On a cloudless, warm Saturday morning in Westwood, running back Joshua Kelley displayed the qualities that caused UCLA fans to celebrate his decision to return for his senior year rather than enter the NFL draft.
Greeting people with a warm handshake and smile and answering questions with politeness and humbleness, Kelley is the kind of college athlete fans want to root for.
Kelley could have chosen to take his chances in the NFL draft after putting himself in the national conversation with a 289-yard rushing performance against USC and 1,243 yards on the ground for the 2018 season.
“Obviously, at the end of the day, every single person who laces up his cleats, they all want to play professional football,” Kelley said. “Who wouldn’t want to play in the NFL?”
Then came his honest, humble answer.
“I wasn’t ready,” he said.
Conversations with Bruins coach Chip Kelly and running backs coach DeShaun Foster, combined with a promise to his mother to earn his degree from UCLA, made his decision to return not so hard. It also helped that he has the perspective of being a former walk-on who transferred to UCLA from UC Davis.
“He has a plan and a vision and has a lot of faith in his religion and is enjoying college,” said Richard Lear, who coached Kelley at Eastlake High in Lancaster. “He knows his ability and what he’s capable of. He has patience.”
Said Kelley: “You really can’t jump into something just because it’s there. I learned a lot from coach Foster. He’s been there. You’re playing with grown men. It’s a different game.”
During spring practice, Kelley is “obsessed with getting better,” according to Kelly, his coach, who compared his focus with Tom Brady’s.
“When Tom was here last year, he was working on his fundamental footwork,” Kelly said. “Why would a quarterback be working on fundamental footwork when you’re 41 and have won multiple Super Bowls? Because everybody can continue to get better. Josh is no different. He’s played one season for us and had an unbelievable year, but he can improve in pass protection. He can improve in route running.”
During spring football practice, Kelley is taking on a new leadership role.
He admits to feeling like “I’m an old man” when he’s with the freshmen and sophomores competing for his position.
“I have to get my speed up to match them,” he said.
UCLA fans can probably thank his mother, Jacqueline Kelley, for his return.
“My mom is always preaching to me, 'You have to graduate,’ ” he said. “I’m so close. I didn’t come this far transferring not getting a degree from UCLA. That’s huge. At the end of the day, a team can cut you or trade you. They can’t trade or cut your degree.”
Kelly’s recruiting pitch
With potential recruits and high school coaches coming to watch spring practice, Kelly explained his recruiting philosophy.
“I think you have to be honest and transparent,” he said. “At the end, people appreciate that. We’re not going to offer 10,000 kids because 10,000 kids can’t get into school here. We’re really thorough in terms of our academic evaluations and character evaluations before we offer a kid because we mean what we say and we say what we mean. If we offer a young man, that means the kid can get into school here.”
Asked about star rankings of players, Kelly said, “I think those people do a nice job, but I don’t know if they have all the information. I can look at a film and say that kid is a five-star player, then he has a 1.9 grade-point average, so [he] can’t get into a lot of schools.”
Taking a break
Saturday’s practice was the final one before the Bruins take a two-week break before resuming in April.
Cornerback Elijah Gates had the highlight play, making an interception of a pass from Dorian Thompson-Robinson and taking off for what would have been a touchdown. Keisean Lucier-South had a sack and pass deflection while celebrating his 22nd birthday.