Jim Mora sized up the diminutive receiver who weighed just 185 pounds but was dangerously shifty on a handful of runs. He did not see someone capable of carrying the ball on nearly every play.
“If you tried to run him a lot, it wouldn’t be the best thing for your football team or for him,” Mora said of Demetric Felton in September 2017 during his final months as UCLA’s football coach. “That doesn’t mean he won’t get some shots there in some special situations … but he won’t be an every-down back. He’s just not built that way.”
Almost two years later, Chip Kelly sized up the diminutive receiver who weighed just 185 pounds and saw someone capable of carrying the ball on nearly every play.
The Bruins coach turned almost exclusively to the 5-foot-9 Felton at running back Thursday during his team’s 24-14 loss to Cincinnati on the road in its season opener.
Among UCLA’s running backs, Felton made 23 of their 26 carries, with sophomore Martell Irby getting the rest. Felton, a redshirt junior, gained 71 yards, averaging 3.1 yards per carry, as part of an offense that mustered 218 total yards, its lowest output since getting 210 against Colorado in November 2016.
The heavy workload was largely a result of the Bruins missing running backs Joshua Kelley because of a lingering knee injury and Kazmeir Allen because of academic shortcomings that prevented him from making the trip to Cincinnati.
Kelly also noted that Felton had excelled at the position in practice.
“What he showed us since we started camp,” Kelly said, “obviously with Josh being down there was a big hole there and we were really going to alternate him and Irbs, and those are really the two guys we were going to go with and see if they could get us through the game.”
Felton said it was his first start at the position since he starred for Great Oak High in Temecula and noted he had “no clue” beforehand that he would get as many carries as he did.
“It was pretty exciting for me to do that,” said Felton, who also contributed the Bruins’ biggest offensive highlight when he caught a short pass and turned it into a 75-yard touchdown in the second quarter.
Felton said he was fine filling whatever role the team needed. He got some pregame tips on how to handle running back duties by his hotel roommate Kelley, who ran for 1,243 yards and 12 touchdowns last season.
“He’s obviously a great guy, you know?” Felton said as Kelley walked by in a tunnel, offering a wave and a smile. “I can’t wait for him to get back so me and him can ball, just tag team.”
UCLA’s special teams did not commit any egregious blunders against the Bearcats, which qualified as an improvement over last season.
Wade Lees averaged 45.6 yards per punt, including a 72-yarder. He also escaped having a punt blocked after the protection broke down and was able to get off another punt from deep in the Nippert Stadium end zone after a penalty backed up the Bruins to their own three-yard line.
Felton tried the team’s only kickoff return, getting just 12 yards. The Bruins did not return any punts.
The biggest breakdown was a bad snap from long snapper Johnny Den Bleyker after getting duped by Cincinnati.
“Our guys said they were yelling something, [Den Bleyker] thought it was our cadence,” Kelly said. “It wasn’t our cadence because we don’t use that.”
Defensive back Elijah Gates made a career-high 10 tackles and defensive lineman Atonio Mafi made a career-high nine tackles. … Guard Michael Alves, who had started a team-high 25 consecutive games, saw his streak end when he sat out because of a back injury. Receiver Theo Howard, who did not play because of a wrist injury, had started in 18 consecutive games before Thursday.