Nothing comes easy for UCLA football under coach Chip Kelly.
The first winning season ended with a last-minute pullout for the Holiday Bowl.
The first bowl game ended with a chaotic loss, a quarterback in tears and renewed doubts about whether Kelly is the right coach to lead the Bruins into their rapidly approaching Big Ten era.
There’s no need to rehash all the details of what feels like another lost season after a 37-35 setback against severely undermanned Pittsburgh in the Sun Bowl on Friday left UCLA (9-4) with three losses in its final four games, not to mention a 27-29 record in five seasons under Kelly.
What matters is getting this mess fixed before tarps outnumber fans at the Rose Bowl.
Here are four suggestions for righting the wobbly Bruins going into 2023:
Fix the defense
This one is obvious. Kelly needs to understand that his responsibilities don’t end with running a top-notch offense; the entire team is under his purview.
Sometimes it seems like he forgets this. Nick Aliotti, Kelly’s former defensive coordinator at Oregon, once said he never heard Kelly over the headsets when it came to having input on the defensive side of the ball, and maybe that needs to change.
Kelly certainly knows about defenses because he’s designed elite offenses to befuddle them going back to his days at New Hampshire. So why doesn’t he tell his coaches to stop the losing tactics like three-man rushes (see Pittsburgh, Sun Bowl) or unnecessarily large cushions (see Fresno State, 2021) on late defensive stands?
There’s also the matter of players constantly being out of position, running to nowhere and failing to make tackles, issues that haven’t been resolved after five seasons. How long will it take? Perhaps more important, how long will Kelly be given to continue ignoring this problem?
Change the staff, change the personnel, change the scheme — whatever it takes to end this eyesore.
Upgrade the talent
The arrival of five-star quarterback Dante Moore is a start, but it doesn’t resolve several longstanding issues.
The Bruins haven’t had a speedy, game-breaking wide receiver since Jordan Lasley in 2017, and the school known as Linebacker U will need rebranding if some competent reinforcements don’t arrive soon.
Every position on defense needs to be bolstered, especially the secondary, which had continued shaky play at cornerback and the departure of safeties Stephan Blaylock and Mo Osling III.
The presumed loss of running back Zach Charbonnet to the NFL also leaves the team in need of its next big-time running back. True freshman T.J. Harden appears to be a solid candidate, but the Bruins will need other options.
The transfer portal could provide salvation if Kelly can emulate what happened across town with USC’s instant infusion of high-end talent that transformed the Trojans in less than a year.
Anoint the right quarterback
Spring football might not be its annual exercise in boredom under Kelly.
For the first time since the coach’s debut season, the Bruins will be searching for their next quarterback. Barring transfers, it could be a three-man battle among Moore, Kent State transfer Collin Schlee and Ethan Garbers. Moore is expected to arrive in time for spring practice, giving him a shot to take the first snap in the season opener against Coastal Carolina on Sept. 2.
Fans will likely root for Moore to win the job given the excitement factor surrounding the most highly rated quarterback recruit in school history, but Schlee could be a steadier option given his experience. Garbers possesses a strong arm but has not led the Bruins to victory in his only start, against Utah in 2021, or off the bench at the end of games against Oregon in 2021 and in the Sun Bowl.
The glut of quarterbacks could prompt the transfer of Garbers or talented true freshman Justyn Martin, who showed promise in practice.
Engage the fan base
A coach has three primary responsibilities — the technical aspects of coaching, recruiting and ambassadorship of his program.
Kelly has thrived at one aspect of the first (offense), achieved middling success with the second (mostly through the transfer portal) and completely neglected the third (Booster? What’s a booster?).
He’s completed a minimal amount of booster events and turned down multiple interview requests from local reporters trying to reveal the humanity beneath his gruff exterior. Kelly doesn’t give the school-sponsored radio crew a heads-up on injuries or absences, standard stuff among most coaches.
But, hey, there’s always another softball interview with Dan Patrick centering on Kelly’s time in the NFL that fans might be able to hear soon.