Demetric Felton Jr. is helping UCLA’s offense move in the right direction
They were going to talk like they always did, a father and son rehashing the game while parsing their feelings about what had happened.
Demetric Felton readied his words for the son named in his honor as he watched UCLA’s deficit grow uncomfortably large in the third quarter Saturday. This wasn’t going to be easy, even over the phone.
His son had predicted that the Bruins would beat nationally ranked Washington State on the road despite a winless start to the season, and here they were getting thrashed on national television.
Over the next hour, as the deficit dwindled from 32 points to 25 to 18 to 11 to three, Felton’s son kept doing things that made his father and mother scream at their screen at increasingly high volume. By the game’s end, the father needed a new script for that little chat with his son.
“We just celebrated and we cried together,” the elder Felton said of the flood of emotions after UCLA’s madcap comeback for a 67-63 victory.
The tears were for prophesies fulfilled, both of a Bruins triumph and the emergence of an undersized running back who had made the most memorable of introductions.
Hey, everybody, meet Demetric Felton Jr.
Accused of having regressed this season, UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson blossomed during the Bruins’ 67-63 win over Washington State.
He was the one who unleashed more cutbacks than the publishing industry on his way to a 100-yard kickoff return.
He was the one who took a short pass and stiff-armed two defenders while sprinting for a 94-yard touchdown.
He was the one who took another short pass, cut back inside and spun into the end zone for the game-winning score.
These were the kinds of plays the 5-foot-9, 185-pound redshirt junior had long been expecting to make, if given the chance to do more than just play receiver.
“I don’t want to be selfish or anything,” he said, “but I feel like I can make plays when the ball is in my hands, so it’s just a great feeling to finally be able to do this.”
He’s doing a lot of everything, ranking ninth nationally and leading the Pac-12 Conference with 158.3 all-purpose yards per game. His 80.2 receiving yards per game lead the team and his 44.2 rushing yards per game are second, trailing only Joshua Kelley’s 64.7 yards per game.
Felton had occasionally been enlisted as a running back for jet sweeps and reverses in previous seasons, but concerns about durability had prevented him from heavier usage in that role.
When Kelley suffered a knee injury on the second day of training camp last month, coach Chip Kelly asked Felton to join the running backs group in practice. The coach made the move permanent after observing his newest playmaker’s productivity.
“You saw flashes of him, like, oh, OK,” Kelly said. “He’s got some instinctive skills.”
Felton had an idea where this transition might be headed, having made the switch from receiver to running back during his junior season at Great Oak High in Temecula after another teammate went down with an injury. He returned kickoffs, caught passes, ran the ball and even threw some passes as a quarterback out of the wildcat formation.
All of it, except for the passes, reminds Felton’s high school coach of what he’s doing now.
“You go back and watch his high school highlight films,” Robbie Robinson said, “and you’re seeing the exact same stuff.”
Felton had always envisioned himself as a hybrid player in the mold of the Kansas City Chiefs’ De’Anthony Thomas, but he was recruited to exclusively play slot back receiver at UCLA. Whispers of him moving into the backfield quickly dissipated each time they arose.
Keisean Lucier-South couldn’t stop himself from celebrating after delivering a huge hit that helped preserve UCLA’s comeback against Washington State.
Robinson said he could sense some frustration that Felton largely kept to himself. His high school coaches told him to be patient. His father told him to speak with his college coaches about moving to running back.
Felton forged ahead in silence, continuing to work in hopes of an expanded role. He packed on 10 pounds of muscle this summer as part a transition he fully embraced despite remaining one of the smallest players on the roster.
“You can’t play football,” Felton said, “trying to worry about getting hurt or being big enough.”
Felton’s speed and his ability to make defenders miss are among the traits that make him suited to star in multiple positions. In his 30 years of coaching thousands of players, including six who went on to the NFL, Robinson said he never had anyone who could stop and change directions like Felton.
He also possesses field vision that can seem to verge on psychic powers.
“He says, ‘Dad, it’s almost like I can see the play before it happens,’ ” the elder Felton said. “ ‘When I’m running the ball, the guy who I’m looking at is not who I’m thinking about; I’m thinking about the guy after him. In my mind, I’m already thinking I’m going to make that first guy miss. So when I’m running, out of my [peripheral] vision, I can see guys coming toward me, so I’m thinking about making a move to make them miss, not the guy in front of me.’ ”
Felton’s premonitions tend to come true. In addition to calling UCLA’s epic upset of Washington State, he shared a vision about his own future with his father when he was just 7.
“I was mowing grass,” the elder Felton said, “and he’s telling me, holding a football in his hand, ‘Dad, I’m going to play college football.’ ”
The journey started with a Pee Wee league in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, near the family’s residence and continued in Southern California once the elder Felton, a retired Navy chaplain, moved his family to San Diego in 2008 and later to Temecula.
Along the way, father liked to tell his son that preparation plus opportunity equals destiny. They just never knew until late Saturday night that fate would result in such a joyous postgame chat.
“We just said, you know what, we knew this day was going to come,” the elder Felton said, “we just were happy that everybody else could see what we already knew.”
Go beyond the scoreboard
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