'Kids should have a choice': UCLA's Chip Kelly throws support behind transfer portal
In an age where most every coach you talk to will take some exception with the transfer portal, Chip Kelly is zagging.
“I like it. Kids should have a choice,” the UCLA head coach said plainly on Thursday, via Bruin Report Online. “Be where you want to be.”
Kelly and the Bruins have used it to their benefit during his time in Westwood. Arguably, Kelly has used the portal as a supplemental roster-building tool as well as anyone.
Running back Zach Charbonnet, a Michigan transfer, was a 1,000-yard rusher his first year in Westwood and has some building pub as a darkhorse Heisman Trophy threat next season. Last season’s leading tackler on the defensive side, Qwuantrezz Knight, was a transfer pickup for Kelly prior to the 2020 season.
This offseason, Kelly hit the portal hard again. UCLA had the fifth-best transfer class in the country, per 247Sports. It secured major potential contributors all over the roster. Jake Bobo figures to factor into the passing game as a newcomer at wideout. Darius Muasau (linebacker), Azizi Hearn (corner), and the Murphy brothers, Gabriel and Grayson (edge rushers), should all see plenty of time on the field for the defense.
Recent loosening of transfer restrictions has made roster management an inexact science. Players can leave quickly and for any number of reasons. Don’t like where you sit on the depth chart? Don’t like the style of play of a new coaching staff? Found an NIL deal somewhere else? If you haven’t transferred yet, you can simply inform your team you’re going portaling and let the recruitment process begin all over again.
It has become all too easy to paint outgoing players as entitled or selfish or poor teammates. Meanwhile, incoming transfer players are “the missing piece.” It’s a tricky business, and still relatively new so most everyone in the country is still trying to figure out how to manage things.
Lincoln Riley, USC’s head coach dubbed the “Portal King” by Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin, has asked for guardrails. NCAA higher-ups are frantically looking for solutions to pare down the usage of the portal. More than 1,200 scholarship FBS players went into virtual free agency from August 1 through Jan. 24, according to data released by Rivals.com.
In a bottom-line business, coaches want to retain talent and build depth. But the days of departing juniors and seniors being replaced by developed juniors and seniors who waited through multiple years in a program for their shot on the field seem to be getting more and more distant. Kelly has been hurt by the portal all the same.
This offseason, UCLA lost corner Jay Shaw to Wisconsin and edge rusher Mitchell Agude to Miami. The Bruins had a commitment from UCF quarterback Dillon Gabriel to transfer to Westwood and then saw him back out of that commitment and transfer to Oklahoma instead. In total, 17 players left the program.
Through it all, it seems Kelly is taking a player-first approach.
“Coaches are allowed to move on, players should be allowed to move on,” he said. “I don’t have any issues with the portal.”
He likened a coach’s role in the transfer process to the process he just went through with quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson.
A fourth-year senior with one more year of eligibility because of the NCAA’s COVID waiver, Thompson-Robinson had to weigh returning for a fifth year at UCLA in 2022 or trying to jump to the NFL.
Thompson-Robinson said this past week that Kelly encouraged him to enter the 2022 NFL Draft. Not in a “we don’t want you” way, but rather in a case of coach putting his player’s needs before his own. “He let me know from the beginning that he wants the best for me,” Thompson-Robinson said.
Kelly said his advice was to simply look at the pool of quarterbacks in the 2022 draft and compare it to the 2023 pool. If the goal is to make an NFL roster and land in the right environment, the opportunity this cycle might be a better one than what the 2023 cycle will bring.
“We wanted him back. I wanted him back in the worst way. But I can’t tell him for our selfish reasons we need you back and you shouldn’t go,” Kelly said. “We’re going to share with them all the information we have and from the information we had, he would have been a really draftable guy and had an opportunity to make a team this year.”
Ultimately Thompson-Robinson chose to give it one more go-around with the Bruins. “To have the quarterback—really, the leader—be an experienced guy coming back for Year 5 is really huge for us,” Kelly said. Of course he’s happy to have his quarterback around for one more year.
But Kelly’s job, as he sees it, is to do what’s right by the player. And that applies to the portal as well.
“If a kid’s here for one day or if a kid’s here for four years, your job is the help them,” Kelly said. “And if they come to you and say, ‘I think I want to go in the portal,’ alright, then where would you like me to call to try to help you get somewhere else if you think that’s a better spot for you.
“It’s the same thing we do with Dorian, it’s the same thing we do with kids trying to go to the NFL Draft. We educate them on the benefits of staying, and then they and their families make a decision on what’s the best thing for them. If they make a decision that the best thing is to leave, our next question should be, ‘How can we help you?'”