LOS ANGELES — UCLA did not fly up and down the Drake Stadium field like a flock of Ducks on Saturday.
The Bruins showed little of the high-adrenaline fury expected from a Chip Kelly-coached team in the first spring showcase of his tenure in Westwood.
One of the highlights of the spring game was a 2-yard touchdown reception by former South Medford standout Chase Cota, a true freshman who graduted high school early this year to participate in spring drills.
Cota caught the pass from Austin Burton, the third-string quarterback, to kick-start scoring.
The break-neck pace for the Bruins is coming in the fall, to be sure. But for now, Kelly is content to make sure his admittedly thin Bruins roster knows exactly what it’s doing before he asks the players to do it faster.
“They’ve progressed through the whole spring,” Kelly said. “We don’t put extra weight on any one training session ... but they’ve gotten better since we started. It’s all new to them. This is the first time in the system for all of these guys. So they’re willing learners, and they work really hard at it. I’ve been really pleased with their attitude.”
UCLA’s campus and fan base remain very pleased with Kelly as well. A healthy crowd gathered at the track and field stadium on campus to watch the scrimmage, and even a few ticket scalpers lurked on the walkways around nearby Pauley Pavilion.
Optimism is running high again at UCLA, which had its worst home attendance at the Rose Bowl since 1999 last season despite going unbeaten in Pasadena. Jim Mora was fired late in the Bruins’ second straight losing season, but the school managed to lure Kelly back to the college game after a year out of coaching.
Kelly doesn’t yet have the depth he desires, but the first 15 practices with his new team have given him ample information about what he’s got to work with. The Bruins have a taste of Kelly’s legendary speed, but they’ve got more time to work up to it.
“We cut back on the tempo, but we got some good work in,” right tackle Andre James said of the spring showcase. “When you’re at tempo, you’re kind of like all over the place. That’s something we’ve got better at. The first day we were out here, we were kind of struggling with this tempo. It was kind of hard to get the play and get going. Over the spring practice, we’ve got a lot better at it. We just want to make things real crisp out here.”
Kelly’s conditioning coaches and sports science consultants are in the process of transforming the Bruins into the highly conditioned athletes necessary to play his style of football. Along with diet and exercise, UCLA is monitoring the players’ movement in practice with GPS trackers.
“Every practice, we’re playing almost a game and a half with how much we’re moving,” James said. “So when it comes to games, you know they’re going to be easy for us.”
Kelly likely isn’t close to choosing a starting quarterback, largely because he can’t evaluate all of the candidates yet. While four passers led by Devon Modster participated in the spring showcase, the Bruins still haven’t been joined by top recruit Dorian Thompson-Robinson or Michigan transfer Wilton Speight, who will both have a shot at the job.
Kelly allowed his defense to hit the quarterbacks in the spring game.
“I think you’re not really going to be able to tell what your quarterback is until you go live,” he said. “It’s a different sense and a different feeling when they know they’re not going to get hit.”
A bit of UCLA’s undisciplined play under Mora still lingers as well. Defensive back Shea Pitts was flagged for a targeting penalty that would have led to his ejection from a real game on a helmet-to-helmet hit early in the first quarter, echoing countless foolhardy penalties committed by the last half-decade of Bruins squads.
Kelly has plenty of time to mold the Bruins into a cohesive team, and he doesn’t have a schedule for it to happen. Instead, he spent plenty of time after the scrimmage signing autographs for fans and well-heeled boosters alike on a beautiful spring day.
“I don’t hope anything,” Kelly said. “You don’t have a predetermined timeline. Things happen when they happen, and then you adjust to how they develop.”