Today we look at three college football head coaches in the Pac-12 and what it will take — or the change in direction needed — in order to get their respective programs over the hump in 2020. Previous installments of this series include the Big Ten and Big 12.
UCLA – Chip Kelly
Kelly has been a bust of massive proportions throughout his first two seasons. But in 2020, he has an offense that can score and should be able to dominate some of the younger defenses in the Pac-12. He also has what has matured into a strong-armed quarterback in Dorian Thompson-Robinson, and future NFL tight end in Devin Asiasi along with high potential receivers. Kelly has not been a strong recruiter since arriving in Los Angeles but what highly touted recruits he has grabbed, nearly all have been on the offensive side of the ball.
Kelly has a long history of possessing an inventive offensive mind that has always been creative in finding unorthodox ways to run the ball. However, he lost Joshua Kelly (4th round, Los Angeles Chargers) and must now embrace more of a pass-heavy offense which shouldn’t be much of a task considering the weapons he holds. Can Kelly stick with passing as much as 60% is the real question.
When I mentioned how mediocre of a recruiter Kelly has been, I was referring to all of the 2-star secondary players. And while the Bruins get did grab former 4-star cornerback Obi Eboh from Stanford, the unit ranked 129th against the pass last season, leaving no real reason for optimism.
So can Kelly slow his offense down at times in order to keep the defense off the field all the while embracing a pass first approach? Can he find a pass rush (117th in sack rate last season) to help out a lack of talent in the secondary? The schedule is much more forgiving this year with as many as seven wins. But if the Bruins need to score 50 to win games, another 4-8 season awaits.
California – Justin Wilcox
Wilcox is clearly an elite defensive coach. I could argue that no one has done more with less in the Power 5 the past two seasons. But much of last year’s picture-perfect defense that was loaded with experience and playmakers is gone. As of now, only three starters are projected to return and the defensive line needs to be completely retooled.
If Cal is going to build on last season’s 8-5 mark, it will have to do so offensively. The good news is there in an extraordinary surplus of experience as all 11 starters from last year’s bowl win over Illinois are pegged to return. The key will be whether or not Wilcox plays to that strength. Senior quarterback Chase Garbers has proven to be reliable and, if Wilcox allows him to throw the ball more frequently as well as pick up the pace some, Cal has a huge ceiling in 2020.
We have seen coaches who rely too much on defense and/or a super slow tempo to keep games close end up flailing (see: former UCLA head coach Jim Mora Jr.). Wilcox seems intimidating with his intelligence and ability to study opponents, but it remains a big “prove it” year in Berkeley.
Arizona – Kevin Sumlin
Has any Power 5 coach done a worse job over the last two years? Probably not. Recruiting has flatlined and Sumlin took a Heisman runner-up at quarterback in Khalil Tate (free agent WR, Philadelphia Eagles) and failed to utilize his skill set because it didn’t fit the offensive system he envisioned when he took the job.
This year, former 4-star big-armed quarterback Grant Gunnell will work with a respectable wide receiver corps. All-conference running back J.J. Taylor is gone, which strongly suggests this is going to be a pass-first offense. And the offense will need to score points, as last year’s stop unit ranked 120th in total defense despite having plenty of experience. The linebacker unit looks strong and there’s some ability in the back seven, but the D-line is completely void of talent and/or seasoned veterans of any kind. Sumlin has never been a defense friendly type, but if he can find a formidable run defense and pass rush, there are wins here to be had. Gunnell needs to live up to the hype and they need to beat Arizona State for recruiting purposes. And at a minimum, Sumlin must get his team to a bowl. He’s thrived in shootouts in the past and the best case scenario is they can produce some more against some of the better teams on the schedule.