Watching a Chip Kelly practice is a window into the things that have made him a transformative college football coach: breathless tempo, exacting attention to detail, some wonkish eccentricity, simmering intensity, joy in the craft.
“This is our happy place,” Kelly says afterward on the UCLA practice field, an oasis of artificial turf tucked into the Westwood campus between fabled Pauley Pavilion, a hotel and a parking garage. Kelly is smiling and fidgeting, occasionally tucking his hands into his armpits as he talks, willing to entertain questions but ultimately much more interested in prepping for the biggest game of his UCLA tenure Saturday against Oregon. He is not a man prone to standing still.
That was reflected in Monday’s practice—or training, as Kelly prefers to call it, in line with military terminology. Between 9 and 10:26 a.m., there was maybe two minutes in which the Bruins could relax and exhale. Kelly used those two minutes to embrace his former punter from the 2019 team, Wade Lees, who was visiting from Australia with his wife and daughter. “We need to tighten up security around here,” Kelly cracked as a greeting to Lees, a flash of the coach’s sarcastic New England sense of humor.
Then it was back to work. One of the progenitors of the up-tempo, no-huddle offense has applied that concept to practice as a whole—cramming as many drills and reps as possible into the allotted workout window, drilling players to think quickly and execute when tired, never allowing enough downtime for minds to wander. “If you keep it moving, you don’t need that much time,” Kelly says. “We’re working with (shorter) attention spans, the TikTok generation. I’ve got ADD myself.”
The irony here is that Coach Hurry-up’s UCLA building job has been an exercise in methodical patience. To the surprise of many after Kelly was arguably the splashiest hire of the year in late 2017, his program makeover has unfolded at Iowa’s offensive pace. It took forever to get off the ground, with three straight losing seasons and a 10-21 record. More than a few people speculated that, as the rest of the sport acclimated to the pace of offense Kelly helped introduce at Oregon from 2007–12, he didn’t have a Plan B to succeed in the modern world.
Even year four was dicey into November—the Bruins were 5–4 before blowout victories over Colorado, USC and California probably saved Kelly’s job. Some thought keeping him was a mistake, even with an 8–4 record.
But that breakthrough was followed by an off-season of big decisions by key players, none more important than by quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson. Him opting to return for a fifth year instead of entering the NFL draft was part of a stick-it-out commitment from many UCLA veterans. Along with a few key additions via the transfer portal, Kelly finally had a team capable of validating the administrative faith in him.
The result to date is a 6–0 record and a No. 9 national ranking, the highest UCLA has been in the polls since September 2015. The Pac-12 preseason buzz was all about favorite Utah and the coaching/quarterback remodels at USC and Oregon. But it’s the Bruins who have quietly become the last unbeaten standing in the conference.
In a sport where loyalties are increasingly fleeting—from all sides of the equation, administrators and coaches and players—UCLA has gotten here in throwback fashion. Everyone hung together. Now we’ll find out how far a smart, veteran group can go together.
Thompson-Robinson wore two rubber bracelets in practice Monday, both of which he said were gifts from his chess mentor, Seth Makowsky, and were chess-themed. “Player not a Piece,” said one. “Protect the King,” said the other. Thompson-Robinson said the king “could be anything. This week, for sure, it’s going to be the ball.”
That king has been captured many times from Thompson-Robinson through the course of his college career. He’s thrown 26 interceptions and lost 11 fumbles, with 2019 being a particularly turnover-prone season — 19 total, 12 of them picks and seven fumbles. In the season opener that year, sophomore Thompson-Robinson threw two interceptions and had two empty-hand fumbles, key elements in an upset loss at Cincinnati.
That was UCLA’s second season under Kelly, and the Bruins’ second straight loss to the Bearcats. The questions about both the coach and his chosen quarterback were beginning to mount. But afterward, Kelly stood firm in his support for Thompson-Robinson. “I love coaching Dorian,” he said that night.
The two have been in lockstep just about ever since. It hasn’t always been easy—there has been some mutual exasperation, some sideline flare-ups—but the growth is profound. Their careers have been intertwined for five roller-coaster seasons.
“Whether it’s him getting in my tail, me getting in his tail, we’re just trying to make this thing as complete as possible,” Thompson-Robinson says. “We’re not leaving anything on the table. We’ve grown communication-wise and in just connecting. We’ll get after each other sometimes on the sideline. But that’s one thing I love about coach Kelly, I can go to him about anything and not feel judged about it.”
Kelly appreciates Thompson-Robinson’s intellect, but what he loves most is his quarterback’s competitive spirit. He’s listed at 6’1” and 205 pounds, with a slightly built upper body, but brings a linebacker’s mentality to the field.
“He’s tough as hell,” Kelly says. “One of the most underrated qualities of a quarterback is toughness. He will stand in there and take a hit, he doesn’t run away from anything—he could be a great safety.”
