Chip Kelly's great disappearing act: Where has the offensive innovator gone?

UCLA coach Chip Kelly yells to his team during Thursday's game against the <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/ncaaw/teams/cincinnati/" data-ylk="slk:Cincinnati Bearcats">Cincinnati Bearcats</a>. (Getty)
UCLA coach Chip Kelly yells to his team during Thursday's game against the Cincinnati Bearcats. (Getty)

CINCINNATI — Has anyone seen Chip Kelly?

I mean, the real Chip Kelly?

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I saw a guy who looked and sounded like him Thursday night here at Nippert Stadium, after his UCLA Bruins lost for the second straight year to Cincinnati. He stood there in front of a powder-blue backdrop with the school logo on it, the kind of thing programs bring everywhere to “sell the brand” for the TV cameras — except there were no TV cameras to film this postgame media session. Just a handful of reporters wondering when the real Chip is going to show up as the Bruins coach.

Kelly credited the Bearcats and their fans after the 24-14 defeat dropped his UCLA record to 3-10. He talked about injuries and academic issues that kept several of his players off the field in this season opener. He mentioned, several times, how young his team is — 48 new players, by his accounting, and a total of 87 freshmen and sophomores.

“We better pack some Powerade and Similac with this group,” Kelly quipped.

Yeah, that sounded like Chip Kelly. But I didn’t see a guy who coached like him — not like the one-time fast-football wizard who took Oregon to the brink of a national championship, revolutionizing offensive tempo along the way.

The guy who showed up at Nippert looked a bit like an anachronism, not a trend setter.

I saw a guy who was dealt a difficult hand — but also dealt $23 million over five years to make it better, sooner rather than later. I saw a guy who had to make fundamental changes to his offensive personnel — but in game 13 of the Kelly tenure the Bruins recorded their lowest yardage output since Nov. 3, 2016. I saw a guy who correctly pointed out the quality of his opponent here — but also made it sound like Nippert Stadium is a venue on par with Bryant-Denny or Death Valley in terms of hostility.

UCLA invested big-time in Chip Kelly to sway him away from Florida and other suitors. So far the Bruins are getting no return on investment.

That doesn’t mean the return won’t come in time. That doesn’t mean many of the excuses for this 3-10 start to his tenure aren’t legitimate. Kelly really might have the youngest team in America. That doesn’t mean UCLA shouldn’t stay committed to him for the long haul (as it if has any other choice).

But expectations have been throttled down, and so has the buzz that accompanied his hire at UCLA. The clock isn’t getting turned back to 2012 anytime soon, which was the last time Chip Kelly was the smartest guy in the room in college football. Bruins fans will have to summon their patience to quell the nagging doubts about whether their coach can get back on the cutting edge of the sport.

UCLA's Demetric Felton is tackled by Cincinnati's Jarell White during the Bearcats' win on Thursday. (Getty)
UCLA's Demetric Felton is tackled by Cincinnati's Jarell White during the Bearcats' win on Thursday. (Getty)

A guy who was a dazzling 46-7 at Oregon is now just another struggling Pac-12 coach, losing to teams outside the Power Five. It was Kevin Sumlin last week, going 0-2 at Arizona in season openers against Group of Five opponents. Now it’s Chip Kelly doing the same.

And while both Las Vegas and many of the rest of us expected a Cincinnati victory here, most of us also expected a significantly improved UCLA product coming off last year. This was not improved.

Sophomore quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson was a mess. He had two empty-hand fumbles — one that killed the first UCLA series of the game in the red zone, the second of which essentially ended the game. He also threw two interceptions — one of them a legitimately excellent play by Cincinnati linebacker Perry Young, the other a no-hope heave into double coverage.

In addition to the four turnovers, Thompson-Robinson was wildly erratic throwing (8 of 26), unsettled in the pocket under a game-long rush and made a couple faulty reads in the read-option game.

“He’s a real confident young man,” Kelly said while dismissing any concerns about his QB’s psyche after that debacle. “I love coaching Dorian.”

Love can be fleeting in this game if there are more performances like that.

Of course, it should be noted that UCLA was so stripped of weapons that its sole playmaker for more than a half was former wide receiver Demetric Felton, a converted running back for at least one game (maybe more). Felton had 23 of UCLA’s 36 rushes and two of its eight receptions, a big load for a 189-pounder to shoulder. (Joshua Kelley, coming off a 1,200-yard rushing season, was among the scratches Thursday night.)

Where are all the playmakers?

Where, also, are the linemen? One area where the Bruins had a modicum of experience was on both lines, yet they were soundly beaten in the trenches. A Cincinnati team that started two freshmen offensive linemen rushed for 175 yards to UCLA’s 62. And a Cincinnati team replacing three defensive line starters was in Thompson-Robinson’s face all night.

“We played probably 11 guys up front [on defense],” Bearcats coach Luke Fickell said. “We stopped blitzing on third downs because it felt like those guys were wearing on them.”

That’s the state of things in this two-game series: Cincinnati is demonstrably better than UCLA. Since the Bruins led the game in Pasadena 10-0 after one quarter a year ago, they have been outscored 50-21.

Yeah, Fickell is a game into year three of his rebuild from the Tommy Tuberville Era, whereas Kelly is one game into year two rebuilding from the Jim Mora Era. But one of the things you expect — or at least hope — when you hire Chip Kelly is that the rebuilding timeframe is accelerated.

Instead, it appears to be extended.

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