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UCLA’s Martell Irby is ready to take command of running back spot, for now

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UCLA running back Martell Irby takes the ball upfield during the annual spring intrasquad football game at Drake Stadium in Westwood on April 20.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

For the latter half of last season, UCLA running back Martell Irby wanted to be like Joshua Kelley.

For the last two weeks, Irby essentially has been Kelley.

“We gotta do,” Irby said Wednesday, “what Josh did for us when he got here.”

Kelley, the star of the Bruins’ offense, has been sidelined for an extended stretch by a knee injury that isn’t expected to keep him out of the team’s season opener against Cincinnati on Aug. 29. But his absence has provided an opportunity for the sophomore Irby to show what he could do with an increased workload.

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Irby, who ran for a career-high 47 yards and a touchdown in seven carries in the season finale against Stanford, finished 2018 with 187 rushing yards, trailing only Kazmeir Allen (188) and Kelley (1,243). Allen has been sidelined the last few days by a tweaked ankle, providing additional carries for Irby.

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Irby increased his speed over the summer to keep up with the team’s slew of track stars and said he feels his acceleration most on runs when he reaches the secondary.

“Once I get through the backers, make a move and take it to the second level,” Irby said, “it’s like OK, turn it on, we gotta go.”

Irby is part of a crowded backfield that also includes junior Demetric Felton and freshmen Keegan Jones and Jahmon McClendon.

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Known for his durability as a freshman, Irby could now be among the team’s most complete tailbacks.

“I can set the edge as a blocker, I can get the rock, I can catch out of the backfield, things like that,” Irby said, “in addition to being able to just get the yards that need to be got.”

Having nearly completed a second training camp, Irby can also mentor the team’s younger running backs, mimicking Kelley in one more way.

“It’s just kind of trying to be the big brother now,” Irby said.

On the mend

The Bruins nearly had enough injured players Wednesday to field an 11-man walking wounded unit, though a few weren’t ambulatory.

Absent from practice were left tackle Alec Anderson and linebacker Tyree Thompson, who both recently underwent surgery. Anderson had a procedure on his right leg and Thompson on his left foot.

McClendon joined fellow running backs Kelley and Allen in yellow jerseys to show they were off limits from contact. All three players spent part of practice pedaling a stationary bike alongside guard Sam Marrazzo, who was also recovering from an injury.

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Yellow was also a popular color among the receivers. Walk-on receiver Ashton Authement slipped on a yellow jersey, the same model worn for all of training camp by Theo Howard and Dymond Lee.

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Coach Chip Kelly’s reaction to all the injured players? Not exactly high anxiety.

Kelly called it “one of the best camps we’ve had” in terms of injuries, saying reporters inquiring about the situation were “making a lot bigger deal out of it than it really is.”

Kelly said the only player who will definitely miss the opening game is Thompson, though Anderson’s availability remained unknown.

“The trainer said it’s nothing serious,” Kelly said, “so he’s back now rehabbing. We don’t anticipate any long-term issues with Alec.”

Others also appear to be making progress. Howard and Lee caught passes with the other receivers. Marrazzo recently ditched the crutches he was using and moved without a limp. Receiver Michael Ezeike on Wednesday became the first player in training camp to shed a yellow jersey, returning to full participation.

Fit and miss?

Kelly has repeatedly talked about fit in his recruiting efforts, saying he only pursues high school players who can excel academically as well as on the field. But the Bruins have missed out on a large number of recruits they have targeted under Kelly.

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Can UCLA get its recruiting where it needs to be without the bump of a winning season in 2019?

“We like where recruiting is,” Kelly said.

Asked if he was happy with his hit rate for prospects he evaluated as fits for UCLA, Kelly said, “Yeah, we’re really happy where we are right now.”

With four months left before the early signing period, UCLA remains in need of a strong closing push. The Bruins have 11 players committed as part of a class that 247Sports has ranked No. 8 among Pac-12 Conference teams.

Unless things change, it could be the second consecutive underwhelming haul. UCLA’s 2019 class was ranked No. 6 in the Pac-12 and No. 40 nationally by 247Sports.


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