Kelly referenced a play in the Bruins’ victory over Washington earlier this month, in which a Thompson-Robinson pass was tipped at the line of scrimmage and intercepted by a Huskies defensive lineman. Thompson-Robinson charged in and delivered a hit that caused the lineman to fumble, and UCLA retained possession.
“We just went on to second down, and I went, ‘Whoa!’ “ Kelly says. “There’s a ton of respect for that.”
Thompson-Robinson, for his part, was mildly offended at the idea of being just a quarterback or a safety. “I think I could play any position on the field,” he says. “I’m one of the guys that loves to compete. If it involves a ball and it involves winning and losing, I’m there.”
As UCLA’s win totals have increased last year and this year, Thompson-Robinson’s mistakes have decreased. His interceptions has dropped from 3.3% of his total passes in 2019 to 2.9% in ’20, 2.1% in ’21 and 1.2% this year. While still possessing an affinity for the splash play, he’s also much more willing to make the safe play.
That’s the kind of maturity coaches love to see come out in players as they progress through their college careers. Fortunately for UCLA, in this transient era, Thompson-Robinson chose to keep making those plays in a powder-blue uniform.
“Dorian has done a really good job of finding the edge—the right edge for him,” quarterbacks coach Ryan Gunderson says. “Having great focus but being himself and being aggressive, knowing when to make a play until it’s time to make the play. Chip and Dorian are on the same page. Those two kind of feed off each other.
“With really talented kids who are in their fourth and fifth year, that’s where you go. At the quarterback position, that’s where they should be going.”
At this point, Thompson-Robinson should be considered a legitimate Heisman Trophy contender. In addition to leading a surprise unbeaten, he’s fifth nationally in pass efficiency, seventh in total offense yards per play (8.49) and has accounted for 19 touchdowns in six games. The only complication might be that his teammate, running back Zach Charbonnet, might take votes away from him as a national top-ten rusher (123 yards per game).
Thompson-Robinson has a lot of company in UCLA’s locker room when it comes to steadily maturing veterans. The depth chart is rife with grad students and other players who have been around and played a lot of football. This isn’t quite a BYU roster full of adults who went on Mormon missions, but it’s not far off.
A look at UCLA’s starting lineup according to this week’s depth chart reflects that. The average starter has played 37.2 college games. When the Bruins take the field in Autzen Stadium Saturday, it will be the 50th game each for receiver Jake Bobo, offensive lineman Atonio Mafi and defensive back Stephan Blaylock.
“We’re older than dirt,” says receiver Jake Bobo with a laugh.
Mafi and Blaylock have done all their playing at UCLA. Bobo is a transfer from Duke who has immediately added some juice to the passing game. He’s averaging 16 yards per reception and has four touchdowns in the past two games.
“I had a year left, wanted to make a decision based on football,” Bobo says. “I wanted to win games, something I hadn’t done a lot of the previous four years. I felt like UCLA had the best shot to do something on a national stage — I did my research on guys coming back, guys coming with me.
“We had goals coming into the year. A lot of guys in this building knew the goals were attainable. But I think some folks outside the building didn’t necessarily know. It’s been cool to kind of show folks what we’ve been knowing since April.”
Kelly is justifiably proud of his old-smart roster, saying this team is all about two things: books and ball. There isn’t a lot of time wasted worrying about key players getting in youthful trouble, because so few of the key players are teenagers.
Instead, Kelly has put together a team of guys like defensive lineman Jacob Sykes, a transfer from Harvard. “He was an applied mathematics major at Harvard,” Kelly says. “His mom said she was a little disappointed, she wanted him to be an engineer. He said applied mathematics is the new engineering, so he lost me after that.”
Kelly is a smart guy himself, but at his core he’s a football coach. He’s gifted at scheming against split safeties, not splitting atoms. A reporter asked him if he engages in academic conversations with his players, and the answer was a trademark Kelly snipe. “Yeah, Pythagorean theorem,” Kelly shoots back. “We discuss that a lot in our meetings.”
Chip Kelly made his rep as the smartest guy in the room at Oregon more than a decade ago, racking up a 46–7 record there and getting the Ducks into the 2010 BCS Championship Game. Then he moved on to the NFL and wasn’t able to replicate that success. His return to the college game has been a much slower build than imagined.
But he’s close now, close to being back at the pinnacle. A game at Oregon Saturday offers a full-circle opportunity to re-establish his brand of coaching genius. Just don’t expect him to acknowledge it. What other people think doesn’t easily penetrate the walls of the practice field at UCLA, Kelly’s inner sanctum.
“I don’t understand that mentality, why people would want to go online and read about what’s being said about you,” he says. “I learned a long time ago, praise and blame are all the same. We don’t play for the approval of others. We do what we do, you get to be around good kids like this, it’s fun.”
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