UCLA’s running game collectively stuck in reverse amid winless start
Joshua Kelley was returning, Kazmeir Allen was rocketing, Martell Irby was rising, Demetric Felton was revamping, Keegan Jones and Jahmon McClendon were reporting.
One position UCLA appeared stocked at heading into fall camp was running back.
Kelley had been the breakthrough star of last season, his 113 yards rushing per game giving the Bruins a reliable threat going into 2019.
Allen had provided a speedy change of pace, zipping past defenders for a 74-yard touchdown against Cincinnati and practically breaking the sound barrier on jet sweeps.
Irby had built considerable late-season momentum, his 6.7 yards per carry against Stanford last November putting him in line for a larger role.
Felton had pulled a promising switcheroo, the converted receiver showing enough potential to stand out even in a crowded tailback rotation.
UCLA’s blowout loss to Oklahoma amid another 0-3 start begs the question: Would coach Chip Kelly ever consider resigning before being fired?
Jones and McClendon had arrived as true freshmen harboring hopes of making an immediate impact.
Almost none of it has gone according to plan amid UCLA’s second consecutive 0-3 start, the Bruins running a collective reverse. Their 78 yards rushing per game ranks No. 124 nationally and evokes memories of the team’s running-in-place 2016 season under former offensive coordinator Kennedy Polamalu.
UCLA’s 110 yards rushing Saturday during its 48-14 loss to Oklahoma at the Rose Bowl were easily its highest total of the season but not nearly enough to make the game competitive or alleviate pressure on quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson.
Felton gained a team-high 65 yards in only five carries, but 42 of those yards came on one run. Take that away and he was a nonfactor. Kelley had 51 yards in 18 carries, averaging just 2.8 yards per attempt.
Kelley and Felton have become a two-man rotation in what was expected to be a smorgasbord of running backs.
“Me and Josh do the best we can,” said Felton, who is averaging 54.7 yards per game and 4.3 yards per carry, “and we would love to have Martell and Kaz out there because they bring something different as well, but that’s not my call, really. It’s up to coach [Chip] Kelly.”
The NCAA believes the Fair Pay for Play Act will hurt competitive balance between schools, but there’s little competitive balance in college football already.
The Bruins’ troubles with their running game started on the second day of fall camp, when Kelley went down with a knee injury. He did not fully resume practicing until eight days before the season opener, which he sat out.
Kelley played against San Diego State and Oklahoma but hardly resembled the player who ran for a series-record 289 yards last season against USC. He has rushed for 104 yards — in two games — and appears to be rounding into form while averaging just 3.2 yards per carry, well below his average of 5.5 yards from last season.
“I can’t put a percentage on him,” Kelly said, “but obviously he missed some time and he’s trying to get back to where he can be. He did some good things [Saturday] and we need to continue to build on that.”
The Bruins also need something — anything — out of their running backs not named Kelley and Felton.
Allen hasn’t played this season because of academic deficiencies and there remains no timetable for his return, according to Kelly.
Irby got three carries in the opener against Cincinnati but hasn’t played since, with Kelly saying he’s been surpassed in the rotation. Jones and McClendon aren’t ready to contribute at the college level, Kelly said.
It certainly hasn’t helped the running game that Thompson-Robinson has struggled and there’s been some rejiggering of the offensive line with guard Michael Alves missing the first three games and true freshman Sean Rhyan taking over at left tackle. But it would have been almost impossible to envision that a position considered one of the Bruins’ strengths just six weeks ago could falter in such epic fashion.
“I think it’s just going to take everyone on the offense to do their job each play,” Felton said when asked how the running game could improve. “That’s going to create more opportunities for us to get loose and make more yards downfield.”
UCLA redshirt freshman receiver Kyle Philips’ 13-yard touchdown catch early in the second quarter was the first score of his college career.… Bruins linebacker Krys Barnes (right knee) and receiver Jaylen Erwin (shoulder area) were hurt against Oklahoma, but the severity of their injuries was not immediately known. Erwin made an eight-yard touchdown catch in the third quarter, his first score as a Bruin.
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