Chip Kelly used the same phrase twice in a matter of seconds, saying that UCLA junior cornerback Darnay Holmes “walks the walk.” It sounded like the usual media day coachspeak stuck on repeat except to those who knew the backstory.
Holmes strolled into extraordinary territory when he walked across a stage in June.
He became the rare college football player to graduate after only two seasons, earning a bachelor’s degree in African American studies. Steve Rourke, the Bruins associate director of athletic communications who has worked with the school’s football team for three decades, said Saturday that he could not recall another player having graduated in such a short span.
“Oh, that’s dope,” said UCLA cornerback Elijah Gates, who was Holmes’ teammate when they played on the Pasadena Panthers team as 6-year-olds. “Just coming in here setting the standard, I mean, just for all of us.”
Holmes got a head start on his studies, enrolling in January 2017 so that he could participate in spring practices before his freshman season. He made the athletic director’s academic honor roll twice and maximized the use of summer quarters to graduate in less than three full academic years.
“Truthfully, I just mapped it out and executed my goal,” Holmes said. “I’m not keeping track of if it’s a record or if it’s an accolade. It’s just something I set out and I did what I had to do to get that degree.”
Holmes said he intended to take graduate courses, but not before commencing more field studies on the artificial turf outside Wasserman Center. There’s additional things the Bruins’ most decorated defender wants to master before the team opens the season Aug. 29 at Cincinnati.
“Every time we get on this field we learn something new every day,” Holmes said, “and that’s our main thing is constantly growing and developing because once you get satisfied, a lot of things can go wrong.”
Plenty went awry for UCLA’s defense last season on the way to a 3-9 record. The team gave up 34.1 points and 245.5 yards passing per game, the former figure ranking 11th in the Pac-12 Conference and the latter ranking ninth.
The Bruins’ secondary could be a strength this season considering it has returning starters in Holmes, Gates and safety Quentin Lake. Gates took it a step further, saying that UCLA “can be the best defense in the nation.”
Holmes was rarely beaten in 2018 on the way to recently becoming a preseason second team All-Pac-12 selection, the only Bruin to be picked to the first or second team. He grabbed a team-leading three interceptions last season, including one he returned for a touchdown against Arizona State.
His most remarkable play involved chasing down Arizona running back J.J. Taylor from behind and knocking the ball out of his grasp before recovering it in the end zone. It was the defining moment of UCLA’s 31-30 victory over the Wildcats and led to a YouTube tribute video from a Holmes fan in a thick Southern drawl.
“I’m telling you, this is a kid playing on Saturdays that’s going to be playing on Sundays real soon,” the fan said of a player who could be a top pick in the 2020 NFL draft. “This kid is a playmaker and heartbreaker.”
He also has become a partaker in some new endeavors. Holmes is among a group of Bruins who have taken up chess as a way to become more analytical in their approach to football. Meditation also has become a late-morning routine among some players.
“We just try to constantly tap into things so we’re actually present and grounded,” Holmes said. “Just debriefing from the football side, academic side, and really just getting your mind right and being a visionary.”
Holmes has been a tone-setter since starting his first college game. He’s routinely among the last players to leave the practice field and has become what his coach described as “a go-to leader.”
“His work ethic and mind-set I think is special, and there’s a maturity to Darnay that I think rubs off on a lot of the younger guys,” Kelly said. “They kind of gravitate to him. I think he enjoys that mentoring role and really takes it to heart. But the first and foremost with Darnay is he walks the walk first. There’s nothing that he tells another player to do that he hasn’t done himself.
“And I don’t know if we have a more dedicated guy to the game of football and to just being a good person, a good student, a worker, everything. Darnay kind of epitomizes that.”
Getting his degree after only two seasons also helped Holmes embody one of his father Darick’s favorite sayings: School is the new cool.
“It was just a blessing to be out there with the boys and have my family there and friends,” Darnay said of his graduation ceremony. “Just really just to digest that feeling was the ultimate feeling, but now we’re focused on this thing out here.”
Running back Joshua Kelley was absent from the portion of practice open to reporters for a second consecutive day. ... Kelly has not addressed the media since Thursday and is not scheduled to do so until Sunday morning. … Receiver Michael Ezeike joined receivers Theo Howard and Dymond Lee in wearing a yellow jersey to signify he’s recovering from an injury.