Playing football for UCLA means mastering a lot of concepts.
Each week is its own season when it comes to the game plan. Plays come and go. Two Zach Charbonnet runs against Utah earlier this month were “windback zone” and “influence trap,” obscure names leading to big results. Both plays were run for the first time this season.
The previous week, during a victory over Washington, the game plan was heavy on “stick” and “spacing” passes that were abandoned against Utah, according to Chris Osgood, who analyzes the team’s plays for Bruin Report Online.
It’s nothing the Bruins can’t handle. Earlier this month, a team spokesman told reporters defensive lineman Jacob Sykes had just a few minutes for an interview. He needed to get to a philosophy class about Socrates.
Sykes, a graduate transfer from Harvard who earned his undergraduate degree in applied mathematics, was asked what he had learned.
The philosopher, Sykes explained, once hosted a dinner party in which he tried to explain the meaning of love to his guests. Theories abounded, one suggesting that people were split in half at birth, creating the need to look for a counterpart who would complete them.
A similar duality appears to be in play when it comes to UCLA football. The No. 12 Bruins, fighting for their first Pac-12 title in more than two decades, might not be as good on the field without their other half.
“Books and ball,” coach Chip Kelly said, “that’s what this place is all about.”
There’s nothing unique about the approach given that every university tries to combine winning academics with athletic success. It’s just that the Bruins are among the handful of teams going 2-0 at the highest level in those endeavors.
UCLA is one of only six schools to make the top 25 of the U.S. News & World Report national university rankings while also producing a Football Bowl Subdivision team ranked in the top 10 in the Associated Press poll during the past five years, joining Stanford, Northwestern, Notre Dame, Michigan and USC.
“These kids want to be successful in everything they do, not just sports. … They’re hungry, they’re lifelong learners, they’re thirsty for knowledge.”
— UCLA coach Chip Kelly
That adds an extra layer of intrigue to the game between the Bruins (6-1 overall, 3-1 Pac-12) and Cardinal (3-4, 1-4) on Saturday night at the Rose Bowl. The winner can claim revenge of the nerds — and jocks.
“It’s kids trying to reach their full potential,” Kelly said of the dual pursuit at a school tied with California for No. 1 among public universities in the U.S. News & World Report rankings. “We’ve got a bunch of kids that are self-started, intrinsically motivated and want to be great and they challenge themselves by coming here academically and they challenge themselves athletically by coming here.”
Kelly’s teams have topped the previous known program record of 43 players on the honor roll for nine consecutive academic quarters. For spring quarter 2020, a record 79 players made the honor roll that requires a grade-point average of at least 3.0 while taking a minimum of 12 units.
Marathon study sessions take place in film rooms as well as libraries, players lingering to pick up any detail that could allow them to play more instinctively.
“This is a game of reaction,” guard Jon Gaines II said, “and that comes from understanding the scheme, understanding the game plan — and that comes from studying and preparation over time.”
That drudgery can win games. Linebacker Bo Calvert said teammate Laiatu Latu tipped him off to a blindside blocking scheme before a play against Washington that Calvert was able to thwart given the warning.
Quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson said the players on offense with the most football smarts reside on the offensive line, their weights and IQs both running well into triple digits. Players regularly suggest tweaks to Kelly’s play calls based on what they’re seeing during games.
“You listen to those guys,” Kelly said, “because they get a better feel — ‘Hey, this guy keeps biting, every time I try to break in on a route, he’s biting on it,’ then all right, we’ve got counters to what other people do.”
The heavy workload isn’t for everybody. It has attracted some high school prospects and driven away others, also ranking among the reasons the Bruins have lost more than a roster’s worth of players since Kelly’s arrival five years ago.
Those who remained have increasingly bonded over a like-minded approach to excellence in everything they do.
“This is a game of reaction, and that comes from understanding the scheme, understanding the game plan — and that comes from studying and preparation over time.”
— UCLA guard Jon Gaines II
“My freshman year, there was a couple cliques or whatever, you know what I’m saying?” senior linebacker Carl Jones Jr. said. “But now, you could walk around downstairs in the locker room and talk to everybody. There really aren’t any cliques down there, we’re all a brotherhood and it’s just fun to be around everybody each and every day.”
Kelly doesn’t sugarcoat his expectations in recruiting meetings with players and parents, trotting out “books and ball” like a secret passcode to entice families who are a fit.
“I just appreciate that he’s not there to make you like him, it’s like, ‘This is what I am and this is what I can offer your son and take it or leave it,’ ” said Casey Bobo, the mother of receiver Jake Bobo. “But if you do connect with him, it’s pretty impressive.”
Transfers have arrived from elite academic institutions such as Harvard, Duke, Penn, Michigan and Fordham, among others. Raiqwon O’Neal, a transfer from Rutgers, said he was lured in part by a graduate program that could prepare him for a career in broadcasting.
Some players appear bound for an even higher calling — Kelly has identified both Sykes and quarterback Chase Griffin as possible future presidents of the United States.
Linebacker Shea Pitts, one of 19 graduate students on the roster, is working on his second master’s degree, attending law school after having completed the transformative coaching and leadership program. He’s a semifinalist for the William V. Campbell Trophy, given to the nation’s top football scholar-athlete.
“We’re as proud of that as we are of our record,” Kelly said of the number of players in graduate school, “so it goes hand in hand. These kids want to be successful in everything they do, not just sports. … They’re hungry, they’re lifelong learners, they’re thirsty for knowledge.”
They’ve also taught their coach about more than the in-game tendencies of opponents.
“Yeah, Pythagorean theorem,” Kelly cracked when asked what he had learned from his players.
Expending so much effort during what’s supposed to be a fun, carefree time in their lives requires finding an outlet besides winning.
“The fun part is the journey, actually,” Sykes said. “You can have fun in everything that you do — you’re out here every day with a good group of guys and you’re in the classroom with great students, you’re attacking everything. Winning is also fun, but you’ve got to kind of have fun in everything to enjoy the process.”
Every day is books and ball, double the fun.