DTR, Defense Keys to Make-or-Break Season for Bruins

Chip Kelly's third season at UCLA figures to be the most pivotal of his tenure

Posted on June 21, 2020

Dane Miller
  By Dane Miller, SportsPac12

This is the fourth installment in our series of 2020 Pac-12 football previews. You’ll find links to the others at the bottom of the page.


 

General Outlook: Bruins Built for Breakout Season

OverviewNow in his third season in Westwood, UCLA coach Chip Kelly faces his most pivotal year. The Bruins have yet to make a bowl game during his tenure, and haven’t finished better than fourth in the South since 2015. But this season may finally be the breakthrough year UCLA fans have been waiting for.

Third-year starter Dorian Thompson-Robinson leads an offense that put up more points per game than the year before, and potent wideout Kyle Philips is coming off a record-setting freshman season. Still, the defense gave up 34.8 points per game last year and Kelly has just seven victories at the helm in L.A.

Best-Case Scenario: The Bruins start strong and make a bowl game for the first time since 2017. Similar to last season, UCLA contends in the wide-open South and continues its recruiting upswing. DTR increases his completion percentage, throws less interceptions, and stays healthy all season. The junior quarterback leads the program to conference victories over Stanford, Arizona, Colorado, Oregon State, and Washington State en route to a 7-win season.

Demtric Felton puts up 1,000+ yards on the ground and Philips solidifies himself as one of the best wide receivers in the Pac-12.

After years of struggling, Kelly finally rights the ship.

Yankoff

Worst Case Scenario: Thompson-Robinson struggles on the road against Hawaii and gets pulled the following week against San Diego State in two tough early-season defeats. Washington transfer Colson Yankoff performs slightly better, but cracks. Then the team’s morale rear its ugly head. The dispute turns public with accusations of bias leveled against Kelly.

The Bruins open up Pac-12 play with three-straight losses, and head into a road contest at Colorado with a 1-5 record. In the second half of the season, Kelly only manages to secure two more wins and the calls for his termination reach their high point.

What Should Happen: The road test in Honolulu is the tipping point which, after a hard-fought victory, leads to a boost in confidence. The win stimulates a strong start to the conference season, eventually leading to a bowl game. The South is open for the taking, which presents an opportunity for the Bruins to emerge as a contender.

Other than the rivalry matchup with the Trojans and possibly the showdown with Stanford, UCLA shouldn’t lose a game at home.

Felton

Felton’s effective running should ease the self-imposed pressure on DTR to do it all himself. The threat of a solid rushing attack allows the quarterback to improve his decision-making and take what the defense gives him. Philips avoids a sophomore slump and emerges as one of the conference’s leaders in receptions.

On the defensive side of the ball, slight improvements are made. Even with a new linebacker corps, freshmen Damien Sellers and Jonathan Vaughns meet expectations. The unit improves its third-down percentage, gives up less points per game, and helps ease the burden on the offense.

What Must Happen: It comes down to the quarterback play of Thompson-Robinson, who must take care of the ball. His experience over his first two seasons under Kelly eliminates any excuses for turnovers. With a struggling defense, any shots to the foot on the offensive side of the ball could prove too much to overcome.

Assuming DTR takes care of the ball better, Felton must emerge as a threat to run. Duke transfer Brittain Brown is a solid second option and Kazmeir Allen has an opportunity to contribute more consistently, but the underperformance of the running backs could spell trouble for UCLA.

Even if the skill-players on offense perform as expected, any regression on defense would likely condemn the Bruins to another underwhelming season. The defense has new faces after losing Darnay Holmes and all four starting linebackers. But that creates plenty of opportunities. The new blood must step in and make a difference, lineman Osa Odighizuwa needs another strong year, and Stephan Blaylock and Obi Ebony must anchor the secondary.

Greatest Strength: Quarterback, Receivers, and Secondary

Fortunately, DTR has numerous options at wide receiver. Philips leads the way after coming off a record-setting freshman campaign in which he broke the school-record for most receptions by a freshman in a single season. Incoming freshman Logan Loya adds to the firepower, and could have a similar breakout season. The four-star recruit is expected to make an impact on day one, and has a strong chance at starting.

Cota

Among the other returners, Chase Cota enters his junior year after catching three touchdowns last season, and Jaylen Erwin will look to match his 10.6 yards-per-catch average in 2019. Added together, the unit stands out as a bright spot on an offense that only put up 26.7 points per game last season.

On defense, the secondary returns most of the starters, including the team’s leading tackler in Blaylock. Though the defense was porous, the returning experience in the secondary provides a foundation to build on.

Biggest Concern: Defense, Running Game and Health of DTR

Other than the glaring issues on defense, the offensive line is a cause for concern for Kelly. To make matters worse, the unit lost a 1,000 yard rusher in Joshua Kelley. The line was able to rely on the bruiser’s rushing attack to ease pass protection, and that rushing attack may not be the same this year. As a result, opposing defenses may put greater pressure on the quarterback without a potent running back to dissuade them.

Rhyan

DTR suffered injuries last season in part due to poor pass protection, and Kelly can be sure opponents will do everything they can to fluster him in 2020. Sean Rhyan and Jake Burton are the few stable pieces, but the rest of the line is an open question. In a bind, Thompson-Robinson can effectively scramble and get first downs with his legs. But those plays open him up to extra hits that Kelly doesn’t want his quarterback taking.

Deciding Factors: Linebackers and DTR’s Decision-Making

The performance of the linebacker unit may make or break UCLA’s improvement on defense. All four starters are gone, creating a void that must be addressed. Expectations are high for Sellers and Vaughns, but the incoming freshmen can’t be expected to take up all the slack. Ideally, sophomore Carl Jones will make an impact along with junior college transfer Caleb Johnson. The four projected starters will need to gel and build chemistry in order for the Bruins to have a successful season.

On offense, DTR’s efficiency is vital. If the line struggles once again, his decision-making on the run must improve. His options at wide receiver are appealing, and the onus is on him to get his weapons the ball. If Thompson-Robinson isn’t getting the job done, Yankoff has to step in and play well. Inconsistencies behind center, no matter who is taking the snaps, could be the difference between a bowl game and another failed season.

Schedule Analysis: Key Nonconference and Conference games

With a cupcake opener against New Mexico State, the real test begins a week later on the road against Hawaii. Nick Rolovich is now at Washington State, and Cole McDonald has graduated, but the Warriors led by former ASU coach Todd Graham still present a significant challenge. If things go right, the Bruins should emerge from the islands with confidence in the direction of their season.

Rounding out non-conference play, UCLA travels south to face San Diego State, and the back-to-back road tilts make for a difficult stretch, even against Mountain West schools. The Aztecs are looking to make it two in a row against Kelly, and may even be favored. As such, a Bruin loss wouldn’t be surprising.

Conference play provides winnable games against Stanford, Arizona, Colorado, Oregon State, and Washington State. And while the Stanford and Washington State contests may be toss-ups, UCLA should be slight favorites in the others. Unfortunately, Arizona State, Utah, USC, and California present much tougher challenges.




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