UCLA running back Joshua Kelley is all smiles thinking ahead to his senior season
Joshua Kelley’s allotted time had passed. His coach, once seated across the room, had made his final remarks and departed.
Kelley lingered behind a dais in the corner of a darkened ballroom, the UCLA senior running back savoring every moment. There were enthusiastic responses to even the most mundane questions. Every answer was punctuated with a laugh and a smile, always a smile.
Finally, cutting off another query in mid-sentence, two Pac-12 Conference officials ushered Kelley off the stage in preparation for the next player.
The long goodbye has begun for the Bruins’ unlikely star who intends on making it a memorable farewell.
Kelley’s rise from UC Davis unknown to NFL prospect by way of Westwood was perhaps the most pinch-me story line of Pac-12 media day Wednesday at the Hollywood & Highland Center.
“It’s kind of crazy being here and seeing a lot of these guys,” Kelley said earlier in the day, flashing another smile. “It’s like, oh my goodness, they’re so great, man. Kind of in a way, it’s like, do I really belong here?”
The Pac-12 Conference’s football championship game will be played at the NFL’s new Las Vegas Stadium during the 2020 and 2021 seasons.
There’s no doubt that Kelley deserved the recognition after last season. He finished with 1,243 yards rushing and 12 touchdowns despite not solidifying his spot as the starter until the season’s fourth game.
He topped 100 yards six times and ran for at least one touchdown in each of the last eight games. His 289 yards against USC were the most by anyone in the history of the rivalry game.
Kelley was polite enough not to bring up that fact when he recently met Reggie Bush, the Trojans’ Heisman Trophy-winning running back. Bush gave Kelley some pointers and told him he was slated to call some of Kelley’s games this season in his new role as a Fox analyst.
Kelley’s return after flirting with the NFL draft was one of the reasons the media picked UCLA to finish in a tie with Arizona State for third place in the Pac-12’s South Division after a wildly disappointing first season under coach Chip Kelly.
The Bruins finished 3-9 but were clearly on an upward trajectory by season’s end, beating USC and nearly ending a decade’s worth of futility against Stanford with a seven-point loss.
Along the way, Kelley solidified himself as a known quantity among NFL scouts, if not casual football fans. He finally got noticed off campus recently while walking to a Target.
“It was humbling,” said Kelley, UCLA’s first 1,000-yard rusher since Paul Perkins in 2015. “So fans actually know who I am. That’s crazy.”
Kelley said the encounter made him want to get back to work so that he doesn’t let fans down when the Bruins open the season on the road against Cincinnati on Aug. 29. His to-do list includes getting better in pass protection, route running and ball security, even though he fumbled just twice last season and his team recovered the ball both times.
Utah was selected as the favorite to win the Pac-12 this season. USC’s Michael Pittman and Jay Tufele were selected to the preseason all-conference first team.
Becoming a more complete player was among the reasons Kelly advised his top running back to return for one more college season before attempting to make the jump to the NFL.
“I think there’s a lot more experiences that he needs as a player, and that’s going to benefit him,” Kelly said. “And I think it’s going to make him a more viable candidate going into the league this year.”
Kelly poked fun at Kelley’s friendly demeanor in his opening remarks to reporters Wednesday, describing him as “the quiet kid who doesn’t smile very often; he’s really tough to get to know.”
Across the room, unaware of his coach’s joke, Kelley kept answering a question before his coach interjected, “Josh, I’m talking about you, buddy.” Kelley smiled and raised his hand to wave.
He’ll be part of a deep backfield that also includes the speedy Kazmeir Allen, the sturdy Martell Irby and a handful of versatile newcomers. Kelley said he wouldn’t change the approach that led to his breakthrough season.
“Keep putting in the work, keep practicing, keep watching film,” Kelley said. “Like my teammate Quentin Lake told me one time, just keep doing what got you here. Those words really stuck with me. Now I’m here at Pac-12 media day.”
It was just the first in a series of lasts that Kelley intends to treasure — last season opener, last game at the Rose Bowl, last college game.
“There’s a lot of soaking up to do and UCLA’s a special place,” said Kelley, who sat out the 2017 season after his transfer from UC Davis. “I’ve been here only for about two years now, but it’s been great how the fans embraced me, the coaches have embraced me.
“I’m going to miss it. I’m going to get emotional about it and we’ve got some work to do before I get emotional.”
Kelly said linebacker Keisean Lucier-South would miss training camp while continuing to address academic issues that sidelined him for most of spring practice but could potentially make his season debut in the fourth game, against Washington State on Sept. 21. … UCLA has applied for a waiver that would make transfer quarterback Colson Yankoff immediately eligible. … The Bruins are expected to be at full strength for the start of training camp July 31 on campus, with linebacker Josh Woods fully cleared from the knee injury that sidelined him all of last season.
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