LOS ANGELES — UCLA football coach Chip Kelly was tasked with filling three key positions on his coaching staff this offseason.
After promoting Jerry Neuheisel to wide receivers coach and hiring Ryan Gunderson from San Jose State to be the quarterbacks coach, Kelly hired Keith Belton as the Bruins’ director of football performance in March, replacing Frank Wintrich, who departed the role to work for the U.S. Army in late February.
Belton made an immediate impact and is frequently talked about by the Bruins for the work they’ve done together throughout spring and fall camp.
“(Belton) has a passion for what he does,” Bruins assistant head coach Brian Norwood said. “He has a unique way of pouring into young men and challenging them while also being a good listener.”
Belton was recruited by and played fullback for Jerry Azzinaro at Syracuse from 2002-2003. Azzinaro is now the Bruins’ defensive coordinator and Belton uses that experience to help relate to the players.
“I think we needed him,” defensive back Quentin Lake said. “He’s a high-energy guy and what’s best is that he is going to get on you. He’s a rough-nose guy but at the same time it’s love. He understands the players because he’s been there, but the biggest thing is that he cares and he’s going to push you and that’s something we needed.”
Belton was the Senior Associate Head Strength and Conditioning Coach at Kansas in 2019 before leaving to become the Director of Sports Performance for OLLIN Athletics Sports Medicine in Texas.
Lake credits Belton for coming in and helping change the culture when it comes to the strength and conditioning aspect of the program.
“We can express ourselves,” Lake said. “Every day during workouts, we have music on and guys are dancing and having a good time. It’s a little bit of a change, but it’s a culture change that fits our team.”
Said the 40-year-old Belton: “People perform better when they feel like they aren’t being judged. When they feel like they can be free and be who they are. The big part of this profession is allowing people to be themselves and express themselves. That’s how you build trust.”
The players have also welcomed a structured workout plan after the pandemic limited the number of opportunities the team had to work together and get in shape ahead of the 2020 season.
Linebacker Bo Calvert confirmed that he was hiking with 50-pound rice bags as part of his at-home training routine and doing lunges on the sidewalk. Linebacker Caleb Johnson said he was trying to piece together a quality workout routine from his room.
“You’ll see when you come out here a lot of guys are a lot bigger and stronger,” Calvert said. “I think it’s a real testament to Coach KB and how hard we’ve been working.”
Linebacker Carl Jones Jr. notices the difference on the field from his teammates.
“There’s definitely been an improvement (on the field),” Jones said after the Bruins’ 2-0 start. “We felt the need to get better, faster and stronger this offseason. That’s all we did.”
Belton, who played in the NFL from 2004 to 2007, returns the same energy he would ask of the players throughout the week on game day from the sideline, where he can be seen encouraging players and relentlessly swinging a towel in the air.
“It became who I was,” Belton said about the towel swinging. “It wasn’t a sometimes thing. It was an ‘all the time’ thing. When they see the towel start going, they know it’s time to turn it up. ”
Belton said the energy and enthusiasm he provided on the Baylor sideline during the 2011 Alamo Bowl against Washington stood out to current UCLA defensive line coach Johnny Nansen, when he was with the Huskies. Belton would later work with Nansen at Washington (2012-13) and USC (2017-19).
Norwood worked with Belton at Baylor and said he wasn’t surprised by his energy and the accountability he preached to the players.
For Belton, being able to reunite and work with three familiar faces from different stages of his career serves as a full-circle moment for him.
“This is a good example that I explain to the guys all the time,” Belton said. “There’s never going to be a time where someone is not watching you. Your character and integrity are going to follow you for the rest of your life.”