UCLA coach Chip Kelly apparently lives by the motto of his native New Hampshire, where the license plates read, “Live free or die.”
Kelly said he would not compel defensive coordinator Jerry Azzinaro to speak with the media about his struggling defense even though Azzinaro is the only Pac-12 coordinator — on offense or defense — to not be available or to not speak with reporters since the start of training camp, according to research conducted by The Times.
“I think it’s his choice,” Kelly said before practice Wednesday. “It’s the United States of America, we’re not going to force anybody to do anything, so that’s his choice that he doesn’t want to speak to the media.”
Shouldn’t there be a level of accountability?
“There is a level of accountability,” Kelly said. “Just because he doesn’t talk to you doesn’t mean there’s not a level of accountability, so I think you’re convoluting two things, so that’s not how I see it. That may be how you see it and that’s your choice, too, because there is choice in this country.”
Azzinaro presides over a defense that ranks No. 75 out of 130 teams nationally in yards allowed, giving up 394.9 per game. The Bruins (5-4 overall, 3-3 Pac-12) rank No. 81 in scoring defense (28.2 points per game) and No. 117 in passing defense (278.4 yards per game).
The defense’s one strength — giving up 116.4 rushing yards per game, No. 24 nationally — faltered during UCLA’s 44-24 loss to Utah last weekend, allowing 290 yards on the ground.
Azzinaro’s contract that will pay him $700,000 this season includes a clause stating that UCLA can reasonably designate him to be available for media and other public appearances, but the school has declined to do so. Azzinaro has not spoken with the media since his hiring before the 2018 season.
Asked if it was fair to make players answer for the performance of the defense on nights like Saturday, when the Bruins gave up touchdowns on each of Utah’s first four drives, Kelly said, “I don’t think the linebacker has to answer for it. I think, ultimately, everything falls on my shoulders. I’m available all the time so I don’t think our players have to answer for our coaches. The head coach talks at every availability.”
Reminded he’s not in charge of the defense, Kelly said, “I’m in charge of everything. I’m in charge of the offense, I’m in charge of the defense, I’m in charge of the special teams, I’m in charge of the food, I’m in charge of it all.”
UCLA’s struggles under Azzinaro are nothing new. The team finished No. 102 nationally in total defense in 2018, No. 113 in 2019 and No. 69 in 2020. The improvement last season came after the Bruins hired Brian Norwood as defensive backs coach and defensive passing game coordinator while also changing to the 4-2-5 scheme he had helped run at Navy.
Azzinaro, 63, has won widespread praise for his work as a defensive line coach at previous stops, including at Oregon under Kelly, but has not had much success as a defensive coordinator. When Azzinaro was the co-defensive coordinator at Duke from 2004-06, the Blue Devils went 3-31 with defenses that ranked Nos. 100, 89 and 105 nationally.
The most success Azzinaro enjoyed as a defensive coordinator came during one of his yearlong stints at Massachusetts, when the Minutemen ranked No. 13 among Football Championship Subdivision teams in 1994. When Azzinaro returned and held the same post in 1997, the team finished No. 110.
Azzinaro has been part of Kelly’s staffs since 2009, when he was hired to coach the Ducks’ defensive line. Azzinaro followed Kelly to the NFL as the defensive line coach with the Philadelphia Eagles and San Francisco 49ers but had never served as a defensive coordinator under Kelly until 2018.