LOS ANGELES (AP) — Chip Kelly’s painstaking rebuilding job at UCLA paid off last season with an 8-4 record and an invitation to the Holiday Bowl.
The big question is if Kelly can continue to climb into Pac-12 contention.
The Bruins were picked fourth in the conference preseason polls but are still in the shadow of rival Southern California, which is ranked 14th in the preseason and continues to dominate local and regional headlines following the hiring of Lincoln Riley.
Although he’s likely to channel Rodney Dangfield and say “no disrespect,” especially after the Bruins beat the Trojans 62-33 in last year’s crosstown contest, Kelly isn’t trying to hold on to the bragging rights in LA.
“Who runs the city, who doesn’t run the city, I’ll leave that up to the voters, I think,” said Kelly, who has an 18-25 record in four years at Westwood.
If the Bruins are going to compete for the Pac-12 title, they’ll need big seasons from quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson and running back Zach Charbonnet. He was the leader on offense, leading the conference in average points per game (36.5) and second in yards per game (441.3).
Thompson-Robinson surprised many by deciding to return for a fifth season. He accounted for 30 touchdowns last season (21 passing, nine rushing) and dropped turnovers, which plagued his first three years.
Charbonnet led the conference with seven 100-yard rushing games and is second in rushing yards with 1,137.
“I think the biggest thing was that he was able to respond to adversity, and that was a team trait,” forward John Gaines II said. “We didn’t have a great couple of seasons when we first got here, but as long as we’ve been here, he’s always been the face of the franchise. And it’s a perfect example of where we’ve grown over the years.”
Bill McGovern, one of Kelly’s assistants when he coached the Philadelphia Eagles, was hired as defensive coordinator following the resignation of Jerry Azinaro. His most important job is fixing a pass defense that gave up 260.2 yards per game last season, worst in the Pac-12.
Safeties Stephon Blaylock and Kenny Churchwell III bring a solid secondary presence. Transmissions strengthen the front seven. Kelly praised the quick adjustments of defensive lineman Jacob Sykes (Harvard), while cornerbacks Gabriel Murphy and Grayson Murphy (North Texas) provided pressure. The Bruins added linebacker Darius Moussa, who led the Mountain West with seven sacks last season.
Protect your eyes
Wide receiver Jake Bobo, a graduate transfer, should emerge as Thompson-Robinson’s favorite target after tight end Greg Dulcich and wide receiver Kyle Phillips leave for the NFL. Bobo had at least five tackles in nine games for Duke last season and finished with 74 receptions for 794 yards.
Fans are looking forward to the Bruins’ move to the Big Ten in 2024, but Kelly is trying to keep the focus on this year’s team until he hits the recruiting trail.
“When I heard the news that this was going to happen, that was my first question: When? Then when we found out it was two years, I think that put a little bit of a different spin on it,” Kelly said while golfing with Ohio State coach Ryan Day in New Hampshire. “Our sole focus and focus is to make the 2022 season memorable for our players. It’s a unique situation. I’ve never been in it before. But I think the biggest thing is to focus on what we can control.”
For the first time since 1939, the Bruins have eight home games, including the easiest non-conference matchup of any Power Five team – Bowling Green, Alabama State and South Alabama. The Sept. 10 game against Alabama State will mark the first time the Bruins will play a Football Championship Subdivision team, replacing a road game against Michigan.
UCLA will host Pac-12 favorite No. 7 Utah before traveling to No. 11 Oregon two weeks later. The Bruins will host Southern California on Nov. 19.
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