A converted defensive lineman and an Football Championship Subdivision transfer.
In other words, the two players who jump-started UCLA football’s lethargic running game.
Behind junior center Boss Tagaloa, redshirt junior running back Joshua Kelley – who didn’t see any game action Sept. 15 against Fresno State – cut and diced his way through Colorado’s defense to the tune of 124 rushing yards on 12 carries. It was an all-around performance that the Bruins (0-4, 0-1 Pac-12) had yet to see this season.
“I have to give credit to (Kelley),” said redshirt sophomore left guard Michael Alves. “When you watch the film, he makes really great cuts, stuff that we really haven’t seen this year that often. So, it’s really nice to see him making those kinds of plays.”
Prior to Friday, Kelley only mustered 27 yards on 11 carries, and almost every running back on UCLA’s roster leaped over him on the depth chart.
He doesn’t have true freshman Kazmeir Allen’s pure track speed or senior Bolu Olorunfunmi’s pulverizing, battering ram running style. But most importantly for the coaching staff, Kelley didn’t outshine the other running backs enough in practice to deserve playing time.
That changed over the bye week.
“(Kelley’s) a guy that I think the rest of our team can look at for how to approach things because he probably wasn’t happy with the amount of playing time he had against Fresno State,” said coach Chip Kelly. “But instead of sulking and moping, he said, ‘All right, let’s go out and train,’ and did a really good job in those two weeks and it paid off for him.”
The Bruins also welcomed Tagaloa back from a three-game suspension, and he jumped straight into the starting lineup at center, pushing true freshman Christaphany Murray to right guard.
Tagaloa made his first career start on the offensive line after playing on the defensive line each game the last two seasons and said he missed a couple of calls against Colorado. But regardless, the new offensive line grouping paved the way for the Bruins to surpass five yards per carry in a game for the first time since November against Arizona State.
“Every time we ran the ball (against Colorado), it felt like there were holes,” Alves said. “Everyone blocking the way they should be, and the amount of glaring mistakes that we made was a lot less. So I think the consistency and technique has just improved overall.”
Special teams on the rise
Fourth downs and kickoffs were an eyesore for UCLA in recent years, but experience begot stability in those situations this season.
Junior kicker JJ Molson has converted nine consecutive field goals dating back to last season, including a career-high 50-yarder against Colorado on Friday. Redshirt senior punter Stefan Flintoft leads the Pac-12 and ranks sixth in the country with an average of 46.5 yards per punt.
For Molson, having more experience allowed him to focus more specifically on the subtle movements that differentiate a booming kick and a mishit. That knowledge helped him nail down a consistent routine.
“It’s important to create a routine that you can count on, not only in games, but throughout the week in terms of your preparation, what you do at night, what foods you’re eating, how you recover,” Molson said. “I got a solid one in place, and I just have the same warmup in practice as I do in games.”
It might take a bit longer for the other side of special teams to warm up though.
Freshman wide receiver Kyle Philips delivered a jolt to the Bruins with a 32-yard punt return to set up their first touchdown drive against the Buffaloes, but the kickoff return game has struggled. UCLA has only averaged 16.5 yards on four kickoff returns, with a long of 21 yards.