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UCLA running back Joshua Kelley's infectious personality has led to positive gains

UCLA running back Joshua Kelley's infectious personality has led to positive gains
UCLA running back Joshua Kelley breaks free for a touchdown against Utah. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

The classroom was silent by design. Students meditated as part of a life skills class, the quiet punctured only by the occasional sneeze or cough.

Something about the moment struck Joshua Kelley in the way most moments do. He burst out laughing, drawing more than a few quizzical looks.

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“Everyone was like, we’re trying to meditate,” Kelley recalled this week. “Is there something funny?”

Yes, there was. Comedy is central whenever the relentlessly positive UCLA tailback is around. He’s always smiling or giggling, no matter the circumstance.

“He’s by far the happiest person I’ve ever met and the nicest person,” punter Stefan Flintoft said. “Like, I’ve never seen him without a smile on his face.”

Kelley has beamed his way through a single-parent childhood, two losing seasons at UC Davis, another season sitting out at UCLA as part of transfer rules and a three-game stretch in which he barely played to start his career as a Bruin.

Now he’s getting what surely won’t be his last laugh as one of the Pac-12 Conference’s biggest breakthroughs. Kelley, a junior, has topped 100 yards rushing in five of UCLA’s last six games, putting him on pace to be the school’s first 1,000-yard rusher since Paul Perkins in 2015.

The Bruins’ most prolific player might also be their hardest worker and most upbeat personality, a rare trifecta. Center Boss Tagaloa said he’s spotted the car-less Kelley walking down Veteran Avenue toward Bible study at nighttime after a full day’s worth of classes, practice and film study, a process he’s repeated without complaint.

“He’s got a quality about him that you just want to be around a guy like that,” said UCLA coach Chip Kelly, who awarded Kelley a scholarship before the season, “but when you watch him work and you watch how much time he puts into it and then you watch what he does academically, he’s everything you want in a football player.”

Bruins running backs coach DeShaun Foster actually had one concern upon Kelley’s arrival at UCLA. All that happiness was a bit much.

“When I first got here,” Kelley said, “[Foster] was like, ‘We’re going to have to find a way to manage your personality because you’ve got to go run through somebody, you’ve got to go pass protect. This stuff doesn’t require you to be nice.’ ”

Kelley learned to get a touch nasty in pregame warmups and sustain his mean streak whenever he took a handoff. It’s one of the reasons he’s averaged 5.9 yards per carry over his last six games while displaying an impressive blend of vision and durability. He always seems to gain positive yardage whether he finds an open running lane or a wall of defenders, fulfilling the running backs’ mantra of absolutely no negative yardage.

Kelley is quick to credit everyone but himself, praising his offensive linemen, receivers, tight ends and quarterbacks. His mother, Jacqueline, also merited a shout-out for driving her son to a park every day during the summer before he enrolled at UCLA. She would pretend to be a safety, allowing him to maneuver around her, and do her best to throw him passes.

“I mean, it wasn’t the best spiral,” Joshua said with a chuckle, “but it for sure worked.”

Jacqueline had long been her son’s most supportive teammate, shepherding him and his older brother Daniel through a childhood in which their father was a fleeting presence. She also taught them Christian values and the power of positivity.

“She told me there’s going to be ups and downs,” Joshua said, “that life and football is a roller-coaster, so it’s kind of like, not riding the wave but just always look up.”

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Jacqueline would routinely receive phone calls from her youngest son’s elementary school teachers in the middle of the day, filling her with a sense of dread when she contemplated where the conversation might be headed. Her worry was always needless.

“They would call me and say, ‘Hey, you know, Joshua is such a joy to have in the class,’ ” Jacqueline said.

His Bruins teammates felt the same way once he set foot on campus. His cheery outlook even brightened some of the more dour Bruins.

“When everyone’s looking down,” receiver Christian Pabico said, “Josh is always there like, ‘Hey, man, we’ve just got to keep pushing. We can win this game.’ ”

Kelley started to get the bulk of UCLA’s carries in late September once he stopped overthinking everything and trusting his instincts and his belief that he belonged at college football’s highest level.

He conceded there are indeed things that can get him down. The team’s 0-5 start, barely playing and a midterm paper he had forgotten about that was due in less than 24 hours are all bummers, he said with a chuckle.

Kelley also admitted that he can’t always command his laugh.

“It’s uncontrollable sometimes,” he said.

That would include the infrequent instances in which his coach has upbraided him.

“Coach Kelly can be really getting on him bad and he’ll just be smiling the whole time, like, ‘Ah, yeah, all right, coach,’ ” Tagaloa said. “You just can’t get mad at the guy because he’s always smiling. There’s so much positive about him and he deserves everything he’s getting right now.”

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