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Demetric Felton Jr. has UCLA moving in the right direction

UCLA running back Demetric Felton runs the ball while defended by California linebacker Kuony Deng.
UCLA running back Demetric Felton tries to get away from California linebacker Kuony Deng at the Rose Bowl on Nov. 15.
(Kelvin Kuo / Associated Press)

No offense to anyone closing in on Demetric Felton Jr. near the line of scrimmage, but he’s just not that into you.

The UCLA running back assumes he’s going to make you miss and has already turned his focus to the others standing between himself and the end zone.

“I just kind of let my body react to however I think is best to get away from him,” Felton said of the initial defender, “but it’s like as soon as I’m done processing that, I’m just already thinking about the next person.”

Watching this unfold, one slippery play after another, Felton’s offensive linemen are pondering their own move downfield.

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“You see him and he’s about to get tackled and he breaks it off,” guard Paul Grattan Jr. said, “and you’re like, ooh, I don’t have to run another play, I just get to run 70 yards downfield and give him a big ol’ hug.”

There’s been plenty of embracing the redshirt senior in the last few weeks.

Felton ranks third in the Pac-12 Conference and eighth nationally with 134.2 yards rushing per game after setting career highs in consecutive games, including a personal-record 206 yards and a touchdown against Arizona last weekend. Two other runs, including a zigzagging touchdown, were wiped out by holding penalties that had no bearing on the play.

Demetric Felton Jr. ran for 206 yards and a touchdown and Brittain Brown added 72 yards rushing and accounted for two touchdowns as UCLA beat Arizona 27-10.

“Felton, you barely have to block for him,” center Sam Marrazzo said. “He runs the ball like a madman.”

It’s the source of that madness that sparks fierce debate.

UCLA coach Chip Kelly said Felton’s vision comes from his parents. Felton’s father, who shares the same name, credited God.

Maybe they’re both right.

“I would definitely say it’s a God-given ability that I was blessed with,” the 5-foot-10, 200-pound Demetric Jr. said, “but, you know, it’s things that you get better at with repetition. I think I’ve gotten better and better each year at it because it’s something that I’ve tried to work on all the time.”

Seeing things before they happen has been a theme for someone deemed too frail to play running back at every level from Pop Warner to the Pac-12. Felton once told his father that he was going to do all of this, playing running back in college before going on to the NFL.

He was 7.

Demetric Felton Jr. first played tackle football in 2006.
(Courtesy of the Felton Family)

Before he could make his first cuts on the field, little Demetric had to get past his mother.

Lennette Felton pondered the vicious hits her only son would absorb in tackle football, sharing her fears with her husband, a Navy chaplain. The parents encouraged their son to start with flag football, telling him he could play tackle later.

Little Demetric persisted. One Saturday, the boy came outside toting the football he slept with and waved to his father, who was cutting the grass. Lawnmower shut off, the boy announced that he had prayed about it and was given an answer: It was OK to play tackle football.

Being a Christian family, his parents felt they had no choice but to let him play.

“We can’t tell him no now,” Demetric Sr. recalled, “because if God said yes, there’s nothing we can do about it.”

For a moment, however, it seemed as if the boy’s first Pee Wee league practice might be his last. Felton got crushed on one drill, falling to the ground as the ball popped out. He rose with tears in his eyes before getting back in line to face more punishment.

When his father asked him afterward why he didn’t quit, Felton said it was because he had asked to play and intended to do so.

“Once it was over I was like, oh, this is not that bad,” Felton remembered. “And then I just kept playing, kept trying to get better.”

Demetric Felton Jr. also played baseball as a child.
(Courtesy of the Felton Family)

Felton fashioned himself in the mold of De’Anthony Thomas, the former Crenshaw High and Oregon star who could carry the ball while also catching passes out of the slot and returning kickoffs. He got to do all of that at Great Oak High in Temecula, switching from receiver to running back as a junior after a teammate went down with an injury.

“I’m in Year 31 coaching high school football,” Robbie Robinson said this week, “and he’s got the best field vision of any kid I’ve ever coached. The smartest thing I could do was make sure he got the ball 25 times a game.”

UCLA coaches recruited him as a slot back receiver and gave him occasional carries on jet sweeps and reverses. He wanted more and was rewarded in training camp last season, making a permanent position switch with the championing of running backs coach DeShaun Foster after Josh Kelley suffered a knee injury.

But doubts persisted even after a breakout game against Washington State in which Felton piled up 263 all-purpose yards, including a 94-yard touchdown catch and a 100-yard kickoff return. Felton barely touched the ball the following week against Arizona and remained in a hybrid role the rest of the season.

“He’s like, ‘Why are people doubting?’ ” Demetric Felton Sr. said. “I said, ‘D, because people have in their mind-set what a typical running back or football player looks like and people can’t see your heart, but you go out there and you show them, they’ll start to believe.”

Felton returned for one final college season so he could complete the final three classes needed for his undergraduate degree while enhancing his pro prospects by showing he could become a workhorse running back.

The UCLA linemen are now just as willing as position coach Justin Frye to verbalize their displeasure. But no one is taking anything personally.

Kelley’s departure for the Chargers opened the way for Felton to become the latest top-10 rusher under Kelly in the Pac-12, joining LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner at Oregon and Kelley with the Bruins. Kelly had also coached Thomas before he was drafted by the Kansas City Chiefs.

Felton is likely the next Kelly-coached running back to head for the NFL after removing any lingering uncertainty about his durability. He carried the ball a career-high 34 times against Oregon and followed it with 32 carries against Arizona, stopping only when he suffered a cramp while running out of bounds in the game’s final minutes.

A wide smile split his face on the sideline afterward, Felton realizing that there would be carries to make, more tackles to slip.

“I love proving people wrong, whatever it is,” Felton said. “If somebody tells me I can’t do something, I’m like, OK, watch me do it.”


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