The UCLA Bruins football team has leaned on the running game heavily over recent seasons, in large part because they’ve always had talented running backs that can serve as the focal point of the offense. Joshua Kelley was that lead running back for the Bruins the last two seasons. Kelley introduced himself to Pac-12 Conference rivals in his first season as the feature back while he averaged 113.0 rushing yards per game.
That average ranked fourth in the conference and eighth overall over the entire NCAA. During Kelley’s final season, he split the backfield with Demetric Felton, a wide receiver who was converted to serve as the team’s pass-catching tailback, to form a punishing one-two punch that continued dominating Pac-12 Conference defenses.
The Bruins rushing attack put together a streak of five 200-yard rushing games for the first time since 1978. Kelley finished the regular season ranked second in the Pac-12 conference averaging 96.4 rushing yards per game. His time with the Bruins gave him the opportunity to get noticed by the Los Angeles Chargers, who took a chance on Kelley and selected him in the fourth round of the 2020 NFL Draft.
With Kelley now in a Chargers uniform, it was no surprise to see that Felton had emerged as the top running back option for head coach Chip Kelly and the Bruins.
“I’m definitely ready to take on that role,” Felton said during a Zoom call with reporters in October. “This is something I’ve been waiting for my whole time at UCLA. Now that it seems like it’s that time, I’m ready for it. I’ve been working hard this offseason, ready to help out the team as best I can.”
Originally Felton was a wide receiver his freshman and sophomore seasons, and those skills helped form him into a hybrid pass-catcher out of the backfield last year that complemented Kelley’s style. His skill set also complements the dual-threat abilities of this year’s starting quarterback, junior Dorian Thompson-Robinson.
Last year, Felton rushed 86 times for 331 yards and a touchdown and caught 55 passes for 595 yards and four touchdowns. It was a new challenge for Felton but he quickly adjusted to his new position.
“I can see myself making plays whenever I get the chance,” Felton said. “Whether it’s a change of pace back or getting carries in between the tackles, I can do it all. I don’t think I’m limited to any kind of role.”
This season, the Bruins have paired Felton with Duke transfer Brittain Brown to maintain a strong one-two punch with each running back serving a different purpose. The 6-foot-1, 210-pound Brown serves as the bruising back that can power ahead to pick up the short yards on crucial downs.
The 5-foot-10 Felton is more elusive, harder to tackle in open spaces and can run routes well from his time as a wide receiver. Felton was able to work out in the summer with Thompson-Robinson to continue building the chemistry they had while on the team last season.
“Oh yeah, I was by his side the whole time,” Felton said of Thompson-Robinson. “I like to run a lot of receiver routes, so it doesn’t matter to me. I’m always trying to improve my game, whether it’s at running back or receiver. And so, me and him, we were able to get a lot of throws in during the offseason. I just think we’re gaining that connection more and more each day.”
Felton said that the connection between him and Thompson-Robinson could make for a dangerous combination in the Bruins offense.
“I think we complement each other well,” Felton said. “Dorian is the type of quarterback who can pass well and run well also. I feel like I can take some of that load of him running wise. If he’s sitting in the pocket and needs to dish it out somewhere, I’ll be there and I can take it 50 yards and turn something small and make it big at any time during the game. We just complement each other a lot.”
The chemistry between Thompson-Robinson and Felton was visible at Colorado earlier in the season on Nov. 7 when Felton caught a season-high seven passes that day from Thompson-Robinson. The Bruins lost to the Colorado 48-42, but Felton managed to put up solid numbers in the loss, accounting for 103 all-purpose yards.
Felton’s breakout game this season came during Week 2 of the Pac-12 season when they faced the California Bears for the home opener at the Rose Bowl on Nov. 15. Both teams had their initial games canceled due to COVID-19 outbreaks among their opponents and agreed to still play a conference game so that the shortened season would not cause any more games to be lost due to the coronavirus.
In the Week 2 match-up, Felton led the rushing attack for the Bruins, running to the tune of 107 yards on 25 carries. He also added three catches for 28 yards. Felton followed that performance up with another strong outing, this time against the eleventh ranked Oregon Ducks on Nov. 21.
Despite being underdogs against the Ducks, the Bruins went blow for blow with the national powerhouse and Felton was right at the heart of the offense, rushing for 167 yards and two scores on the road. In the end, the Bruins came up short and loss a 38-35 nail-biter to Oregon.
Felton’s best performance of the season came against the Arizona Wildcats this past weekend at home, a game where Thompson-Robinson was out due to injury. UCLA elected to lean on its strong running game and ran the ball 48 times between Felton and Brown. Felton logged 32 carries for a career-high 206 rushing yards and one touchdown, while Brown had 16 carries for 72 yards and one score of his own.
“I was really happy for Felton because he’s worked extremely hard,” head coach Chip Kelly said after the game. “He’s really turned himself into a quality back. He’s got great vision and I thought our offensive line did a really nice job.”
The Bruins running game has been finding its stride in the past couple of weeks and has been the team’s strong suit on offense, constantly giving the team the spark it needs to get into a rhythm to drive downfield or to maintain control of the clock as it approaches the latter stages of the game.
The electrifying Felton brings explosiveness and balance that highlights the importance of the run game in UCLA’s offense. As the season has progressed, so has his overall performance. As long as he can remain healthy, he will keep the Bruins competitive in every game. He’s a player that is well-respected by his coaches and teammates, especially his running mate Brown.
“It’s a lot of fun being a one-two punch because you know you have a teammate that can help you up if you’re feeling down,” Brown said. “You saw what he can do in the running game and you saw what I can do in the running game. It’s just good to have a one-two punch with our offensive line doing the work and creating the holes for us, it’s just a really good thing for our offense.”