This is the latest in a series examining the 15 most important assistant coaching hires of the 2018 season. Previous installment:
Who: Jerry Azzinaro, UCLA
Title: Defensive coordinator
Previous stop: California defensive line coach (2017)
Why he’s important: It’s never safe to assume, but let’s go ahead and make one assumption: Chip Kelly will get UCLA’s offense going in the right direction. It may not be immediate and it may not be the halcyon days of LaMichael James and Marcus Mariota — that’s a high bar to clear, let alone twice — but it’s hard to imagine a Chip Kelly team struggling to move the ball, especially not with Southern California’s finest in his backyard.
Kelly assembled an eclectic staff with him in Westwood — for instance, former Big 12 head coach Paul Rhoads is his defensive backs coach, while his defensive line coach, Vincent Oghobaase, has never been a lead position coach before. But Kelly turned to a longtime lieutenant to lead his defense in Azzinaro.
Like Kelly himself, Azzinaro is a native Northeasterner who spent most of us career traveling up and down the East Coast before Kelly brought him out west to serve as Oregon’s defensive line coach in 2009. Azzinaro then followed Kelly to Philadelphia and San Francisco as his defensive line coach before spending last year in Berkeley while Kelly took his year-long sabbatical.
Pairing with another longtime Kelly assistant in linebackers coach Don Pellum, Kelly is banking on Azzinaro to install a defense that works in concert with his vision for the overall program.
“Jerry and Don are two of the top defensive coaches in the business, bringing more than 60 seasons of combined football experience to our staff,” Kelly said in a statement. “The success Jerry has had and expertise he has gained in more than three decades at both the college and professional levels have provided him with a supreme knowledge of the game. Don has an uncanny ability to relate to and develop student-athletes. I’m looking forward to seeing the impact they will make here.”
While Kelly’s Oregon teams built a reputation as offense-first and offense-second teams, the 2010 Ducks team that won the Pac-10 title and reached the BCS title game ranked 11th nationally in yards per play and 12th in scoring.
One thing is certain: there is work to be done. UCLA finished 108th in yards per play allowed, 117th in scoring and dead last in rushing defense in 2017. Kelly is clearly comfortable with who he’s put in charge of this turnaround project. And if Azzinaro can get it turned, look out.