The past couple of seasons have been challenging for Joshua Kelley.
The redshirt junior running back sat out last year after transferring from UC Davis, and he didn’t see the field for a single snap in UCLA’s third game of this season.
Despite it all, he remained upbeat, working his way through every practice and smiling liberally in his interviews.
But one topic especially gets the jovial running back to stretch his beaming smile wide across his face, throw his head back and guffaw.
“I’ve always been a big anime guy since I was in, I want to say, elementary school,” Kelley said. “I’ve always been into ‘Naruto,’ ‘Dragon Ball Z,’ ‘One Piece.’ Now (I like) ‘Attack on Titan,’ ‘Hunter x Hunter’ – I can go on about anime.”
Anime refers to animated television shows or movies typically associated with a Japanese origin. Many popular anime series, such as “Naruto” and “Dragon Ball Z,” are derivatives of mangas – or Japanese comics – bearing the same or similar names.
While American cartoons are predominantly visual distractions fishing for quick laughs with watered-down one-liners, animes follow longer plot arcs featuring various obstacles and antagonists.
The original “Naruto” series has more than 200 episodes, while the second half – which is called “Naruto: Shippuden” – has 500 episodes. In comparison, there have been 645 episodes of “The Simpsons” aired as of Sunday.
A key aspect of anime series is character development, which Kelley said was what most attracted him to the genre.
“It feels like there’s an objective that (the characters) try to accomplish, and they have hardships and difficulties,” he said. “I feel like I can connect to their emotions, how they view (situations).”
Kelley has faced his fair share of difficulties.
He started playing football in seventh grade as a defensive end and linebacker. Once he got to high school, his coaches moved him to running back, a position that stuck with Kelley.
“I haven’t felt that feeling ever, about playing a position,” Kelley said. “It felt natural and ever since then, I just took it from there.”
As a self-described late bloomer, Kelley rushed for 434 yards in his junior year at Eastside High School and 1,469 yards in his senior year.
His only scholarship offer was to UC Davis. In his freshman year, Kelley recorded 530 yards on the ground and three total touchdowns. The next season, he ran for 609 yards and scored four touchdowns, finishing No. 57 in the country with 107.18 all-purpose yards per game.
After two losing seasons with the Aggies, Kelley’s decision to transfer came down to either UCLA or USC.
“Growing up in (Lancaster, California), it’s kind of a neutral area but for me personally, me and my family have always been Bruins,” Kelley said. “I was always UCLA for sure.”
Despite beginning the year as the first-string tailback, his first year playing for the Bruins started inauspiciously. Kelley rushed for only 27 yards on 11 carries through UCLA’s first two games.
Against Fresno State, he didn’t see the field at all.
Coach Chip Kelly later told reporters that the other running backs on the roster had better weeks of practice, which prompted some introspection.
“I just looked myself in the eye as a man and said if I want to be as best as I can be, I have to take coaching, apply it and maximize my ability,” Kelley said. “Things are not just going to come.”
Two weeks after not playing against Fresno State, Kelley came in relief of senior tailback Bolu Olorunfunmi and rushed for 124 yards on only 12 carries. And from then on, Kelly found his starting running back.
So far in Pac-12 play, Kelley has 156 carries for 872 rushing yards, the fourth-highest total in the conference. His mojo came back.
“On the field, off the field, he’s running hard, he always has a smile on his face too. So whenever he’s working, he’s working,” said junior inside linebacker Krys Barnes. “He’s always hitting the hole. If he does something wrong, he’ll go ask a coach or whatever it is. He’ll come back next play and it’ll be fixed.”
Kelley’s teammates have pointed out throughout the season that he’s always smiling, no matter the situation.
“He’s definitely the most energetic, the most positive guy on this team,” said freshman quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson after the game against Washington. “Coach made reference to him earlier this week, (saying), ‘Energy is a choice.’ And so he definitely brings that. And I think it sparked everybody.”
Kelley also occasionally brings iconic aspects of anime onto the field.
After the redshirt junior scored a touchdown on fourth down against Utah, he ran to the sideline and mimicked the Fusion dance pose from “Dragon Ball Z” with freshman running back Kazmeir Allen.
Different players have various estimates of the number of anime fans on UCLA’s roster, ranging from a couple to a decent amount.
While anime isn’t intertwined with mainstream football culture, some of Kelley’s teammates are at the very least open to his hobby.
“A lot of the guys do like anime – it’s kind of weird,” said redshirt sophomore left guard Michael Alves, adding that he was unaware that Kelley was an anime fan. “My roommate and I watched ‘Dragon Ball Z’ last year. That was pretty good, I enjoyed that, but I haven’t seen any other animes.”
Kelley said his teammates haven’t given him a hard time about how much he enjoys watching anime.
So how do they really feel about it?
“They respect it,” Kelley said. “There are a lot of anime fans on this team. … Some of them won’t come out (with it), but there’s for sure a lot of anime fans.”