UCLA Defense Actually Got Worse

UCLA Defense Actually Got Worse
CINCINNATI, OH - AUGUST 29: UCLA Defensive Coordinator Jerry Azzinaro during a college football game between the UCLA Bruins and Cincinnati Bearcats on August 29, 2019 at Nippert Stadium in Cincinnati, OH (Photo by James Black/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Starting this week, more than 60 FBS schools are getting ready for post-season play. For the second year in a row, UCLA is not one of them. You can say that at 4-8, and one game better than what they did in 2018, the Bruins improved, but that is really splitting hairs. Look for all the silver linings you want, but it was yet another substandard season.

UCLA is now 7-17 in two seasons of the Chip Kelly era. He was brought in to inject adrenaline into a stagnant program and to sell seats. Neither has happened yet. UCLA finished 4-8 overall and 4-5 in conference play. If there is an upside, there it is. A three-game winning streak a month ago, got them to four conference wins. They averaged only 43,000 per game at the 91,000 seat Rose Bowl. That includes a season-low of 36,951 against San Diego State in week two. The peak was 52,578 when they hosted elite-level Oklahoma.  If you are LSU, Georgia, or Auburn, you have to start to wonder about the value of the home and home series you have on the books. They sold just over 25,000 season seats this year. So much for putting butts in the seats.

UCLA Defense Actually Got Worse

The nadir included home losses to San Diego State and Oregon State. Unimaginable. No one expects this team to be competitive with Oklahoma. The program is not close to that. And that should be of concern considering the teams mentioned above that are on the schedule in future years. But right now, they can’t even handle the Aztecs and Beavers of the world. Yes, we know SDSU had a fine season. Rocky Long is a good coach. But it is a commuter school in North Tijuana that does not recruit at the same level as UCLA. If you are losing to them, and to Oregon State, it is because you are being out-schemed, out-coached, and out-performed.

There is a lot that is misfiring. Too much to include in just one post-season recap. We will start with the obvious.

DEFENSE:

Look at this quarterback stat line:

3,729 passing yards

311 passing yards per game

32 TDS/5 INTs

66% completion rate

Those stats get most quarterbacks invited to New York City for the Heisman presentation. What that is though, is a composite of the quarterbacks from the 12 teams UCLA played against this year. This is what the opposing quarterbacks did to the UCLA defense this season. The Bruins got lit up routinely and for different reasons. A scheme that every week relied on a non-existent pass rush put the players in a lose-lose situation all too often.

There has been talk all season of youth. But this defense is neither young, nor inexperienced. Krys Barnes, Keisean Lucier-South, Josh Woods, Jason Harris, Lokeni Toailoa are all gone next year. The linebacking corps will have to pretty much start over. Darnay Holmes is a three-year starter. Jay Shaw played in all 12 games last year before he even got his snaps this season. Same for Elijah Gates. He even started six of those 12 games last year. Atonio Mafi played in all 12 games in 2018 and started nine of them. Otito Ogbonnia saw action in 12 games last year and started in six. Osa Odighizuwa had 24 games under his belt before this season even started.

Add in their starts and playing time this year and this was not a young unit. And frankly, by week seven of the season, unless you are seeing your first action of the year, everyone is a veteran. If you think the team is young now, wait until the 2020 season when you are having to replace 90% of your linebacker snaps.

Schemes With No Results

That puts much of the onus on defensive coordinator Jerry Azzinaro. He has had 16 jobs in his 34 years of coaching at various levels. This is his fourth stop with Chip Kelly, (defensive line coach at Oregon, defensive line coach and assistant head coach with the Philadelphia Eagles, and defensive line coach with San Francisco).  He has had two defensive coordinator jobs, prior to UCLA, and both had horrible results. From 2004-2006, he was the DC at Duke, and his units finished 100th, 89th, and 105th in the country. He was defensive coordinator at UMass in 1997 and his defense was 110th in the country, AT THE FCS LEVEL!!!

UCLA Defense Actually Got Worse
Arik Armstead #91, Defensive Line Coach Jerry Azzinaro, DeForest Buckner #99 and Glenn Dorsey #90 of the San Francisco 49ers talk on the bench during the game against the Buffalo Bills. (Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images)

In his two years at UCLA he has produced a defense that was 104th in the country last year and 112th after the Cal game. It’s hard to imagine but they actually got worse this season. USC quarterback Kedon Slovis was added to the nominee list for several freshman All American teams because of what he did to UCLA’s defense.

We all remember Kelly’s introductory press conference. He was asked how long it would take to start to get his players into the system. Kelly did what coaches do in public and proclaimed that the current roster was “my guys.” He said the team was his and they would work through it all together. But a coordinator specifically has got to take the talent he has inherited and mold a scheme that fits their talents in order to put them in a position to succeed. It is NOT the role of the coordinator to take what talent he has inherited and cram it into a predetermined system whether it fits or not.

Kelly says the overarching defensive schemes have stayed the same all season. Yet we have had players tell us on the record that the plans have been simplified some weeks. Those coincide with the games where you see UCLA being more aggressive, and more in the comfort zone of the players. If the current roster does not have the skill set to run the defense that Azzinaro wants, then he needed to change his defense. He is very hands on, working even on fine techniques with players at practice. But there is a disconnect and it is beyond reason to continue to ask the dwindling fan base to continue to be patient.

Of course, social media is still going to be full of fans who race to be the first to post that they are ride or die after a loss. That loyalty is all well and good. But losing, and not being competitive, hurts ticket sales. It hurts attendance, and hurts donations, and hurts the recruiting of elite-level players. It also hurts the conference overall to have a team in its number one media market be nationally irrelevant for such an extended period of time. Everyone remembers how ESPN College Gameday interrupted their show to announce Kelly’s hiring in late November of 2017. The only national media coverage since then has been about how bad the program is.

It’s not enough to say the defense is young, (disprovable), or needs more time, (they have had two Spring camps, two Fall camps, and two full seasons under Kelly). Things would be different if there was an upwards trend or something that showed some destiny, (we know how Kelly likes that word). But there has been nothing you can sell in the bigger picture. A change has to be made. Kelly has to make it. And it has to be on the defensive side of the ball while there are so many other options currently out there.

In his post-game press conference after Saturday’s loss to Cal, Kelly was asked about changes. He referenced the team banquet being on Sunday, and then needing to hit the recruiting trail. He said it was not the time to think about such things. If not now, when?

UCLA Defense Actually Got Worse
UCLA head coach Chip Kelly addresses the media after the team’s loss to Cal Saturday. (Photo from Tony Siracusa).

Our next part of  the post-mortem on the 2019 UCLA season will look at issues like Jim Mora, the theory of youth, and UCLA’s offense.

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