UCLA 2021 Football Christmas Wish List

It’s the most wonderful time of year, and before everyone sends in their wishlists, Bruin fans should give some serious thought to what they want to find in their stockings on Christmas morning.

UCLA Football (8-4, 6-3 Pac-12) is set to face No.18 NC State (9-3, 6-2 ACC) in the Holiday Bowl, obviously a suitable bowl for this time of year, and a fair welcome since it’s been four years since the program made the playoffs. A win is surely the No.1 priority, but it’s more than the immediate short term – the Bruins will be here long after Tuesday’s game in San Diego, and the health of the team depends on several key turning points. this offseason.

So while Santa may not be able to physically deliver the contracts, coaches and transfers, here’s what fans should be hoping for and praying for in the coming days.

A new ball carrier

There’s a non-zero chance that Zach Charbonnet will return for a second year at Westwood, but that’s far from certain. Brittain Brown, on the other hand, has exhausted his eligibility, so UCLA could very easily be down their first two running backs next year.

With those two out the door, the Bruins would lose 346 of their 389 running backs, and Ethan Fernea has 10 more. That means almost 92% of UCLA’s backfield production will be gone, and there wouldn’t be much experience left on the list.

Keegan Jones led the remaining fullbacks with 95 yards on 28 touches this season and Brian Kowall added 24 yards on 5 carries. Deshun Murrell didn’t get any snaps as a true freshman this fall, but he was a popular candidate to graduate from high school in Alabama.

Tomarion Harden, a running back from Inglewood (CA), is the only freshman to return this offseason. As his high school output and 6ft 2in frame demonstrate how he could be a factor at some point in college, relying on a real freshman would be a new path for trainer Chip Kelly. and his company.

For as much success as the Bruins have had in the past four years under Kelly, he hasn’t recruited or developed any of the main backs from start to finish. Joshua Kelley and Demetric Felton were on the roster before he arrived, and Brown and Charbonnet were transfers.

Having DeShaun Foster as the running backs coach is going to help immensely in this transition period, whether the team needs to lean on young guns Murrell and Harden or bring a new face to the picture.

The combination of Murrell and Harden would be fun to watch, but with Kelly in a win-now state of mind, he’s more likely to choose the transfer portal for a veteran instead of committing directly to both. Cal’s Christopher Brooks has already committed to Purdue, and six of the portal’s seven top-ranked running backs, according to 247Sports, have already picked their next school.

Maybe it’s DeaMonte Trayanum from Arizona State, maybe it’s Zach Evans from TCU, or maybe it’s a combination of Murrell and Harden. Either way, UCLA is going to need another reliable internal comeback ASAP.

A change of defensive coordinator

It’s no secret that the Bruins have weakened a lot on the defensive end of the ball since Jerry Azzinaro joined the staff.

As the defensive coordinator, Azzinaro has yet to produce a unit that ranks even in the first half of the country in terms of score or total defense. His failures on the ground have been discussed ad nauseam, and his attitudes towards recruiting and the media are certainly doing him a disservice.

Azzinaro’s contract is set to expire in February for the third year in a row, and while it looked like he surely would have left a month ago, there is buzz surrounding his possible return to another contract. ‘a year. Kelly has yet to sign her extension – more on that in a moment – and it’s unclear exactly what the blockages are in this negotiation, but it wouldn’t be unprecedented if the sports department wanted Kelly to change coordinators. defensive as part of its next deal.

At this point, it would be highly unlikely that UCLA would have come out and debauch a top-notch defensive coordinator. While making a change just for the sake of making a change isn’t a recipe for success, almost everyone would be an upgrade from Azzinaro.

The next defensive coordinator could already be inside – maybe it’ll be defensive analyst and former Cal and USC coordinator Clancy Pendergast, or maybe the head coach. Deputy and former Navy co-coordinator Brian Norwood. Otherwise, there are famous former head coaches like Gary Patterson from TCU, Chris Peterson from Washington or Jimmy Lake from Washington.

Regardless, the defense has a chance of being at least passable next year with improved schematics and in-game training. Forward Qwuantrezz Knight and defensive lineman Otito Ogbonnia have already announced their departure , and defensive lineman Datona Jackson, linebacker Jordan Genmark Heath and cornerback Obi Eboh are no longer eligible, but there are rookies and transfers who can fill those holes admirably.

Having five or six returning starters isn’t bad, and there will likely be less rolling on that side of the ball compared to offense.

Now all the Bruins need is a defensive coordinator who can make the most of it and finally turn the tide after years of frustratingly poor team performance.

A real quarterback competition

From a fan perspective, there are few things more engaging than an internal quarterback battle.

However, UCLA hasn’t had one in years – Wilton Speight vs. Dorian Thompson-Robinson in 2018 is truly the closest thing they’ve been in the last decade. Thompson-Robinson, Josh Rosen and Brett Hundley have had three years as an undisputed starting quarterback, and in many ways that’s good for stability of an attack from year to year.

On the flip side, keeping a close eye on spring and fall camp practices to see which flagger stands out the most is always an entertaining scenario, and the Bruins could face one of those dilemmas in 2022. .

Ethan Garbers spent 2021 as a replacement for the squad after being transferred from Washington, and he stepped up and started in place of Thompson-Robinson against Utah on October 30. His performance that night in Salt Lake City, when it failed to bring the Bruins a win, was admirable, and he showed solid promise throughout the year.

UCF transfer Dillon Gabriel signed to UCLA on Dec. 16, and he was the Knights starter for the past three years before sustaining an injury in September.

With Thompson-Robinson likely going to the NFL, Garbers or Gabriel will be the starters next season. Neither should be given the reins, and it sure doesn’t look like Kelly is the kind of coach to fall for that trap anyway.

Let Garbers and Gabriel go head to head in practice and see which one wins. Gabriel is smaller and only has experience in an RPO system, but has a bigger arm and more reps under his belt. Garbers has less big play potential, but knows offense better and has proven to be a reliable decision maker.

Whoever wins should ideally feel comfortable on the spot and not have to look over their shoulder all season, as that kind of pressure and instability could do more harm than good. But when it comes to picking a day one starter, Kelly should take her time and see exactly what he has available to her instead of calling the race before it begins.

A clear plan for the future

For what looks like three consecutive offseason now, question marks remain common for the Bruins.

Some people want to fire Kelly, others want it extended. The reasons people tilt one way or the other are more than justifiable, as his four-year tenure has not been as black and white as some like to believe.

But what will hurt the program is to live constantly from year to year, in more than one way.

Kelly is perpetually in the hot seat, and an extension will not solve this problem. The Bruins shouldn’t commit to him for six years with minimal wiggle room just because they want security, but they should go one of two ways with contract talks.

One option is to lock him up for a few years with concrete metrics around people, budgets, etc., so he can put together a solid multi-year plan and sell recruits on something well-worked out. The other option is to structure his contract in a way that gives the team an exit after next season if they cannot meet expectations – expectations that are set now and do not depend on the outcome of a single game. in November.

Set a tough goal, and if Kelly can’t make it, move on. This program cannot afford to go through another year with tiny recruiting classes and deteriorating fan interest.

Kelly leaning so heavily on the transfer portal means that if or when he gets the boot, the next coach will work with next to nothing in the rebuild that follows. So if there is a feeling that Kelly isn’t the guy for the long haul, make the switch ASAP to get a head start on that rebuild.

Wobbling and sitting in the middle for a third or fourth year in a row won’t do anyone any favors, and it’s best if everyone is on the same page and goals and thresholds are clear right away. departure.

Follow Connon on Twitter at @SamConnon
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