UCLA football coach Chip Kelly remains focused on “this team and this season” despite the ongoing conversation about the future.
With much discussion about the university’s decision to move to the Big Ten Conference in 2024, that conference’s new seven-year TV deal or the UC Regents meeting that was held not far from the football facility this week, Kelly believes having his attention anywhere else, with the season opener against Bowling Green just two weeks away, would be unfair.
“Our north star for this group is two things,” Kelly said. “This team and this season.
“We have a bunch of players who have given everything to this program. … They’re not going to be here in two years. If our focus and attention is on something in two years (from now), then we aren’t doing our job in creating an environment for those guys to be successful.”
He concluded his remarks by rattling off a number of names on the current roster that apply to his statement. Most of those players were members of Kelly’s first UCLA recruiting class in 2018 or came in prior to his arrival.
“We’re aware of it,” Kelly said regarding ongoing talks about the program’s future. “But I don’t have anything to do and our coaching staff has nothing to do with any of the planning or what’s going into that part of it.”
Over the past week, the program has used its platform to highlight some of its players from that 2018 recruiting class, which helped illustrate the focus prior to Kelly’s comments on Friday.
Defensive back Stephan Blaylock and lineman Atonio Mafi were members of that 2018 class and provided a level of consistency on the field for the Bruins. Both have played in all 43 of the Bruins’ games since their true freshman season.
Blaylock holds the longest active start streak on the roster with 31 consecutive starts in the secondary, dating to 2019. He’s also been among the team’s top five in tackles each of the last three seasons.
Mafi started 14 of his first 24 games with the Bruins before making the switch from defensive line to offensive line in 2020. He appeared in all seven games as a reserve and on special teams before earning three starts at guard in 2021.
While Mafi has remained a constant on the field, he’s also been consistent about his body transformation. He’s lost 70 pounds since joining the program at 411 pounds.
Kelly credits Mafi’s determination and dedication to come in and work out on his own early in the morning when the coaches are getting their own workout in.
“I’m really really proud of (Mafi) and everything he’s done,” Kelly said. “He’s such a special kid … you see him up on the elliptical on his own and see him on the stationary bike just putting in that extra time and it’s paying off for him as a player.”
BEST IN THE WORLD
Harvard transfer Jacob Sykes found a new home in UCLA through the transfer portal this offseason. Sykes has set high expectations for himself and believes his mindset falls in line with what is being asked of the defense this season.
“I attack every day thinking I am the best player in the world,” Sykes said. “I just have to prove it every day. I want to establish myself as a dominant player and even if I don’t play well one day I’m going to attack the next day with the same mindset.”
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Sykes is a redshirt senior with aspirations of playing in the NFL after his time at UCLA. He had opportunities to play for Northwestern and Rutgers and several Ivy League programs coming out of high school but decided Harvard was best for him.
“I settled on Harvard because the name Harvard (on a degree) will open doors,” Sykes said. “God forbid I get hurt or anything like that, but I have a great degree to help support my family and those types of things.”
He also believes Harvard offered a great balance of athletics and academics for him, with the Ivy League offering a “great caliber of football” that can prepare players for success in the NFL.
Sykes decided to explore his options to play for another program in a bigger conference after 2021, because of the extra year of eligibility that was offered to all student-athletes after the pandemic-shortened 2020 season.
“It’s going good,” Sykes said of the level of competition at UCLA. “It’s a little bit different here. It’s a lot more up-tempo and fast-paced and the guys are a little bit bigger and stronger but it’s going well.”
UCLA defensive back Stephan Blaylock, shown returning an interception during a 2020 game against Arizona at the Rose Bowl, has played in all 43 of the Bruins’ games since his true freshman season. He holds the longest current start streak on the roster with 31 consecutive starts. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)