in 2019 and had more yards through the air than on the ground.

I have yet to be impressed with backups #19 RB Allen or #6 RB Irby, and I think that transfer Brittain Brown will probably get the starting spot despite missing most of his last year at Duke with an injury. David mentioned a few young players he’s interested in here: speedsters #22 RB K. Jones and #32 RB Grubb, plus bruisers #33 RB McClendon and #39 RB Kinder; I tend to dismiss these for inexperience and because they’re two low 3-stars, a 2-star, and a walk-on … though with Kelly’s peculiar talent evaluation, who knows.

UCLA is probably set in terms of their wideout starters, as they return the top three targets from 2019 in #2 WR Philips, #23 WR Cota, and #15 WR Erwin, and are attempting to get an extra year for their fourth target #36 WR Fernea.

However, David questions the coaches’ ability to field the right players here, and I’m puzzled too: Fernea was a walk-on, and low 3-star Erwin’s productivity massively declined midseason (242 yds the first six games, 97 the last six). Their playing time came at the expense of ostensibly more gifted 4-stars #29 WR Hurt, #21 WR Ezeike, #9 WR Lee, and #20 WR C. Njoku, all of whom rode the bench all year. David tells us that Lee washed out of the program, but that the others looked great in practice.

The Bruins have played fairly extensively out of 11-personnel the last two years, which has made sense given the quality of Asiasi and Wilson before him as true tight ends. What’s made less sense is that they play 12-, 13-, and even 14-personnel far more often than they should, since the rest of their tight ends don’t provide a complete package - being useful as a blocker or a receiver but not both. Returning #88 TE Martinez is the former (David thinks he might just bulk up and become a lineman); walk-on #85 TE Dulcich the latter. They also bring back #83 TE Priebe and got a transfer from Miami in Evidence Njoku (brother of the aforementioned receiver), plus the receiver Ezeike might switch to TE.

David thinks none of these are future NFL players or provide the versatility that led Kelly to use TEs so extensively. That means 2020 is a real crossroads for the position and larger playbook design: will UCLA continue using TE-heavy sets despite seemingly not having the talent for it, or switch to two-back or four-wide sets to exploit the deeper (if unproven) unit rosters at back and wideout? Kelly is as taciturn with the media as he is stubborn with playcalling, so reader: your guess is as good as mine.

a baseball player holding a bat in front of a crowd © Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

Defense

UCLA’s SP+ defensive ranking was #89 in 2019, somehow even worse than its offense overall. But unlike the offense, there’s some up and downs to the Bruins’ stats: while nearly dead last nationally in total, scoring and passing defense, they’re handsomely mediocre in rushing, TFLs, and sacks. I think that reflects an interesting discrepancy: the secondary was god awful, but the defensive front was quite nearly competent for a Power-5 team.

Kelly’s biggest misstep has probably been hiring and retaining DC Azzinaro despite the substantial evidence he’s not qualified to run a Power-5 defense. So I was intrigued when David relayed the story that new DB coach Norwood (brought in from Navy to replace Paul Rhoads, who’s become Arizona’s DC) briefly changed his twitter profile to read “Co-Defensive Coordinator” at UCLA before changing it to “Passing Game Coordinator” … the implication being that in all but name he’s now running the defense or at least getting a big say in it.

That would make sense given some other moves: first, Azzinaro was a pretty good defensive line coach at Oregon, and UCLA has replaced their previous coach of that unit with new DL coach Nansen, who’s mostly known as a recruiter and offensive coach (I’m skeptical of his abilities at both) … so perhaps Azzinaro is actually taking the d-line responsibilities while Nansen recruits and Norwood runs the defense. That would align with the second move, which is that reportedly in the abbreviated Spring camp UCLA had changed its defensive structure to the 4-2-5 system that Norwood was co-DC of in Annapolis.

