When Jacqueline Kelley thinks back to when this journey all started, she remembers the scared seventh-grade boy in full pads about to take the field in his first game of football.
Joshua had asked his mom to allow him to play football the year before, but she was nervous about the heavy physical contact in the sport and told him no. A year later, he asked again and she realized this was something he was set on doing, so she agreed.
She watched as her son took the field and soon after got tackled. To her surprise, he got right back up and continued the game.
Nothing was going to stop him from playing.
And now, nearly 10 years later and after a historic career at UCLA, that remains true as Joshua Kelley awaits to hear his name in the 2020 NFL Draft.
“To see him put in the commitment and dedication to be where he’s at, I’m happy for him,” Jacqueline said. “I just see it as such a blessing and it just makes me proud.”
Joshua Kelley received just one offer to play collegiate football coming out of Eastside High in Lancaster. After two seasons for UC Davis, he transferred as a walk-on to UCLA in 2017. Due to NCAA transfer rules, he sat out that first year in Westwood, but immediately made an impact on the team as part of its scouting corps.
His positive influence, on not only the players but the program as a whole, earned him a scholarship before the start of the 2018 season. Kelley had yet to play a game as a Bruin, but his hard work had spoken for itself.
It wasn’t long into the season before he’d proved his worth. With six 100-yard rushing games, and 1,243 total yards, Kelley ran for the 10th-most yards in a single-season in school history. His 289-yard performance against USC was the most in the rivalry by a running back from either team.
His 113.0 yards per game average ranked him No. 4 in the Pac-12 and No. 8 in the NCAA. And even more telling, his team awarded him MVP honors for his first season in at UCLA.
“Most people, when they first meet him, they’re like, ‘Is this guy for real?’ And he is,” UCLA coach Chip Kelly said. “He’s like that every single day. He’s just got a great attitude and you’re excited to be around him.”
Kelley returned to UCLA for a final year in 2019 and continued to set record after record in becoming the Bruins’ star running back.
Not only did he become the eighth running back in UCLA history to record back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons, but he also received the team’s MVP honors for the second consecutive year. He ended his Bruin career ranked 14th on the school’s all-time rushing list with 2,303 yards.
Shortly after his senior season ended in December, Kelley received invitations to play in the Senior Bowl and participate in the NFL Combine. He was that much closer to reaching his dream of playing professional football.
“It’s kinda crazy,” Kelley said. “A lot has happened these past years, playing college football and then you go play the Senior Bowl and then you go to the combine. I haven’t really had a chance to process everything that I’ve been able to do and what’s coming next.”
Without being able to visit any team facility or meet with scouts and coaches in person due to the coronavirus pandemic, Kelley has been focused on staying in shape and training as much as he can.
He’s taken advice from conversations with coaches and team staff at the combine in late February and improved how he watches film and studies the game. While he understands there are plenty of unknowns surrounding the return to in-person team activities and the re-opening of practice facilities, Kelley wants to be able to immediately stand out wherever he ends up.
“You gotta make sure you’re doing the little things right, gotta be sharp,” Kelley said. “If you want to play and make an impact on the team, you have to be able to do more than everyone else around you is doing. I’ve had to make that a real emphasis in my training.”
The NFL announced April 6 it would hold a virtual draft from April 23 through 25. The Kelley family plans to watch it at home in a small gathering of close family and friends. Kelley, who is predicted to be picked in the fifth round on Saturday, said while it’s a bummer the draft won’t be conducted in its traditional, in-person format, it will still be a cherished memory for him and his family.
“That’s going to be really emotional,” he said. “It’s just special to have any team willing to take a chance and draft me, that’s something really special. I can’t even put that into words how important that is to me.”
“Obviously, it’s not a perfect vision, but I don’t really need anything perfect or the way I imagined it. Just being drafted into the NFL, that’s special in itself.”
Ever since that first game when he was in seventh grade, Kelley has been dreaming about entering this new chapter of his football career. He always knew this was what he wanted to do, and now that he’s finally getting to achieve it, he hopes his story can be an inspiration to those with similar aspirations.
“I’m not the most talented athlete and I know I’m not the most gifted athlete, but I just believe that a lot of hard work goes a long way,” Kelley said. “It doesn’t matter if a kid is a two-star or a five-star. If he really loves the game and challenges himself daily, he’ll get really far.”
Joshua Kelley went from an FCS walk-on to one of the most talented athletes in #Pac12FB.
— Pac-12 Network (@Pac12Network) April 17, 2020