UCLA football: Way-too-early look at the 2022 Bruins
Last month UCLA announced that it had signed head coach Chip Kelly to a new four-year contract extension, a deal that would keep him in Westwood through the 2025 season.
It came after more than a month of back-and-forth negotiation between UCLA and Kelly’s representation as the coach neared the final year of his contract. In one of the more interesting subplots to the saga: UCLA announced Kelly’s deal mere days before the buyout stipulated in his contract would have been erased and the Bruins would have been able to seek out a new coach.
In four seasons with the program, Kelly is just 18-25. He has but one winning season, his most recent. He has struggled to generate a kind of buzz around the program that could consistently fill up the Rose Bowl. To this point, he has failed to put a defense on the field that could compliment what has been a pretty potent offense.
But UCLA is tied to him now, and Kelly to UCLA. This is a bet on momentum.
The coach reportedly rebuked Oregon interest this offseason. He’s set to hire a new defensive coordinator after Jerry Azzinaro, a staple on Kelly’s coaching staffs over the years, stepped down last month, according to the Los Angeles Times. He hit the transfer portal hard once again in search of immediate helpers. He was able to get both his star quarterback and running back to return for next year.
Kelly and the Bruins are all-in on 2022.
There are certainly reasons to be wary of the Bruins, but there are also some signs of optimism moving forward.
UCLA went 8-4 last season, with three straight wins over Colorado, USC, and Cal to close out the season. It’s not necessarily who the Bruins played in those final three weeks—all three finished with a losing record, though it’s always good to beat USC—it’s how they played them.
During that three-game run to close the year, UCLA averaged 7.6 yards a play, rang up 1,557 yards of total offense and 148 total points (0.718 points per play, the Power Five average last season was 0.423), and went 19-for-32 on third downs.
The Bruins outscored opponents in the second half 93-16, Dorian Thompson-Robinson went for 1,016 total yards (9.3 a play) and 10 touchdowns while completing 70% of his passes, and Zach Charbonnet ran for 340 yards (5.1 a carry) and five touchdowns.
At his best, Kelly has been a diverse, run-focused play-caller. When UCLA got cooking, it looked beautiful.
“This new contract represents the commitment, stability, and investment needed to continue the upward trajectory of our football program,” UCLA athletic director Martin Jarmond said of Kelly’s extension in a statement. “Since joining UCLA, our football team’s winning percentage has increased every year, including increased momentum in recruiting and strategic use of the transfer portal.”
Targeted words. UCLA wants results in 2022.
What worked in 2021
Thompson-Robinson was excellent once he had a strong backfield with him.
After posting total QBRs in the 40s and 50s in 2018 and 2019, he jumped into the high 70s both in 2020 and in 2021, ranking as the 13th-best qualified quarterback nationally in each of the last two years.
UCLA’s offense under Kelly offers a true buffet-style rushing attack—with mixed-bag blocking schemes, a good balance of inside and outside running, and a bevy of formational looks. All the window-dressings with some core concepts done up in new ways; classic Kelly. The backfield duo of Charbonnet and Brittain Brown, combined with the read-option and QB keeper elements Thompson-Robinson provides, powered one of the 10 strongest rushing attacks in the country.
UCLA had the seventh-most successful ground game in the country, according to cfb-graphs.com, as Charbonnet ran for 1,137 yards and 13 scores while Brown put up 615 (at 6 yards per carry) and seven scores. The two complemented each other nicely. Charbonnet forced more missed tackles than anyone in the Pac-12 and tied with Travis Dye for the league lead in 20-yard pickups. Brown was a brute.
As a byproduct, Thompson-Robinson looked downfield on nearly a fifth of his pass attempts. Using PFF’s tracking data, DTR took 20-yard shots on 18% of his pass attempts in 2021 after doing so on only 11% of his passes in 2020 and 10% of his attempts in 2019.
The completion rate was low (receivers were credited with five drops of on-target passes) but the clear and obvious intent to push the ball downfield was nice. Thompson-Robinson threw the fewest screens of any qualified passer in the conference, much more likely to go play-action and scan downfield.
As you can expect, UCLA had one of the best explosive play rates among Power Five teams last season.
What didn’t work in 2021
With the arrival of former Navy coach Brian Norwood as the team’s new defensive backs coach and passing game coordinator ahead of the 2020 season, UCLA’s defense got some tweaking. Azzinaro and Norwood worked in tandem with a 4-2-5-like scheme that looked more like a hybrid 4-3/3-4 than not and the group started attacking the football.
