UCLA takes calculated risk with Chip Kelly extension, but one worth taking
There is plenty of risk involved in extending a head coach who is 18-25 during his first four seasons at the helm. There are frankly enough data points to suggest it doesn’t work.
No one in UCLA history has had a worse start to a tenure that went at least four seasons than Chip Kelly, and on Friday the Bruins came to an agreement to extend Kelly’s original five-year contract—which was set to expire at the end of the 2022 football season—through the end of the 2025 season.
The reported price tag: $4.7 million per year. Kelly stays among the Pac-12’s richest coaches, but with a juicy caveat—the man who surely would have had other suitors had an agreement not been reached gave up money to stay in Westwood.
What’s more, Kelly has reportedly parted ways with longtime assistant Jerry Azzinaro, the Bruins’ defensive coordinator all four seasons under Kelly. The two had been together since 2009. Azzinaro followed Kelly from Oregon to the NFL and then back to the college game. But UCLA was fighting an uphill battle with the defense Azzinaro deployed.
In PFF’s gradebook, the Bruins had the 97th-ranked pass rush for the 2021 season. That’s out of 130 FBS programs. They graded out as the 50th-best (worst…?) pass-rushing team among the Power Five ranks and the third-worst in the Pac-12.
UCLA ranked 79th nationally in havoc rate (tackles for loss, fumbles forced, passes defended). The secondary was a touch above the national average when it came to creating havoc plays, but the front seven was nearly 1.5 percentage points below it.
In 2018, the Bruins posted 15 sacks in 12 games, one of the worst outputs in the country. In 2019, the number climbed to 26 in 12 games, but it was still among the bottom half of FBS teams. It was the same in 2021. The Bruins had nearly as many in seven games during the COVID-shortened 2020 season (23) as in the full seasons sandwiching it.
All of which is to say the defense did Kelly’s offense no favors.
Now, this UCLA offense isn’t the dialed-up pace-and-space blur that Oregon’s was when Kelly was making a name for himself. The last three Ducks squads he coached averaged 77 plays a game; this year’s Bruin team averaged just over 70. But it’s still a system that’s going to look more Oregon flash than, say, 2021 Georgia muscle.
UCLA has given up 34.1, 34.8, 30.7, and 26.7 points a game in four seasons under Kelly and Azzinaro. When you consistently struggle to create havoc plays as a defense (79th in 2020, 110th in 2019, 116th in 2018), consistently struggle to get to the quarterback, and give up points on too frequent a basis as a result, you bake in plenty of pressure on your offense even if you’re not playing from behind. There’s an element of “we have to keep scoring or else.”
But with Azzinaro exiting the picture and new assistant coaches taking over the outside linebacker and defensive line rooms, there’s reason enough to believe change is coming for the Bruin defense.
Which leads back to Kelly’s extension.
If you can talk yourself into new ideas bringing new life for the defense, it’s not too hard to get behind another few years of Kelly’s offense.
Surprise, surprise, the man can still whip up strong offensive play. The scheme is still steps ahead of defenses. Kelly has evolved, but he still has the misdirection elements intact that made his Oregon teams so strong. And he has a star backfield that led the Bruins to an 8-4 record in 2021 returning for 2022.
Quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson and tailback Zach Charbonnet are coming back. It’s hard to underscore just how big it is to get them both back. One without the other is nice, but together they’re deadly. Thompson-Robinson flourished with a strong ground game complementing him. Breaking in a new quarterback would carry with it an adjustment period.
Even from the most basic, purely self-serving standpoint, if both NFL hopefuls feel another year in Kelly’s system can help their draft stock, that would seem like an endorsement of what he’s preaching. Though Dillon Gabriel flipped to Oklahoma, that he was enticed by Kelly’s program to commit at one point is another. That Caleb Williams, the best player to enter into the transfer portal this cycle, has even entertained the idea of UCLA is another.
Thompson-Robinson has developed nicely after a rocky start to his career. Kelly plucked Charbonnet from the transfer portal last offseason and it paid immediate dividends. The duo combined to produce 43 of the Bruins’ 54 offensive touchdowns in 2021.
Replacing pass-catchers like Kyle Philips and Greg Dulcich and figuring out a new offensive line configuration will certainly be priorities of the offseason, but a starting base of Kelly, Thompson-Robinson, and Charbonnet with some system familiarity in a season that figures to feature plenty of growing pains for teams around the league is a good place to find yourself in.
Until Williams publicly declares for USC—that’s the much-anticipated destination for him, though no announcement has been made as of publication—one could make the argument UCLA is the biggest threat to Utah. The backfield combo with Kelly at the controls was that good down the stretch this past season.
Based on point differential, UCLA’s eight-win season was legit. And over the last three games, UCLA looked like classic Kelly. The offense averaged 7.6 yards per play and roughly six points per possession, Thompson-Robinson averaged 339 yards of total offense and produced 10 total touchdowns to three turnovers, and Charbonnet ran for 340 yards. They posted an explosive play rate of 23.3%, a remarkable number.
“We are excited to continue to build this program into something that makes the UCLA fanbase proud,” Kelly said in a statement after his extension was announced.
And athletic director Martin Jarmond added that the contractual commitment was symbolic of the commitment the department intends to make in the football program as a whole moving forward. Anymore, coaches can get money anywhere, it’s the commitment of resources to making a program successful that sway negotiations.
UCLA didn’t need to tie itself to Kelly. The buyout was going to disappear this weekend and either side could have walked away clean and free. The Bruins could have made the decision to ride out Kelly’s last year and see what happened. Instead, it gave Kelly exactly what every coach wants: commitment.
“This new contract represents the commitment, stability and investment needed to continue the upward trajectory of our football program,” Jarmond said.
It’s undeniable that UCLA has momentum going into 2022. With Kelly’s contractual situation now settled, it has stability, too.
Now take a peak at that schedule. Games against four FBS programs that went a combined 17-31 in 2021 and an FCS squad that lost 62-0 to Auburn are on tap for the first five weeks of the season. The Bruins should be 5-0 when they host Utah on Oct. 8. Then there’s a bye week before a trip to Oregon. USC comes to Pasadena.
There’s risk, sure.
There’s always risk with coaching decisions. Only a handful of guys are no-brainers. More often than not, it’s just an educated crapshoot. And I’m never one to play the “well, who else are they going to get” card; there are good coaches all over who just need a chance.
But a chance for Kelly to build on 2021 is, all things considered, a risk worth taking for UCLA.