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Kelley establishing himself as UCLA's go-to running back

Kelley establishing himself as UCLA's go-to running back
UCLA running back Joshua Kelly (27) looks for room to run against Washington in the third quarter on Saturday at the Rose Bowl. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Running back Joshua Kelley listened to a relaying of the accolades indifferently. Reporters mentioned the milestone of back-to-back games rushing for more than 100 yards, his speculated status as UCLA’s primary rusher.

Kelley just shrugged.

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“To me, it doesn’t mean that much,” he said, “’cause we’re not really winning.”

As UCLA fell to Washington 31-24 at the Rose Bowl on Saturday, Kelley totaled career highs in yards receiving (39) and yards rushing (125 in 20 carries), with a touchdown. The Bruins have struggled to establish a leading rusher, but Kelley is on track to assert himself as the go-to back.

He earned 124 yards in 12 carries against Colorado the week before.

The last Bruin to rush for more than 100 yards in back-to-back games was Paul Perkins, who totaled 151 yards against Nevada Las Vegas on Sept. 12, 2015, and 219 yards against Brigham Young on Sept. 19.

A junior transfer from UC Davis, Kelley provided the surge in UCLA’s run game after recording no carries against Fresno State the week before, earning 27 yards in the Bruins’ first two games.

“He didn’t sulk or pout when he didn’t play much against Fresno,” coach Chip Kelly said. “He just went to work.”

In order to make strides, Kelley took a step back.

He stopped overlooking the details in his running technique, pouring his attention at practice into correcting footwork, pressing the line of scrimmage and avoiding forced plays.

“I really went back to the basics,” Kelley said.

His work ethic earned admiration from linebacker Krys Barnes. Barnes appreciated how it takes only one play for Kelley to correct a mistake in practice, how he constantly communicated with coaches about ways to improve and how he powers through practice smiling.

“He gives it his best effort,” Barnes said. “Every day you see him in training, he’s going 110%.… What he does in training shows up on game day.”

Kelley’s outing started with an 18-yard run on UCLA’s first drive; he fumbled but recovered it. He built on that success, flashing a 39-yard run, then a two-yard rushing touchdown late in the fourth quarter.

After averaging 3.3 yards per carry against Cincinnati and 1.4 yards against Oklahoma, Kelley averaged 10.3 yards per carry against Colorado and 6.3 yards against Washington.

As UCLA works to build on a newfound balance between running and passing, Kelley is a source of encouragement in a young offense seeking consistency.

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With no other running backs receiving more than three carries, that responsibility of contributing on the ground fell to Kelley on Saturday. And he delivered; the product of improved practices made quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson smile every time Kelley’s name was mentioned in his postgame news conference.

The change leading up to Colorado struck Kelly, making Kelley’s breakout performance almost predictable.

“He was the best player in training sessions before the Colorado game, and it showed in the Colorado game,” Kelly said. “And he was the best this week… and it showed in this game.”

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