With a “Raider” outside ‘backer to the boundary and a “Striker” nickel back to the field, UCLA used unconventional pressure packages to try and get after opposing quarterbacks. The Bruins brought pressure often. As the year went on and offensive coordinators had more tape to scout, the Bruins’ effectiveness dissipated.
In 2021, it was nonexistent. There are players with potential to fill the role, but no one on UCLA’s defense last season stepped up as an elite individual pass-rusher. Without that one guy who can win one-on-ones, command doubles, and make base pass-rush concepts effective, things get hairy. UCLA, despite an attacking mindset, couldn’t generate splash plays as a defense often enough.
UCLA ranked 79th nationally in havoc rate (tackles for loss, fumbles forced, passes defended). They ranked 92nd in stuff rate (runs stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage) and 100th in sack rate. On passing downs, they brought pressure but had one of the nine worst posted sack rates in football.
They graded out 97th nationally as a pass-rushing unit by PFF. Mitchell Agude generated the fourth-most pressures among Pac-12 front-seven players, but no one else from the Bruin defense was in the top-25 and Agude was more boom or bust than consistent contributor throughout the year.
What’s coming back
On defense, UCLA returns five of its top 10 tacklers from last season, though each of the top three guys are gone.
Agude is back on the edge, as are Bo Calvert (38 tackles) and Caleb Johnson (45 tackles) at linebacker. In the middle of the defense, the Bruins added Hawaii transfer and former All-Mountain West linebacker Darius Muasau, who should be an immediate plug-and-play kind of playmaker. The Striker spot will need someone new to man it in 2022 with Qwuantrezz Knight departing for the NFL. Wyoming transfer Azizi Hearn should be able to step into a regular role in the secondary as the Bruins will need to replace both starting corners from last year’s squad and one safety.
The guys who make the engine go on offense come back in Thompson-Robinson and Charbonnet, but there will need to be significant retooling around them. The Bruins return just 28% of last season’s offensive line snaps and 39% of their overall receiving yardage. The top three pass-catchers—tight end Greg Dulcich (NFL), wideouts Kyle Philips (NFL) and Chase Cota (transfer)—are all gone. Brown also needs replacing in the backfield.
To that end, the Bruins added transfer wideouts Jake Bobo (a strong favorite to start right away) and Titus Mokiao-Atimalala from the portal. They also signed 4-star tight end Jack Pedersen and 4-star wideout Jadyn Marshall in the 2022 class. Kam Brown (17 receptions, 247 yards) and Kazmeir Allen (17 receptions, 255 yards) both return out wide as well with a chance to step into larger roles.
The biggest piece to watch moving forward is what happens on the offensive line. The Bruins experimented with three different centers last season, so they’ll need to settle on the spot there and also find replacements at both starting tackle spots.
What’s on the schedule
- vs. Bowling Green (Sept. 3)
- vs. Alabama State (Sept. 10)
- vs. South Alabama (Sept. 17)
- at Colorado (Sept. 24)
- vs. Washington (Oct. 1)
- vs. Utah (Oct. 8)
- at Oregon (Oct. 22)
- vs. Stanford (Oct. 29)
- at Arizona State (Nov. 5)
- vs. Arizona (Nov. 12)
- vs. USC (Nov. 19)
- at Cal (Nov. 25)
An eight-game home slate for UCLA in 2022 is quite the runway. And to get five of them in the first six weeks of the season is even better. The Bruins will open the season with a murderous stretch of non-conference opponents—Bowling Green (153rd in Sagarin for 2021), Alabama State (239th), and South Alabama (134th)—before facing Colorado and Washington.
If the Bruins aren’t 5-0 with several fourth quarters of rest for the first-teamers heading into the Utah game, something has gone horribly wrong.
From there, the Bruins get Utah, Oregon, and Arizona State in three of their next four games. That’ll provide some clarity atop the Pac-12 South.
The preview series so far has hit:
The schedule going forward:
- Oregon State (Wednesday, March 2)
- Cal (Sunday, March 6)
- Arizona (Wednesday, March 9)
- Colorado (Sunday, March 13)
- Washington (Wednesday, March 16)
- Stanford (Sunday, March 20)