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Joshua Kelley's persistence could be his calling card at UCLA

Joshua Kelley's persistence could be his calling card at UCLA
UCLA running back Joshua Kelley looks for room to run during the Bruins' spring football game at Drake Stadium on April 21. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Joshua Kelley called UCLA’s football office so often in the spring of 2017 that he was nearly on a first-name basis with the receptionists. His voice, and his objective, became instantly recognizable.

“It got to a point where every time they were like, ‘Are you asking for coach Foster again?’ ” Kelley recalled with a laugh.

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DeShaun Foster, the Bruins’ running backs coach, wasn’t exactly expecting Kelley’s calls. The largely unknown running back had spent two seasons at UC Davis and was seeking a new home when the coaching staff was fired after the 2016 season.

UCLA had been Kelley’s dream school coming out of Eastside High in Lancaster, so he called and emailed Foster in hopes of latching on with the Bruins.

“He called me relentlessly for at least two months,” Foster said, “probably the whole spring.”

On the day he was ready to abandon his pursuit, Kelley said a voice told him not to give up. He was soon given some tangible hope.

Another call to the football office yielded more than a he’ll-get-back-to-you retort. The receptionist told Kelley that Foster had been asking about him. She put him through to the coach, who invited him to a tryout camp.

The Bruins had found their new running back.

Kelley wowed during training camp last year and in practices while sitting out the season because of transfer rules. Now he intends to dazzle Sept. 1 at the Rose Bowl when UCLA opens its season against Cincinnati.

“I have this mind-set that no matter where I go,” Kelley said, “I gotta make an impression.”

First impressions tend to hold up with the redshirt junior, who . immediately won over the Bruins’ coaching staff upon his arrival last summer and was awarded a scholarship by new coach Chip Kelly before the start of training camp.

“He’s got speed to go along with size,” Kelly said of a player who stands 5 feet 11 and weighs 204 pounds. “He can run between the tackles, but he also has the ability to break things outside, so we’ve been really happy with him.”

The Bruins will be even more pleased if Kelley can help revive a running game that has been among the worst in the nation. UCLA averaged only 113.4 yards rushing per game last season, ranking No. 115 in the nation, and that was an improvement over the previous season, when the team averaged 84.3 yards and ranked No. 127.

Bolu Olorunfunmi, the Bruins’ presumed starting tailback, said he was impressed with Kelley’s tirelessness and ability to push a group of running backs that also includes senior Soso Jamabo, junior Brandon Stephens and freshman Kazmier Allen.

What has puzzled those who have watched the fast and durable Kelley was his not being more widely coveted coming out of high school. He had drawn interest from a slew of colleges, according to Richard Lear, his coach at Eastside, but nobody offered a scholarship besides UC Davis, a lower-division school.

“It was just one of those deals where no one wanted to be that first big school to pull the trigger,” Lear said, “and I think he’s going to make them pay now.”

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As a sophomore with the Aggies, Kelley ran for 609 yards and four touchdowns as part of a crowded backfield, averaging 7.0 yards per carry. He also returned a kickoff 91 yards for a touchdown against Weber State and averaged 24.3 yards per kickoff return, ranking No. 26 nationally.

Team success proved more elusive. UC Davis finished 3-8 in 2016, sealing the fate of coach Ron Gould after a fourth consecutive losing season under his guidance.

The new staff asked Kelley to stay, but he decided to challenge himself because he felt like he could compete at college football’s highest level. Boise State showed some interest, Lear said, asking Kelley to walk on with the possibility of a scholarship later in his career.

Kelley also received permission to contact USC and UCLA, sparking his barrage of phone calls to the Bruins’ football office.

Persistence is a family trait. Kelley’s mother, Jacqueline, molded her youngest son and his older brother Daniel into respectful and diligent boys while working with other children as a speech pathologist.

“There was never a dad in the picture,” said Lear, who coached both brothers. “It was always mom was doing the best she could as a single parent and raised two outstanding young men, so hats off to mom. She’s definitely the backbone of her boys.”

Joshua said his joyous demeanor comes from being part of a family that doesn’t marinate in misfortune. That positivity was tested last season when Kelley starred in practice only to sit out games while watching from the Rose Bowl sideline.

“I was just like, man, can I just scoot over and get on the field?” Kelley said.

Kelley operated in anonymity, his last name misspelled in a newspaper report and occasionally by the school. Of course, that might have only further endeared Kelley to the coach whose name was once spelled “Kelley” in a media guide when he was New Hampshire’s running backs coach.

Kelly surprised Kelley after having him break a team meeting when the coach announced that he was being put on scholarship. To Kelley, it felt like the start of what he hopes is a far bigger payoff on the field.

As he stood outside the team’s practice facility last weekend, Kelley tugged on a blue-and-white wristband that players had been given before training camp. The words on it read “Never give up.”

Kelley didn’t need to be sold on the mantra.

“It felt like more than just a camp thing for me,” Kelley said. “It’s just a lifestyle now.”

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