Mustering a full rotation of defensive linemen in an even front from this roster is a tall order, but there are some decent options here. #92 DT Odighizuwa is probably the Bruins’ best defensive player and created the most havoc plays last year, and UCLA also returns #50 DL Manoa, #91 DL Ogbonnia, and #97 DL Isibor, all of whom can play inside a 4-tech and were pretty decent in my opinion, despite David’s whinging about them on the podcast. I think #44 DL Andrus and Juco #58 DL D. Jackson will round out the rotation, and we’ll probably see some of the OLBs converted to rush ends.

UCLA’s situation at linebacker is perplexing. They lost all their starters from last year, including a couple I thought weren’t half bad in Krys Barnes and Keisean Lucier-South. In the 2020 recruiting cycle they took a bonkers number of linebackers plus several WDEs who are probably best understood as RUSH backers as well.

a group of football players on the field © Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

The starters are likely to be #33 LB Calvert, who missed 11 games last year with an injury, and #26 LB Toailoa, with #35 LB C. Jones and Juco transfer Caleb Johnson as backup. The confounding thing here is that if UCLA is truly moving to a 4-2-5, then about a dozen kids on the roster will be going to waste because of preposterous over-recruitment at the position, including guys who really only make sense in a 3-down front - arguably UCLA’s top two recruits in the 2020 class, Damian Sellers and Jonathan Vaughns, would have to be converted to a 3rd-down pass rush specialist and a backup middle linebacker, respectively. That would squander the closest thing to recruiting victories in Kelly’s tenure, though one doubts LB coach Pellum would have done much with them anyway.

Still, the confusion at linebacker pales in comparison to the absolute bafflement the secondary presents. In my 2018 film study of this unit, which was largely unchanged in personnel and coaching through 2019, I thought there was quite a bit of talent here. But in 2019 this was one of the least effective units I observed in film review and by any statistical measure. On the podcast, David blamed this on “asking them to do too much” and “paralysis by analysis,” an absurd and credulous story that he suffered to utter.

UCLA loses 5-star corner Darnay Holmes (though even he significantly regressed last year), but brings back every other contributor to 2019’s secondary: #4 DB Blaylock, #12 CB Gates, #3 DB R. Williams, #20 DB Guidry, #24 CB Shaw, and #37 DB Lake. There’s a couple of 4-stars and high 3-stars here, though they hardly played like it, and by midseason Gates — one of the highest ranked of them — had lost all field awareness and was unplayable.

The Bruins took a couple of transfers here: Obi Eboh from Stanford (a corner who lost his job due to ineffectiveness in a bad secondary) and Qwuantrezz Knight from Kent State (a STAR hybrid LB who’s about 30 lbs underweight for the role). On the podcast we discussed a couple more backup options: high 3-star freshmen #28 DB S. Martin and John Humphrey, though it’s anyone’s guess if they’re ready to play. There are enough bodies on the roster and Norwood is a competent enough coach that I expect they’ll incrementally improve at the unit, though the underperformance last year was so widespread and mysterious that it’s impossible to say if the malaise has lifted, and some unexpected new faces we haven’t seen before might break in with a new position coach re-evaluating the talent.

a group of baseball players standing on top of a field © Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

Accountability Corner

In last summer’s preview, I predicted a short window in which a much easier schedule and some development of young players would result in a better record before bad roster management slammed it shut. That sort of happened as the Bruins were one win better in 2019, but at that point I still had faith in Kelly to run an offense effectively, and that window seems decisively closed now.

I think some of my personnel predictions for the offense were borne out well - I was skeptical that the QB would outgrow his freshman misadventures, I nailed four of the five OL starters and what their effectiveness would be, and correctly predicted that Kelly wouldn’t be able to use his old perimeter run game because the wideouts were indifferent blockers. But there are some clunkers here too - I was dubious about their new starting TE and he played well, and I endorsed their backup RBs and they didn’t. Predicting skill players based on their limited backup minutes is usually fraught, I think I just got bit this time.

On defense, I noted that this squad had an awful performance across the board in 2018, were coached by a cozy crew of incompetents, and would probably get worse in 2019 … this all came to pass, of course, and I could just leave it there. I should note that I was pretty positive about the secondary and they regressed badly in 2019, but it seems I was far from the only observer to be surprised by that.

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