UCLA football players work out, prepare for virtual NFL draft during pandemic
Running back Joshua Kelley is projected to be one of the first Bruins off the board at the 2020 NFL Draft. Kelley is one of eight UCLA football running backs to record back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons. (Tanmay Shankar/Assistant Photo editor)
2020 NFL Draft
By Sam Connon
April 21, 2020 4:19 p.m.
Gyms are closed, workouts have been canceled and several Bruins pursuing an NFL career have been dealt a tough hand.
The UCLA football players who would have had their pro day back in March were instead stuck inside, forced to prepare for the virtual 2020 NFL Draft remotely because of the coronavirus pandemic. While cornerback Darnay Holmes, running back Joshua Kelley, tight end Devin Asiasi and kicker JJ Molson all had the chance to show off their skills at the NFL Scouting Combine in late February, not all of their teammates had that same opportunity.
Linebacker Krys Barnes was working out in Florida in early March and had just returned to Los Angeles for UCLA’s pro day when Mayor Eric Garcetti implemented the “safer at home” order.
“It definitely sucks because you train so long for those three months,” Barnes said. “For me – not being a combine guy – and a couple of my other teammates, we’re really relying on that pro day. It’s one of our last shots to put up some numbers and show some good things in front of scouts.”
Barnes and his agent, Brian Hannula, arranged a plan to record the linebacker’s 40-yard dash and other workouts from his family’s home in Bakersfield, California, and send them to interested scouts and coaches around the league.
In the meantime, Barnes has managed to stay in shape by practicing drops and coverage skills with his high school teammate, childhood friend and potential first round pick, Utah State quarterback Jordan Love.
“Just to be able to work out with (Love) and feed off each other has been good for both of us,” Barnes said. “Any time we come back to town, we pick up right where we left off from the last time we’ve seen each other. It’s all love there.”
Kelley hasn’t returned home like Barnes and some of his other teammates have, and he said he is struggling to find a steady place to work out around Westwood.
“I’ve just been trying to find places to go, whether that’s an open park or open field,” Kelley said. “It’s been tough to do that, but you’ve got to find a way to continue to do it.”
While Barnes and others have had the benefit of returning home for home-cooked meals, Kelley has been left to fend for himself in quarantine.
Kelley said he used to eat nearly all his meals at the Wasserman Football Center – which is currently closed – so he has now resorted to cooking on his own. Although he said he wants to start copying some of the recipes he remembers from Wasserman, he isn’t at that level just yet.
“I’m not ready yet, I’m not ready to expand,” Kelley said. “We’ve got to take baby steps. Then once we get there, I can start doing some stuff.”
The running back posted back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons with UCLA, which was enough production to earn him an invite to the combine, which took place from Feb. 27 to March 1. Kelley’s 4.49 second 40-yard dash and 23 bench press reps ranked seventh and fifth among participating running backs, respectively, and he is projected to be picked anywhere between the third and fifth rounds.
Whether or not they made an appearance at the combine, coach Chip Kelly said this is a highly unstable time for every Bruin trying to take the next step. He did, however, compliment his former players for buying into the team’s mentality over the past few seasons and applying it to the situation at hand.
“There’s a great unknown for all of them right now,” Kelly said. “But when we go back to the mindset of ‘control the controllables’ and ‘take it one day at a time’ and all the kind of things that people say are cliche, I think you may really want to look really at those because they make sense, especially in this situation.”
The first Bruin to hear his name called over the weekend is projected to be Holmes, who graduated in three years and participated alongside Kelley at both the combine and Reese’s Senior Bowl. Holmes is CBS Sports’ No. 16 cornerback available and is slotted to be a third or fourth round pick.
Kelly said NFL teams have talked to him about using Holmes as a nickel back at the next level, despite the fact he played primarily outside the numbers at UCLA. But the coach also said the potential role change and uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus hasn’t kept Holmes down.
“(Holmes) is an old soul,” Kelly said. “He’s got a great approach to life. He’s excited every day, he always starts off ‘Great day, coach’ in a text and has a question for me.”
Holmes was a five-star recruit coming out of high school, and Kelly said the defensive back had always planned to head for the NFL as soon as he could.
The rest of the Bruins with their eyes on the pros have not been fast-tracked to the NFL in the same way.
Linebacker Josh Woods missed the entire 2018 season with a knee injury, edge rusher Keisean Lucier-South picked up a nonmedical redshirt his freshman year and center Boss Tagaloa started his UCLA career on the defensive side of the ball. Asiasi and defensive end Jason Harris were both transfers, as was Kelley.
Kelley was a walk-on at UC Davis before joining UCLA in 2017, and he said holding onto his underdog mindset through the draft process is paramount to his success at the next level.
“(The walk-on mentality) has definitely become a part of me,” Kelley said. “Being a the rookie in the NFL is really nothing to brag about. Those veterans are All-Pros, Super Bowl champions – I haven’t done any of that stuff yet. So I’ve got to establish myself first.”
Regardless of their workout regimens, diets, draft stock or living arrangements, a handful of Bruins will officially make the jump to the pros over the weekend.
When asked about the possibility of facing off against his former teammates on Sundays, Barnes said it’s something they’ve long dreamed about.
“That would be a blessing to see anybody that we competed with for the last four years and be able to compete against them,” Barnes said. “For us, it wouldn’t be weird, it’d be a proud moment.”