He spent the last week in banquet halls collecting trophies, reluctantly making speeches and rubbing elbows with the game’s greats. Now UCLA’s star defensive end Laiatu Latu will step away from the spotlight.
The senior, who won the Lombardi Award as the nation’s most outstanding lineman and the Hendricks Award as the top defensive end, will not play in the L.A. Bowl, UCLA coach Chip Kelly said Monday. Instead the Pac-12 defensive player of the year will focus on finishing school and preparing for the NFL draft, where he is projected as a top pick.
The first-team All-American’s absence adds yet another hole to the ship the Bruins are trying to keep afloat heading into the offseason.
It’s already all hands on deck for a coaching staff that has lost three assistants. Kelly will coach the quarterbacks after Ryan Gunderson bolted to Oregon State for the offensive coordinator position. Former Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo, who was working as UCLA’s director of leadership, will take over as tight ends coach after Jeff Faris became the head coach at Austin Peay.
Faris returned from Knoxville, Tenn., after meeting with Austin Peay officials to meet with his tight end group in person Friday night before his hiring was announced. The meeting was emotional, tight end Hudson Habermehl said, but the gesture “means a lot to us.”
UCLA players didn’t appear to get the same heads up before defensive coordinator D’Anton Lynn departed for USC. Linebacker Kain Medrano tweeted a single mind-blown emoji when the news broke on Dec. 1.
But the Bruins, who will have defensive line coach Ikaika Malloe calling defensive plays Saturday, tried to turn the page quickly with a short preparation period before facing Boise State on Saturday at SoFi Stadium.
“On the defensive side and this whole team, we’re so driven by each other. It’s not necessarily a coach that drives us day to day,” Medrano said. “We’re doing this for each other.”
The Bruins are trying to insulate themselves against growing fan frustration with the program’s direction under Kelly. UCLA went 1-3 in November, limping to a 7-5 finish with demoralizing home losses to Arizona State and California. Fans have flown banners over the Wasserman Football Center calling for Kelly’s dismissal, but the coach did not appear fazed.
“I don’t understand the noise, to be honest with you,” Kelly said.
The sixth-year coach pointed out how a win against Boise State will give the Bruins an eighth win, which will be just the second time since the Terry Donahue era that UCLA has had eight wins in three consecutive seasons.
But detractors will point to how the Bruins have yet to play in a major bowl game during Kelly’s tenure, have not challenged for a Pac-12 championship or won a postseason game. Kelly remains an even 34-34 at UCLA.
Even UCLA’s feel-good victory over USC this season turned sour when the Trojans enacted revenge by plucking away Lynn. The optics are worsening as players such as five-star freshman quarterback Dante Moore and others jump to the transfer portal.
Though redshirt junior Ethan Garbers is expected to be fully healthy for the bowl game after suffering an arm injury in the regular-season finale against Cal, transfers will leave the Bruins shorthanded in the defensive backfield as safeties Williams Nimmo Jr. and Kamari Ramsey have entered the transfer portal.
Ramsey’s departure might be an especially bitter pill for UCLA fans to swallow. The redshirt freshman made 11 starts this season and emerged as one of UCLA’s most promising young defensive players during Lynn’s renaissance with 40 tackles, four pass breakups and one interception.
“You would hope guys could finish out, but … the rules are the rules,” Kelly said. “So we don’t harbor any ill feelings to anybody in that situation.”
The December schedule that includes the early signing period, a 45-day transfer window and bowl games make for hectic days for coaches and players. UCLA players were taking finals this week. Coaches were game-planning for the Broncos, hosting high school recruits and scouting transfer options. Searching for new assistant coaches has moved down Kelly’s to-do list until after the bowl game, he said. In lieu of full-time assistants, defensive analysts Clancy Pendergast and Greg Burns, who have taken on-field coaching roles during the bowl season, also hit the recruiting trail for the Bruins last week.
Coaches aren’t likely to sleep much this week because of their many responsibilities, but the bowl game provides a good excuse.
“The alternative is that you don’t play in a bowl game and that’s never a thought,” Kelly said. “These players deserve to play in another bowl game and this is our sole focus and attention.”
Starting running back Carson Steele and cornerback John Humphrey were not seen on the field during Monday’s media viewing period. Steele, a junior transfer from Ball State, and Humphrey, a senior, each have one more year of eligibility and have not announced intentions to transfer.