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Keegan Jones credits DeShaun Foster, carries optimism in return to UCLA football

(By Tatiana Shkliar / Daily Bruin)

By Gavin Carlson

June 10, 2024 3:50 p.m.

A player’s decision to enter the college football transfer portal is almost always met with intense speculation.

Fans, members of the media and coaches quickly hypothesize the rationale behind the decision.

Is he leaving to join a more successful program? Was there bad blood between the departing player and his former program? Were name, image and likeness interests at play?

But for longtime UCLA football player Keegan Jones, none of these were correct explanations for why he chose to enter the transfer portal in November 2023.

“Honestly, I didn’t want to leave at all,” the redshirt senior said. “But it was just a decision where it felt like I needed to go somewhere just to get more carries.”

It wasn’t NIL deals or special treatment – Jones simply wanted handoffs out of the backfield.

So when DeShaun Foster, the UCLA coach he trusted most, promised Jones more opportunities than he’d received the previous year, Jones changed his mind.

“Fos (Foster) was saying, basically the whole time I was in the portal, ‘Come back, man. We’re going to help you out and make that happen,’” Jones said.

After initially committing to the University of Connecticut in January to join former Bruin coach Jim Mora, Jones revoked his decision, opting to stay at UCLA for his final collegiate season.

Redshirt senior running back Keegan Jones runs as redshirt senior quarterback Ethan Garbers looks downfield to throw the ball. (Aidan Sun/Assistant Photo editor)

He also wanted his last hurrah to look different than his first five years in Westwood, particularly the most recent.

After the best season of his Bruin career in 2022, Jones’ desired running back opportunities were, almost inexplicably, stripped from him the following year. Former head coach Chip Kelly moved Jones to wide receiver ahead of the 2023 season and gave him just 14 carries through the campaign – decisions neither he nor then-running backs coach Foster were pleased with.

“They took one of my toys away from me last year,” Foster said. “He wanted to play running back.”

Before the position change, the then-fifth-year Bruin received more running opportunities in each of his three previous seasons, including his breakout 2022 campaign.

Sure, at 5-foot-10 and 185 pounds, Jones is undersized compared to the typical bell cow backs who run between the tackles. But Foster, a former legendary UCLA running back who played that role at six feet tall and 222 pounds, had no doubt about where Jones fits in on offense.

“He’s a running back,” Foster said. “That’s where his heart is.”

Traditional running back opportunities made Jones’s 2022 campaign special.

After taking just 41 carries for 139 rushing yards through his first three seasons at UCLA, Jones took 73 carries for 320 yards and a pair of rushing touchdowns in his fourth year in Westwood alone. He added 21 receptions for 237 receiving yards and three touchdowns through the air that season as well.

Opportunities on the ground transpired despite workhorse running back Zach Charbonnet averaging 19.5 carries per game and leading the nation in all-purpose yards per contest.

Even then-freshman running back T.J. Harden received 44 carries in just six games.

But Jones still made his mark in a crowded backfield in 2022, best highlighted by a 12-carry, 98-rushing yard and two total touchdown performances against Arizona State.

Jones goes for a stiff arm in a game against Arizona State on Nov. 11. He received 12 carries and totaled 98 yards alongside two total touchdowns through the affair. (Daily Bruin file photo)

And yet, Kelly looked elsewhere in 2023.

UCLA’s former head honcho turned to the transfer portal and Carson Steele to replace Charbonnet, gave more carries to Harden and even turned to converted quarterback and wide receiver Colson Yankoff for carries instead of looking to Jones.

 

So when the 2023 season came to an end, Jones’ career at UCLA seemed to reach a similar stage.

But prior to temporarily leaving Westwood to join the Las Vegas Raiders’ coaching staff, Foster had other plans for Jones as a Bruin.

“Before I left for the Raiders, that was my No. 1 goal, make sure I get Keegan back as a running back in this offense,” Foster said. “His explosive plays to touches (ratio) is unmatched, so it’s just somebody that you know we could use in this offense. Going into a conference that we’re going into, I don’t know if they have a lot of guys with that type of speed that can make plays.”

Foster appeared on his way out just weeks after convincing Jones to return.

But after Foster’s 10-day stint with the Raiders, Kelly parted ways with UCLA, and Foster assumed the head coach mantle.

Coach DeShaun Foster smiles during a game at the Rose Bowl Stadium. The upcoming season will mark Foster’s first at the program’s helm. (Aidan Sun/Assistant Photo editor)

Jones couldn’t help but laugh about how the offseason shuffling turned out.

“I ended up coming back now, and he ended up getting the head coaching job,” Jones said. “So it basically worked out perfectly.”

With Steele and Yankoff both in the NFL, Jones appears set to share most of the carries out of the Bruin backfield alongside Harden. At 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds, Harden said he and Jones will form a one-two punch in UCLA’s new-look 2024 offense.

“I tried to hit him up a little bit. I didn’t want my guy to leave,” Harden said. “We got him back, so that’s good.”

Departures have left UCLA’s running back room less crowded, pointing to increased opportunities for Jones.

But above all else, he’s grateful to be led by someone who has had faith in him since the beginning.

“Since the day I walked in the building, Coach Fos has always been on my side – he’s always just been there,” Jones said. “He’s the type of head coach that’s like a player’s coach, so if I needed anything, I could just ask Coach Fos. It’s just one of those relationships where he’s like an older brother.”

All that remains is for Jones to finally get those carries.

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Gavin Carlson | Sports staff
Carlson is currently a staff writer on the football, men's basketball and women's basketball beats. He was previously a reporter on the softball and men's golf beats.
Carlson is currently a staff writer on the football, men's basketball and women's basketball beats. He was previously a reporter on the softball and men's golf beats.
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