By Mary Cunningham
Last Thursday a presser took place on the Westwood campus of UCLA, under the warm California sun, that Eagles fans got used to for almost three seasons:
Chip Kelly sparring with the media.
It was only about four minutes, but it will serve for now as a predictor of what’s to come.
There was Kelly, the former Eagles and Niners coach (he was fired by both) and Oregon genius, back on a college field but in UCLA’s timeless blue and gold, not Oregon’s neon-flashed green and yellow. The outfit of gym shorts, a pullover and a visor rang a bell, though.
Asked if he saw the picture on Twitter of UCLA offensive linemen eating at a nearby Cheesecake Factory, Kelly replied:
Our linemen were at the Cheesecake Factory?
His practices still move at a quick tempo, if not yet quite to Kelly’s preferred pace. Drill, whistle, drill, whistle, water break. Players hop through a circuit, scooping up fumbles and shedding blocks on defense and working on proper ball handling and a two-minute drill on offense.
If there’s any less secrecy surrounding Kelly’s program than in the past – Oregon was famous, or maybe infamous, for the clamps it put on the Ducks’ mode of operation – it’s probably due to the deck of an adjacent parking lot overlooking the university’s Spaulding Field, which allows anyone in town to come by and watch practice in its entirety.
“We’re still really, really early in the process. Let’s just evaluate everything,” Kelly said, according to USA Today. “Everybody is just trying to learn what we do and how we play, and we’ll figure that all out when we get ready for our opener. Whether you’re in the NFL or in college, they all want to be great. So they’re all trying to work as hard as they can and be the best versions of themselves.”
Kelly’s impact on the college game cannot be overstated. He was a mammoth change agent for the sport, legitimizing a breakneck offensive style and pace that influenced the way offenses and programs are run on all levels of competition – even in the NFL, though Kelly’s overall record might suggest otherwise. In some shape or form, Kelly’s model is imitated at every program in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
Now he’s back, and it’s anyone’s educated guess how this tenure at UCLA will go. Kelly’s track record as a college coach is nearly unimpeachable – when it comes to wins and losses, at least. Oregon reached the equivalent of a New Year’s Six bowl in each of his four seasons, including a narrow loss to Auburn in the 2011 BCS national championship game. He’s is everything his successor, Jim Mora, was not: a proven winner on the college ranks with a proven design for building a powerhouse.
This year’s team, like its new head coach, is a bit of an enigma. But being unpredictable is better than the alternative. For all the annual hype, UCLA has been stale for decades. Not anymore.
But the game itself has adapted. His approach is no longer the outlier but, by and large, the standard. His offense may be different than it was, though that won’t be known until September. One branch of his coaching tree, first-year Nebraska head coach Scott Frost, has imbued Kelly’s offense with a Midwestern feel.
On a bigger scale, Kelly’s tenure at UCLA may end up the case study to a question: Can what worked five years ago still work today, or do styles on offense and otherwise need to be tweaked, retooled, even reinvented?
“At first it was difficult, because of the new stuff coming in,” said junior defensive lineman Keisean Lucier-South. “But now we’re getting used to it. It’s been good for us. We’re more disciplined. We’re more as a team, more family.”
Pace and tempo are the buzzwords. Major change is underway. Maybe the defensive scheme isn’t too different than what was in place; Lucier-South’s role on the edge still holds the same responsibilities, for example. But the offense is being torn apart and remade. One day they Bruins worked on a triple-option setup. Another day it was the outside zone. The route tree has changed. Signals, speed, personnel, formation, mentality – all new.
Kelly’s practices at Oregon were groundbreaking in their speed and rhythm, even in the use of eardrum-shattering music to break up the monotony and to train players to adapt under adverse conditions. UCLA isn’t at that level at this point, nor even close to matching the rhythm of Kelly’s elite Oregon teams. That’s not unexpected.
“It took a lot to adjust to the tempo. The pace that we’re going is a lot faster than last year,” said sophomore tight end Jordan Wilson. “Every practice is a new objective. We’re focusing on a different concept each practice and it’s a challenge. But I think we’re doing a good job.”
Players at UCLA were fully aware of Kelly’s reputation when he was hired late last November. They knew what he achieved at Oregon, even if some were still in middle school when that tenure ended, and had some idea of what to expect with the start of winter conditioning. And there have been no real surprises thus far – Kelly has been as advertised, if on an even greater scale than players could’ve imagined.
“Coach Kelly wants it a certain way,” Wilson said. “Of course, we’re going to do it that way.”