HOLLYWOOD, CA (News4usonline) UCLA redshirt senior running back Joshua Kelley sat down for a meal at Hollywood Boulevard’s Cabo Wabo Cantina ahead of the Pac-12 Conference annual football media day. While devouring a beef taco, Kelley glanced to his right and saw a familiar face approaching. Kelley’s eyes widened as he realized it was former USC All-American running back Reggie Bush.
“I was starstruck,” Kelley said. “He’s a running back legend, a football legend.”
Bush introduced himself and, to Kelley’s astonishment, told him he watches his UCLA highlight tapes. He lent Kelley football advice ahead of his senior season, emphasizing the importance of having good footwork. Bush told Kelley, “when you get to the second level, it’s not a surprise. You have the footwork, you can make a move.”
Kelley finished eating in awe and went back to his hotel room to watch Bush highlight tapes.
“It’s going to stick with me,” Kelley said. “When Reggie Bush talks, you listen. It’s so wild to me because sometimes I think about where I was at a couple of years ago. Where I was at in high school, looking up to guys like him.”
Kelley’s made it a long way from his high school days at Eastside in Lancaster. The Inglewood native played his first two seasons of college ball at UC Davis in 2015 and 2016, rushing for a combined 1,139 yards. After sitting out his first year in UCLA’s football program because of NCAA transfer rules, Kelley started nine games in 2018.
He ran for the 10th-most yards in UCLA single-season history (1,243) and broke Bush’s crosstown rivalry game rushing record with a 289-yard performance against USC.
— Blake Atwell (@blakeatwell5) July 24, 2019
A preseason All-Pac-12 honorable mention, he enters 2019 on the Doak Walker Award Watch List for the nation’s best running back.
“It’s kind of crazy being here,” he said. “Seeing a lot of these guys, oh my goodness they’re so great. Do I really belong here? Working hard. That still motivates me everyday.”
Kelley had the chance to enter the 2019 NFL Draft, but chose to return for one last season in Westwood. He consulted multiple current and former NFL minds, including UCLA’s own Chip Kelly, who coached All-Pro running back LeSean McCoy with the Philadelphia Eagles.
Chip told him, “you’re a really good football player, you’re a really good human being. But I think there’s more left that you can do.” The advice didn’t register with Kelley at first, but he eventually realized his college head coach was right.
“Sometimes as a kid you can be kind of irrational in a way,” Kelley said. “Once [Chip] told me that, it means something. There’s a lot of weight to his words.”
Kelley is focused on improving his pass protection and becoming a more complete running back in 2019. He also intends to better his route running and pass catching. Kelley looks at New York Jets Pro Bowl running back Le’Veon Bell for inspiration, as a player with high intelligence on the field.
“[Bell’s] not the biggest, fastest, or strongest back,” Kelley said. “What separates him from every other running back in the league is that he’s smart. He’s patient. He sets up his blocks. He plays the game like he’s a boxer.”
Off the field, Kelley intends to maximize the food amenities available during his last year in Westwood. He enjoys UCLA’s Ackerman Union, which features Panda Express, Carl’s Jr., Taco Bell and Jamba Juice.
“I shouldn’t be eating any of that stuff,” Kelley said. “You might get fat if you don’t watch yourself.”
He takes full advantage of the football team’s nutritional program, one that provides players with breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks on a daily basis. Players are also treated to Wolfgang Puck meals each week.
When strolling around Westwood, Kelley’s starting to be noticed. On a recent trip to the Westwood Village Target, he was stopped by a young fan. It was the first time that’d ever happened to Kelley and he describes it as “humbling.”
“I’ve got to keep getting better and keep growing,” he said. “[People are] looking up to me and are going to be tuning in on Saturdays so I’ve got to give it my all for them.”
Through all of his recent success, Kelley’s relied on UCLA running backs coach DeShaun Foster for support. Foster scored a 33-yard touchdown in Super Bowl XXXVVIII for the Carolina Panthers and played both safety and running back during the same season.
“I know I’m not the most talented back, when you just look at me,” Kelley said. “But I know that this guy who pretty much carried the ball as a starting running back in the NFL for so many years, if I listen to what he’s telling me and I just do it within the system and within the scheme, I know I can do well for myself.”
Blake Atwell is a multimedia journalist and sophomore at Santa Monica College.