This post was updated Oct. 15 at 7:56 p.m.
Joshua Kelley did not take a snap for UCLA football last season.
This year, he’s the Bruins’ leading rusher.
The redshirt junior played the 2014 and 2015 seasons with UC Davis and transferred to UCLA in 2017. He redshirted his junior year and entered this season as a backup running back for coach Chip Kelly’s offense.
Kelley carried the ball 11 times for a total of 27 yards across the first two games of the season and he missed the Bruins’ matchup against Fresno State on Sept. 15.
Since then, Kelley has 406 rushing yards and four touchdowns on 62 carries, in addition to eight receptions and 57 receiving yards. Kelley had 30 rush attempts against Cal on Saturday, the most by a Bruin running back since Johnathan Franklin hit the 30 mark in 2010.
But despite Kelley’s ability to move the ball on the ground, redshirt junior tight end Caleb Wilson said the running back has had a major impact on the passing game as well.
“I think the run game is definitely helping out the pass game,” Wilson said. “We ran the ball 55 times last week – which I’ve probably never ran that much since I’ve been to UCLA – but it was a good feeling to be able to run the ball consistently and move the chains and see (Kelley) do his thing was really awesome.”
Freshman quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson only attempted 15 passes on Saturday – his lowest mark of the season – but he notched a career-high 86.7 completion percentage.
Kelley’s touches have increased every game since the start of conference play, which has led to the Bruins possessing the ball longer. With the offense eating up clock, UCLA’s defense has had more time to rest between possessions, something junior linebacker Krys Barnes said they have enjoyed.
“We sit on the sideline and watch … on the Jumbotron or we’re standing up and we watch on the field and every time we see him run, we laugh and we’re smiling because we’re so excited for (Joshua) Kelley,” Barnes said. “We saw what he could do during practice (last year) and now it’s showing on game day. … He deserves everything he’s worked for.”
Kelly praised his leading ballcarrier’s impact on the offense, but he also said he has taken notice of his effect on his teammates off the field.
“He’s one of those guys that I think people gravitate to because he has a positive energy and aura around him,” Kelly said. “I think he sets a tone whether he’s in a practice session for offense or with the rest of the team or in a classroom. He’s just that type of guy.”
Kelley’s teammates agreed, and Barnes went as far as saying he wanted to play hard and win for the running back.
“When he comes to the sideline – bad play or good play – he has a smile on his face and it helps us stay positive, go out there and just work hard for him,” Barnes said.
Kelley hasn’t done it alone, however.
The UCLA offensive line allowed just two sacks against Cal, and other unexpected Bruins have contributed to the improved blocking as well. Wilson has a reputation as a pure receiving tight end, and he said he made it his mission to change that this season.
“It’s definitely been a focus,” Wilson said. “People have always said that I was just a pass threat, so that was something I took initiative on and said, ‘You know what? If that’s something they want to perceive me as, I want to do as much as I can to improve as a blocker.’”
As for Kelly, he said he thinks Wilson’s hard work is starting to pay off.
“Caleb has worked very hard at it and is doing a better job of it,” Kelly said. “Part of the last two weeks being successful on the offensive side of the ball is being able to be balanced and run the football. And to run the football, you’ve got to have a tight end.”
Jamabo, Phillips shut down for season
Kelly confirmed Monday sophomore linebacker Jaelan Phillips and senior running back Soso Jamabo will both be out for the season with concussions.
Jamabo was part of former coach Jim Mora’s 2015 recruiting class that ranked No. 12 in the nation. He was a five-star prospect and has totaled 1183 yards and 13 touchdowns in his UCLA career.
Phillips was also a five-star recruit and has 20 tackles and one sack since moving to linebacker this season. He had 3.5 sacks and seven tackles for loss as a freshman last season.