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Arizona football opponent preview: UCLA

Conference play opens with a visit from the Bruins

arizona-wildcats-football-opponent-preview-ucla-bruins-2019-chip-kelly Photo by Scott Varley/Digital First Media/Torrance Daily Breeze via Getty Images

Arizona opens Pac-12 Conference play at home against the UCLA Bruins on Sept. 28. The Wildcats will be fresh off their second bye week—having also sit out Labor Day weekend following a Week Zero game in Hawaii—and hopefully sitting pretty at 3-0.

Here’s a preview of the Bruins:


Chip Kelly’s return to college football was a massive disappointment. I don’t think anyone was necessarily expecting immediate division or conference contention but at least the shot at a bowl game seemed doable.

In fairness, there was a lot of roster turnover from the Jim Mora regime. Moreover, Kelly’s offensive scheme is vastly different than the pro-style sets that the inherited roster was constructed to run.

Year two should be an improvement for a couple reasons, with the biggest being it’s difficult to imagine anything worse than winning three games. The next reason is even more obvious than the first: year two of a system is always smoother than year one. Especially when the head coach has his quarterback running the offense.

It should also be noted that offensive line coach Justin Frye has been promoted to offensive coordinator. Kelly will not be officially calling the plays in 2019 but it’ll be interesting to see how different the offense looks.

The rundown

  • Returning Production Rank: 34th (61% offensive, 81% defensive, 71% total)
  • 2018 Record: 3-9
  • Head Coach: Chip Kelly (3-9, second season)

The stats

The following metrics are courtesy of Bill Connelly of Football Outsiders. You can read more about the rankings and theory behind them here.

  • 2018 S&P+ Overall: 76th
  • 2018 S&P+ Offense: 50th
  • 2018 S&P+ Defense: 97th
  • 2019 S&P+ Projection: 63th
  • 2019 Projected Record: 5-7

2018 recap

Las Vegas had the Bruins’ 2018 win total right at six so they weren’t expected to great but they finished with only half of that. A 3-9 finish to year one of the Chip Kelly era is not what any UCLA fan nor probably most of the country expected.

A five-game losing streak to begin the season just about sealed the Bruins’ postseason fate. However, you could feel the tide begin to turn in Week 6 as they had Washington on upset alert but ultimately lost 31-24. From there, they finished season 3-4 with some impressive moments.

UCLA won back-to-back conference games at Cal (37-7) and against Arizona (31-30), then got slaughtered by Utah (41-10) and Oregon (42-21). They it became competitive again, with a close loss to ASU (31-28) on the road, a victory against cross-town rival USC (34-27) and another one-score loss in a shootout against Stanford (49-42).

Offensive outlook

Quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson (DTR) and running back Josh Kelley both showed promising upside during their first season with the program. If you are a UCLA fan, this should keep you hopeful for the new season.

DTR was the No. 2 dual-threat Quarterback coming out of high school. Many expected this to be a lethal combination with Kelly given his track record of success with mobile quarterbacks. Sure, UCLA’s collective performance was an underachievement but DTR showed serious upside with his accuracy and decision making.

His backfield counterpart, Kelley, is coming off a season where he rushed for 1,243 yards and 12 touchdowns with an average of 5.5 yards per attempt. In fact, the UC-Davis transfer ranked in the top-10 from single-season performances in school history with that rushing total. He also rushed for at least 90 yards in seven of the 11 games he played.

These two are big reasons for optimism this season. But the receiving corp may offer a bit more uncertainty. The Bruins were a run-heavy team and didn’t have a ton of production from their receivers.

Leading receiver Caleb Wilson will be playing on Sundays this season. This leaves opportunity for Theo Howard, Demetric Felton and Chase Cota who combined for about 37 percent of the receiving yards in 2018. Howard was responsible for most of that production but Felton and Cota flashed promise as underclassmen.

The offensive line is in tremendous shape as it returns four of five starters from 2018. The only real question within this group is who will start as left tackle. Boss Tagaloa, Christaphany Murray, Michael Alves and Jake Burton will secure the other positions.

Arizona fans may remember Burton and for good reason. He was a former defensive end commit for the Wildcats but flipped to UCLA late in the recruiting cycle. His conversion to the Bruins’ starting right tackle speaks volumes to his talent.

Defensive outlook

The Bruins have been known for their linebackers over the past several seasons. Names like Kenny Young, Jayon Brown, Myles Jack, Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr probably sound familiar if you’re an NFL fan. They are all products of UCLA.

The next crop of linebackers who will most certainly make a splash in the NFL are seniors Keisean Lucier-South and Krys Barnes. They both started every game in 2018 and combined for 131 total tackles and 21.5 tackles for loss.

These two make for a great anchor on an otherwise young front seven. Key pieces upfront are defensive end Osa Odighizuwa and defensive tackle Atonio Mafi. Also keep an eye on defensive end Odua Isibor who played in all 12 games and saw a sizable uptick in playing time as the season progressed. Time will tell if he’ll become the next Justin Hickman.

The bad news for the secondary is it will need to replace a key piece at safety in Adarius Pickett. The good news is UCLA returna cornerback Darnay Holmes who is could easily find himself with post-season All-American honors if he stays healthy and UCLA can bounce back to at least .500 in terms of winning percentage.

3 players to watch

Dorian Thompson-Robinson, QB

In 2018, as a true freshman, he seized the starting job after one game. It appears the gig is his to lose but expect him to continue to improve in his second year in the system.

Joshua Kelley, RB

Kelley enters his senior season with tremendous momentum after his first season in the FBS. Similar to Thompson-Robinson, it’s to expect continued improvement during year two with Kelly.

Darnay Holmes, CB

The junior cornerback is the full package. Holmes is an excellent tackler, fantastic in pass coverage and is also effective on kick returns. He enters the season with six career interceptions and 20 pass breakups.