The Bruins’ dilemma: All eyes on Chip Kelly

Adriana Ghiozzi_online

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On every Little League or peewee football team, there is that dad –– the father who simply can’t contain himself when his kid doesn’t get enough playing time or who screams about the coach’s lack of knowledge while touting coaching qualifications ranging on a scale from zero to avid “Madden” player.

Michael Robinson, the father of UCLA true freshman quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson, never really grew out of that phase. Interestingly enough, however, he may actually be onto something.

After the Bruins’ unprecedented loss to Fresno State, Robinson took a shot at new head coach Chip Kelly, tweeting, “It is all about the coaching, lousy coaching and play calling… Coaching that is so bad that it demands closed practices… Million dollar coach who bares (sic) no responsibility… Just random observations from a frustrated dad!”

While Dorian’s father isn’t quite at a LaVar Ball level, he has a point. The glaring mark of UCLA’s 0-5 record has left more than just the players’ dads wondering what happened to Chip Kelly.

Once the NCAA’s infallible offensive genius, Kelly was at the center of a historic run for Oregon as its head coach from 2009-2012. That stint saw Kelly lead the Ducks to four consecutive BCS games and earned him two conference Coach of the Year titles.

The spread offense that Kelly ran at Oregon was as close to undefendable as any that college football has recently seen. The up-tempo, option-heavy style kept even the best of defenses on edge. While his playbook contained few surprises, simply anticipating Kelly’s trademark zone runs wasn’t enough to defend against them effectively. The result was a stunning 46-7 record over Kelly’s four-year career in Eugene.

That success was extremely short-lived after Kelly accepted a head coaching position in the NFL in 2013. The speed that had been his main offensive weapon in college ball did not translate well into a league that had had the no-huddle figured out for years, while his one-dimensional playbook did not trip up defensive coordinators the way it used to at Oregon.

Staunchly unwilling to adapt his coaching style to fit the league around him, Kelly left the NFL after three seasons with the Eagles and one with the 49ers.

When Kelly announced he would be returning to the college scene as UCLA’s new head coach, expectations were high –– we’re talking five-year, $23.3 million type of high. Could Kelly coach the Bruins to their first Pac-12 Championship game since 2012? Could he reinvigorate an offense that had just suffered the loss of its trusted starter, Josh Rosen, to the NFL?

Thus far this season, the answer to any such question has been a resounding no. The Bruins are off to their worst start since Franklin Roosevelt was in office, but to what degree is that Kelly’s fault?

As I see it, UCLA’s struggles are some combination of the growing pains associated with hiring a new head coach and Kelly’s unwillingness to customize his coaching strategy to adequately fit his roster. One of the keys to the Chip Kelly offense is its reliance on an experienced, dual-threat quarterback. Thompson-Robinson is undoubtedly a dual threat (ranked No. 2 among dual-threat quarterbacks by ESPN coming out of high school), but, through no fault of his own, is significantly lacking in the experience category.

He didn’t start a game until his senior year of high school and didn’t expect to be UCLA’s starter this year, either; he was thrown in after graduate transfer Wilton Speight went down in his first game as a Bruin. The option plays that Kelly is so fond of are predicated on the intuition and quick decision-making skills of a quarterback, and neither of those skills are gained overnight.

On top of that, Kelly has thrown his fast-paced style into the lap of a team with a severe deficit of senior leadership and a massive cohort of true freshmen. Having accepted the head coaching position in November, Kelly had little time to recruit players to fit his system, and former UCLA head coach Jim Mora, who was once quoted as saying no spread offense has ever won a national championship, was certainly not recruiting his players with Kelly’s offensive philosophy in mind. In that light, the UCLA offense begins to feel like a game of fitting a square block into a round hole.

Defensive-minded Cal head coach Justin Wilcox is as equipped as anyone to see through the derailed Kelly scheme, and the Cal defense can and should take advantage of this when UCLA comes to town this weekend. If there’s one thing you can count on in that game, it’s that winless Mr. Kelly and his Bruins are sure to be playing with a chip on their shoulder.

Adriana Ghiozzi covers women’s soccer. Contact her at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @dailycal_ag.