UCLA has its second bye week of the season, and when asked what the focus of the extra practice time would be, head coach Chip Kelly put it succinctly. “Everything,” is what he said the team needed to work on this week.
The Bruins have won three in a row and at 4-2 in Pac 12 play (4-5 overall), they are tied for second in the South Division with USC. Sitting one game ahead of them is Utah. Sitting in their forward-looking telescope is also Utah next Saturday in Salt Lake City. The players had some time off to absorb the game film from last week’s win over Colorado and preview some of what they will see from the Utah Utes.
The coaching staff is looking more, “in the micro,” as Kelly likes to say. With the team not being in full pads Wednesday, it was about working on the things that need improvement. In fact, Kelly said they do not refer to this as a bye week. “We always talk about it not as a bye week, but an improvement week. How do we get better? We’ve got so many different things we have to get better at, and that is what we will emphasize for offense, defense, and special teams.”
To be specific about the “everything” that they need to work on, Kelly listed, “fundamentals, hand placement on blocks, ability to bend and sustain blocks, catching the football, holding on to the ball.” The list makes it sound like the offensive line is going to be very busy this week. In terms of ball security, the Bruins had zero fumbles lost in the Stanford and Colorado games, but did lose three in the Arizona State win two weeks ago. And as for catching the football, the first three incompletions for quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson against Colorado were actually well-thrown passes that were dropped by the receivers.
The defensive side needs its share of attention as well. “On the defensive side of the ball it always starts with tackling. Getting off of blocks; once we’ve engaged with the offensive player, making sure we see our second key and then get off the block and run to the football.”
Clearly, while UCLA is feeling good about its current run of success, “everything” is an appropriate topic to cover with the off-week workouts. Kelly did have some positives to take away from their third consecutive win. “I thought Dorian played really well. He was 21 of 28 with three legit drops. He kept drives alive with his legs. I think the unique thing about Dorian is it seems like every game we play he continues to get better. We had balance in terms of running and throwing the football. I thought on defense our guys did a really nice job.”
The balance between rushing and throwing was one of perception not borne out by the stats. UCLA ran the ball 46 times and threw it 28 times. But Kelly will tell you that operating in the micro means doing so even within the game itself. It means you go with what is working at the time.
Tight end Devin Asiasi says the diversity in the offensive weapons is starting to show itself. “I think everybody is getting more comfortable and used to the system now. Everybody is finding their groove. We’ve got the run game going and that opens it up for the pass game.” Asiasi had four receptions for 45 yards and a touchdown last weekend. In the win over Colorado, Thompson-Robinson’s 21 completions were spread around to eight different receivers. “I just see everyone getting comfortable, getting used to their roles and making plays when the opportunity presents itself.”
One of those who could find more opportunities is receiver Ethan Fernea. The former walk-on caught his first touchdown pass last Saturday, a 45-yard throw from Thompson-Robinson. The quarterback claimed in social media that he was so excited for Fernea that he lost his gum while cheering. For Fernea, it could be said that catch was everything. “It was absolutely surreal. I’ve been working and dreaming for that moment ever since I got here. I couldn’t believe it. Still can’t believe it. Honestly the celebration was more tiring than the play itself because everyone just swarmed me.” It was not hard to see who was the most excited for Fernea; his quarterback. “Yeah, I saw him running downfield like a crazy man,” Fernea said of Thompson-Robinson.
So back to the idea of spreading the wealth around on the offense…can Fernea now be a regular contributor? He says he hopes he is a viable option going forward. “I hope that stays like it has been. I’m just trying to do whatever I can to help us win games.” He echoed Asiasi’s thoughts that the offense is blending better now than at any point of the season. “I think we are all starting to mesh well as an offense. I think we have found our rhythm. Everyone’s getting real comfortable, and guys are stepping up when they are called upon.”
No matter how many times they get asked to look ahead to next week, the players know better. They know the mantra of their head coach. Both Asiasi and Fernea said all they are doing is looking to the practices this week to get better. To Chip Kelly, that is everything.