With first UCLA recruiting class, Chip Kelly sticks to his Oregon blueprint

LOS ANGELES -- When Chip Kelly strolled into UCLA's Wasserman Football Center last Wednesday for his second-biggest news conference at his new school, he was looking more beach bum than football coach.

Though many coaches around the country capped national signing day by sporting suits and even some ties during their end-of-day news conferences, Kelly greeted media members in Westwood wearing a charcoal UCLA T-shirt and shorts.

There was no podium. No seats for reporters.

It was as if Kelly was just passing through before stopping to talk for a little more than 12 minutes about his first full recruiting class with the Bruins.

His news conference was as laid-back as his outfit, and in many respects it was very symbolic of the recruiting class he just signed.

There wasn't much flash or flair to it. It was a good but not overwhelmingly great or exciting transitional class, and no matter which recruiting service you followed, it wasn't loaded with a bunch of stars.

According to ESPN's RecruitingNation, UCLA had the nation's 19th-ranked class with four ESPN 300 members and 16 three-star prospects among the 27 recruits. Unranked offensive tackle Jon Gaines completed the haul.

Some might wonder if Kelly's time away from the college game might have caught up with him in recruiting, but this was totally Kelly's style. A master of theatrics and razzle-dazzle on the field, his recruiting classes during his four years at Oregon were never really about the aesthetics.

Use the term "under the radar" if you want when describing many of the players Kelly has signed over the years, but he doesn't even pay attention to the radar. He looks for prospects who fit his systems and his university and who are receptive to his teaching and developmental methods.

The biggest takeaway from Kelly's first class at UCLA is that he isn't straying far from the formula that brought him so much success at Oregon.

Kelly prefers to exert his energy developing rather than chasing big fish.

"We're not concerned with stars, never have been," he said. "We're not driven by that.

"We take a kid because of what he does athletically and academically fits where we are."

That process didn't fail Kelly in Eugene, and he's hoping it propels him in Westwood.

Remember, this is the same coach who helped turn lesser-known Kiko Alonso into one of the NFL's best inside linebackers. He also turned former tight end Dion Jordan into one of the Pac-12's top defensive ends and the No. 3 pick in the 2013 NFL draft.

Kelly also had two-star Marcus Mariota and three-star Johnny Manziel committed at quarterback in his 2011 class. Manziel eventually signed with Texas A&M and won the Heisman Trophy as a redshirt freshman in 2012. Mariota won it in 2014 and led the Ducks to the College Football National Championship game that season.

Kelly certainly has an eye for talent and couldn't care less about golden stars attached to players' names. And he's allowed to scoff at the notion of computer-generated star power after going 46-7 in four years at Oregon with the same amount of ESPN 150 members during that span as Alabama signed in 2012 alone (13).

For his UCLA debut, Kelly basically hit the reset button on the 2018 class and re-evaluated all committed and uncommitted prospects associated with the Bruins to figure out which pieces he needed -- and wanted -- for his program and his style.

Though UCLA signed 46 ESPN 300 members during Jim Mora's six-year tenure, the Bruins lost 32 games during that span. The stars were there, but the development wasn't.

It was the complete opposite at Oregon, whose success hinged more on developing the relatively unknown talent to fit what he needed.

Before Mora's firing at the end of the regular season, UCLA owned the nation's No. 14 class. However, Kelly signed just four of the original 18 players committed to Mora. Kelly ended up with eight signees during the early signing period in December and 19 more on Wednesday. This class wasn't as sparkly on paper as Mora's original 18, but it delivered the kind of balance and potential Kelly needed in his first class.

"We've got to recruit to what we want to build here at UCLA," Kelly said.

The second Oregon aspect that sticks out is the emphasis on size and length. The mostly dry Kelly was gushing about the measurables of this class after signing 16 players who are 6-foot-3 or taller. All eight of his offensive and defensive linemen hit that mark, and reminiscent of the days of Jordan, Arik Armstead, and DeForest Buckner at Oregon, Kelly made sure he got enormous wingspans along his defensive line. That group includes massive 6-foot-8, 244-pound junior college transfer Steven Mason.

"Big people beat up little people, so we're looking for big people," Kelly said.

To create some mismatches with smaller Pac-12 defensive backs, Kelly signed receivers Bryan Addison, Chase Cota and Michael Ezeike, who are all 6-4 or taller. Three of the five defensive backs he signed are at least 6-foot, including monster cornerback Rayshad Williams, who is listed at 6-4 on UCLA's website.

To Kelly, length goes a long way in development, and when it comes to recruiting size for his systems, he said he'd rather take a chance on measurables than undersized projects.

One signee who isn't a risk is ESPN 300 quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson. The Bruins have a slew of projects in this class, but Thompson-Robinson, the nation's No. 2 dual-threat quarterback, could make an immediate impact this fall.

And what a recruiting win for Kelly. He made sure Thompson-Robinson held his UCLA commitment from last April and left February's signing day with the signature of one of the best quarterbacks in the country -- a prospect who fits his offense as well as anyone could.

"He was a priority, to make sure we kept him committed," Kelly said.

Kelly’s first class at UCLA won't jump off the page for hardcore recruitniks, but it checked a lot of boxes. Could it have been better? Sure, and there's no doubt that it stung to watch crosstown rival USC have a monster signing day with the nation's No. 7 class -- including two top UCLA targets (linebacker Solomon Tuliaupupu and cornerback Olaijah Griffin, a former UCLA commit).

But Kelly is content with his first class because he hit his areas of need with good depth and the kind of talent and potential he's looking for -- the kind no recruiting service would properly rate, in his eyes anyway.

This class will call Southern California its home, but it reeks of past Februarys in Eugene. Kelly's area code might have changed, but so far, he is implementing his Oregon method at UCLA.