In Kelly vs. Leach, change is the X factor

UCLA coach Chip Kelly stands on the sideline during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Oklahoma on Saturday, Sept. 14, 2019, in Pasadena, Calif. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

PULLMAN — The similarities between Chip Kelly and Mike Leach go without saying. They’re both direct, headstrong, enamored of independent thinking.

But during a chat with reporters this week in Westwood, Calif., Kelly unwittingly pointed out some differences as well.

Early in the interview, the second-year UCLA coach called out a reporter for having “a weird view” about Kelly’s objectives for the Bruins. Specifically, he dismissed the notion of incorporating more tactics from his wildly successful tenure at Oregon several years ago.

“Oregon is a long time ago,” Kelly said, answering as pointedly as Leach might have. “That was 2012. Yeah, they had a lot of success with the single wing in the 1930s. Football evolves. Things evolve. Maybe drop that tape, to be honest with you.”

Kelly’s real goal, he suggested, was to determine his players’ strengths and make the most of them. If his rebuilding project at UCLA seems behind schedule, it’s because the youth of his team makes it difficult to assess those strengths.

But a few minutes later, he noted obliquely that Leach, the Washington State coach, has different goals — that his success can be attributed largely to his refusal to change his basic offensive philosophy.

Well, OK. If an interesting rivalry develops between these contrasting proponents of spread offense in the coming years, the interplay between stasis and change might be one of the themes.

Phase 1 begins at 7:30 p.m. Saturday when the 19th-ranked Cougars welcome the winless Bruins in a Pac-12 opener to sold-out Martin Stadium (ESPN).

The only previous meeting between these men came in Seattle in 2012, Kelly’s final year at Oregon and Leach’s first at Pullman. Predictably, the Ducks won 51-26, part of a 3-9 ordeal for Leach in his first coaching job after a decade of success at Texas Tech.

Now the tables are turned. It’s Leach with the established program and Kelly who’s struggling with unseasoned players and tough transitions, not to mention fans’ expectations that he work miracles as coach.

Leach might have been alluding to this public mindset when he answered a question at Pac-12 Media Day in 2018, a few months after Kelly had been hired. Leach knew UCLA wouldn’t be on the Cougars’ schedule until this season.

“I have two years to obsess over the return of Chip Kelly,” he said. “Some people only get to enjoy it for one. I get to enjoy it for two.”

He’s still not betraying much obsession. In fact, he scarcely mentioned Kelly without prompting this week, preferring to laud the Bruins’ raw talent and warning they might be ready to break out at any moment.

But the fact is, the Bruins are 0-3 this season and 3-12 under Kelly, who with another loss will be off to the school’s worst 16-game start since Harry Trotter wrapped up a 2-13-1 tenure in 1922, when the school still was called Southern Branch.

Nor have their scores been tight. After 10- and 11-point losses to Group of Five schools Cincinnati and San Diego State, the Bruins took a 48-18 whipping from Oklahoma last week in Pasadena, Calif., trailing by 27 points at halftime and getting outgained 611-311.

Kelly is quick to mention the 87 freshmen and sophomores on his roster. His lack of experienced depth prevents him, for one thing, from duplicating the breakneck offensive tempo for which his Oregon teams were hailed.

The presence of a dual-threat quarterback, sophomore Dorian Thompson-Robinson, might rouse memories of The Blur years in Eugene, Ore., where Kelly’s innovations helped propagate the spread-option offense. He went went 46-7 in four seasons and took the Ducks to the BCS title game in 2011.

But Kelly these days seems doubly aware of the hazards posed to quarterbacks by his favored offense.

“That’s the fine line, with any quarterback, no matter what level you’re playing,” he said. “There are designed runs and mathematically that gives you scheme advantages. You get an extra blocker is what you get, because the quarterback is carrying the ball. However, if your quarterback were to get hurt. ...

“One of the best abilities of a quarterback is durability,” he said, “the ability to get up and play the next snap. If not, you better have six or seven of them.”

The durability question is one reason Leach prefers to use spread concepts to throw rather than run. He wants to keep his quarterbacks healthy, and in recent seasons he’s increasingly been able to do that. More to the point, as Kelly noted, Leach’s preferences have remained largely unchanged for three decades.

“In Mike’s career, he’s been defended every which way — rush one or rush 11,” Kelly said. “He’s seen it all, and I think he has answers to it all.”

Not that Kelly plans to convert to Leach’s Air Raid. During the interview in Westwood, someone asked what system he’d like to employ in a perfect world — meaning a world with no injuries.

“The wishbone,” he said. “I would love to run the wishbone. I would love to run the ball every play for the entire game and never have to throw the ball.”

There in a nutshell are the differences and similarities beween these coaches. Leach has noted many times the offense he would like to run if he couldn’t run his beloved Air Raid. It would be the wishbone.

Grummert may be contacted at daleg@lmtribune.com or (208) 848-2290.

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