Most players say they’ll always bet on themselves. But not everyone walks the walk. Some play it safe, justifying it as the smart, pragmatic move.
Not running back Joshua Kelley.
Kelley left his scholarship at UC Davis after two years, walking onto UCLA, hoping to earn a role on the team.
He earned much more than a role. He was their starter, their workhorse.
He also earned that scholarship.
A light recruit out of Eastside High School in Lancaster, California, he was passed over by the marquee institutions, including UCLA. Rivals rated him as just a two-star recruit. Blame being overlooked on not having a breakout season until his senior year, rushing for less than 450 yards his junior campaign. Schools were focused on players they’ve been recruiting since freshman year and Kelley fell through the cracks. That led him to UC Davis, the only school to offer a scholarship. There, he ran for a little over 1100 yards in two seasons before deciding to take the leap of faith and transfer.
“Out of high school, I had one offer to UC Davis,” Kelley told me during Senior Bowl week. “I was there for two seasons. After two seasons, I decided to bet on myself. Wanted to play in front of the best in the nation. Wanted to play for the best in the Power 5 conference. So I walked on at UCLA.”
It didn’t take long for Chip Kelly and the Bruins’ coaching staff to take notice. UCLA opened 2018 with three straight losses with an offense that looked hopeless, sluggish, and simply inefficient. Coaches shook up the starting lineup, making a change at QB, and expanding Kelley’s role in the backfield. He didn’t disappoint. On his first carry against Colorado in Week Four, he bullied his way to a 29 yard gain.
That success continued the rest of the game, ending it with 124 yards on just 12 carries, and though UCLA lost that day, coaches knew they had something special.
“My mentality was I gotta be on scholarship,” he said of his walk-on decision. “I want to be the best. I made the move because I had confidence in myself that I could compete with the best. I gotta own it now that I was there.”
He earned his first start the following week against Washington, following things up with a 125 yard game that included his first touchdown. But none compared to what he did against USC. Making up almost all their offense, Kelley carried the ball a whopping 40 times for 289 yards and two scores as the Bruins knocked off the Trojans 34-27. Kelley’s 55 yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter proved to be the difference.
Those 289 yards were third most by a Bruin in a single-game, trailing only Maurice Jones-Drew’s 322 and Deshaun Foster, now Kelley’s RB coach at UCLA, who had 301 in 2001.
He ended his year rushing for over 1200 yards and 12 touchdowns. Which led to a no-brainer decision from Chip Kelly. Give that man a scholarship.
“I remember we were all just chilling, team meeting, day before camp starting. Sitting in my seat with the team. [Chip Kelly] goes through all the pre-camp stuff. He’s like, ‘Josh Kelley, want you to come down here close us out on the break and we can go home.’ So I come down there, and I say the break, and Coach Kelly goes, ‘wait a minute, I want to announce you’re going to be on full scholarship now.’ Everyone went crazy, everyone went nuts, all my teammates were grabbing me, hugging me.”
His first call after the news? One to his mother, who he credits as his motivation to thrive in the NFL.
“She means everything to me. Growing up, it was her and my brothers. Me and mom have a special relationship. She was excited when I told her that.”
2019 produced slightly worse results, not cracking the 1000 yard mark until the regular season finale but he still found the end zone 12 times. A resume strong enough to earn a Senior Bowl invite, where he was *the* best running back both in practice and game, rushing for a game-high 105 yards for the North squad.
After Wednesday’s practice, Kelley explained what the Detroit Lions’ coaching staff emphasized throughout the week.
“What they’re telling me is don’t be a repeater. What that means is don’t make a mental error and make it again. So that’s really important for me as a player that if you want to play at the next level, don’t make the some mistake again or you can get cut or traded.”
A coaching point you’d hear from Mike Tomlin and one Kelley adhered to. An impressive week, start to finish, and in speaking with him, you understand why UCLA called him on the nicest guy on campus.
On the field, he’s anything but. He runs angry with a defined, downhill style, similar to what Steelers’ fans saw with Benny Snell. Pittsburgh likes their backs big and Kelley fits that bill at 5’10, 214 pounds. He met with Tomlin and team during the week and though like any player, would love to get drafted by any team, knows what it’d mean to become a Steeler.
“The Steelers are a first-class organization. One of the greatest organizations in all of sports.”
In a deep running back class, Kelley won’t be the first running back off the board. Nor the second. And probably not even the fifth. Despite the strong showing in Mobile, he’s shaping up to be a mid-round pick, possibly going in that 4th round range Snell was selected. He may enter camp without much fanfare, a backup on the depth chart. But just like UCLA, odds are he’ll ascend it and find starting carries soon enough.
Like Kelley will do once again, bet on it.