The Unlikely Victor

Updated: Feb 11, 2020

Photo: Juan Lainez/Marin Media

Those 29 yards were the most important yards of his football career up to that point.

2018, week four against Colorado. In his first carry with the UCLA Bruins, then redshirt junior Joshua Kelley found an open seam on the left side of the Buffaloes defense; 29 yards later, Kelley had finally arrived. On the surface, one only sees the outcome; for Kelley, the journey taken to get to that point gives the moment even more significance.

The journey began in 2015. As a two-star recruit out of Eastside High School in Lancaster, California, Kelley's division I offers were few and far between. It was not enough that he was both the team's starting running back and kick returner. In his senior year, he was named team captain and rushed for 1,469 and 16 touchdowns. That happened to be the year he was named Golden League Back of the Year and first-team All-Golden League. Certainly one would assume he was worth more than a two-star status, a status which kept him from getting attention from Power Five scouts.

His next stop was with the University of California, Davis of the Football Championship Subdivision, where he endured various injuries and a shaky coaching staff. To add to his obstacles, Kelley did not receive a full scholarship in his freshman year. When he was finally offered one prior to his sophomore year, Kelley in his own mind saw something greater. By the end of his sophomore season and with limited options, he decided to take his chance and transfer to UCLA.

2017 was met with even more challenges. As a walk-on, Kelley was forced to sit out the year due to transfer rules. Kelley persisted and served on the scout team for that season. His redshirt junior year in 2018 would finally be his chance to play under new head coach Chip Kelly. His first three weeks of the season were less than promising, as he was outperformed in practices and failed to produce on the field. At that point, it seemed unlikely that Kelley was going to realize his full potential as a Bruin.

Which brings us back to his first carry, a 29-yard gain on the left side; 95 additional yards later, Kelley had established himself as the Bruins starting running back. It would be easy for him to rest in the moment, yet Kelley was just getting started.

In the following weeks, Kelley emerged as one of the brightest running backs in the PAC-12 Conference, producing four 100-yard games, while elevating a Bruins team that had little to cheer about. His signature game would come in week 11 against their long time rivals, University of Southern California Trojans, where he finished with a career-high 289 yards on 40 carries.

From obscurity, Kelley finished junior year with the tenth-highest single-season rushing total in school history. In addition to earning First-team PAC-12 honors, he was given the Henry R. Red Sanders Award as the team's most valuable player.

The road from walk-on to becoming a two-time 1000-yard rusher and a standout player in the 2020 Reese's senior bowl, seemed improbable to many, but not to Kelley; he likely envisioned his accomplishments during his tenure with the University of California Davis. Regardless of his position in this year's NFL Draft, that same mindset that elevated him through his journey, should translate well at the next level.

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