Each day in practice, the star tailback is on equal footing with the walk-ons.
Rushing for 1,243 yards last season, including a 289-yard performance against USC that was more than any other running back in the history of UCLA’s rivalry game, guarantees Joshua Kelley nothing heading into next season. Like everybody else, he’s fighting for a starting job.
“Everybody has to prove themselves anew,” UCLA coach Chip Kelly said Saturday. “Just because you started a year ago doesn’t mean you start now. … It’s a daily competition. So you’ve got to go out here and push yourself every single day. Last year was last year. This is a brand new season and we’re going to put the best guys on the field.”
Kelly’s reliance on constant competition had a few detractors when he coached in the NFL. Retired quarterback Michael Vick told Bleacher Report’s Simms and Lefkoe Podcast that he cried before the Philadelphia Eagles’ 2013 season because of Kelly’s insistence on a quarterback competition between the 11-year veteran and Nick Foles, who was in only his second season.
“Now I’m in a battle, which I’m clearly winning,” Vick said. “Nothing against Nick; nothing but respect for him, we love him to death. I’m sitting in my hyperbaric chamber with tears coming out of my eyes, crying because I’m like, I did everything I could for Chip Kelly.”
Vick won the starting job to open the season but eventually ceded it to Foles after getting injured.
“Competition brings out the best in everybody,” Kelly said. “That’s why we approach it that way and that’s what our players really enjoy.”
Even a guy like Kelley, who’s already proven himself to the point where he could have left for the NFL after last season?
“He’s got a great body of work last year; he’s got to have a great body of work this year,” Kelly said. “And that’s why Josh is great because that’s Josh’s mentality too. So Josh is working his tail off to improve himself and put himself in the best position he can be.”
Walk-on Jayce Smalley is among the unheralded players making a case for a larger role, even if it’s not as a starter. The sophomore outside linebacker has been playing with the first-string defense this spring, in part because of his playmaking and in part because Elijah Wade has been injured and Keisean Lucier-South has temporarily left the team to focus on academics.
Smalley said he welcomed the chance to showcase his skills against more highly touted teammates.
“I feel like we all have an equal opportunity,” Smalley said, “no matter if you’re a scholarship or a walk-on player.”
Kyle Philips is making his second go-round before his first season that counts.
The freshman receiver redshirted last year because of a concussion that ended his season after only four games. He returned to practices late in the season and could have played in the last game against Stanford but didn’t want to lose a year of eligibility.
Philips is participating in his second set of spring practices, this time with renewed vigor.
“Having the break just made me appreciate football more,” Philips said, “so when I did come back I was like, ‘I don’t want to be out again, I just want to be out on the field playing.’ So it just made me work harder.”
Philips said he’s also sensed a more assertive vibe from teammates going into their second season under Kelly.
“Just the way the team carries themselves, everything’s different,” Philips said. “Even Dorian [Thompson-Robinson]. He’s not just our quarterback, but he’s kind of stepped into the role as a leader and everything. Just everyone just has more confidence, including myself. So we just are able to play confident and able to make plays.”
Follow Ben Bolch on Twitter @latbbolch