Whicker: Joshua Kelley is back at UCLA to follow his own tough act

UCLA running back Joshua Kelley

The all-time leading rusher in a USC-UCLA game is ready for a follow-up after deciding not to turn pro

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LOS ANGELES — When Joshua Kelley finally got back to Lancaster last fall, his mother Jacqueline had everything on tape.

In case he still couldn’t believe what he’d done against USC, now he could see it.

Yes, Jacqueline’s son carried the ball 40 times in UCLA’s 34-27 win, the cold splash near the end of a long 3-9 desert.

Yes, he got 289 yards, more than five Heisman-winning running backs or anyone else in the history of USC-UCLA games.

It was a binge-watching invitation Kelley has declined. He said he’s only seen it once.

“It was funny, interesting,” Kelley said at Pac-12 Media Day on Wednesday. “You get to hear what all the announcers are saying. You think, ‘This is how I look.’’’

Now everyone, including USC, will see how he looks again.

He did not turn pro after he gained 1,243 yards, at 5.5 per carry, with 12 touchdowns. Considering he got only 27 yards in his first two games, that’s pretty good. Considering Kelly spent the 2017 season imitating UCLA opponents as he whiled away his transfer year, that’s really good.

But considering Kelley was a transfer from UC Davis and was barely recruited out of high school, you realize the 289 Game might be one of the most underrated days in recent L.A. sports history.

Kelley became the 21st century John Barnes, the quarterback who rose from the bottom of the chart to upset USC in 1992.

“When a running back gets a lot of carries and get into rhythm, that’s so important,” he said. “You get a feel for what the defense is doing, whether it’s going here or there. I mean, I was pretty sore the next morning, but after all that running, the hits get kind of mundane. You’re not thinking about them anymore.”

He buffed up his totals with runs of 61 and 55 yards that day. Eleven times, he picked up first downs.

On Wednesday, he ran into ex-Trojan Reggie Bush, now a commentator, and was immediately transported to the days of idolatry. “Everybody I knew had a No. 5 jersey, from college, and then a No. 25 jersey when he got to the pros,” Kelley said.

Then he laughed. “He played across town, so I guess I’m not supposed to say that.”

He laughed harder when someone asked if he had reminded Bush of 289.

This is still a wonderland for Kelley. His blue and gold has not turned to jade. He basically came back because coach Chip Kelly told him, “You’re a real good player. But there’s a lot more you can do.”

“He was right,” Kelley said. “I look at the tape. I can be better in pass protection. I run routes OK, but I could run them better. A lot of guys can catch the ball out of the backfield for five years, but what’s important is how you get separation and make those plays downfield. And there’s ball security. I fumbled twice last year. Yeah, we recovered both of them, but that was too many.

“I liked the way Coach talked to me about that. Every running back he’s ever coached has been some kind of All-Star. LeSean McCoy (Eagles) led the league in rushing when he coached him. So there was weight in his words.”

UCLA never brought Josh Rosen to Pac-12 Media Day, partly for fear he would say something interesting, partly to be contrary. It can be a grind.

But, as Washington center Nick Harris said, “There’s only 24 players (two per team) that get to do this out of 1,000 or so players in the Pac-12.” Kelley was one of the 24. He wouldn’t have minded a Media Week.

Kelley was a scout-team demon in 2017 as he sat out his transfer year. “I had to run as hard as I could, against the No.1 defense,” he said. “I had to make an impression.”

He had to vault some veterans last year, too. Eventually he learned big-time football could be fun. He liked it when the coaches rolled out medicine balls after the spring game, and the players rolled them around the field in a tic-tac-toe game, or when they competed in charades.

Lately, he has been watching tape with Seth Makowsky, a chess champion who consults with Olympic athletes and Houston Texans quarterback DeShaun Watson, to learn advanced decision-making. Kelley particularly watches the NFL’s LeVeon Bell, the top example of know-how beating speed. “He’s great because he’s smart,” he said. “He runs like a boxer.”

Besides, Kelley can’t learn anything from hurdles already cleared. Will he take another 289 Game? Sure, but what he really wants is another 40.

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