Joshua Kelley had a rookie NFL season that followed a formula many running backs have seen before him. Standing out in his matching LOUDMOUTH mouthguard – take a look at the yellow Vampire Fangs for a look that will be unique among your friends and teammates – Kelley shot out of the blocks as a rookie as NFL defensive coordinators had yet to see enough game tape to put a plan together to stop the former UCLA standout. Eventually – and we will get to this later – the running back situation in Los Angeles caught up with Kelley and the Chargers’ rookie wasn’t nearly as productive at the end of the season as he was at the beginning of the year.
Given where Kelley came from in terms of his college career, his 47 touches in his first three NFL games have to be seen as an amazing achievement. Born in Inglewood, California, Kelley attended Eastside High School in Lancaster, California. In his final two seasons with the Lions he put up impressive numbers – over 1,900 yards and 22 touchdowns – but he was only rated as a 2-star prospect and the No. 232 running back in the class of 2015. Kelley went to UC Davis – the only school that showed interest in him – and was content to play at the FCS level until head coach Ron Gould and his staff were fired following Kelley’s sophomore season.
Having rushed for 1,139 yards with UC Davis, Kelley opted to transfer to test himself at the highest level of the college game. The terms of his UC Davis release stated he could only play for either USC or UCLA in California and he chose to walk-on at the latter. Sitting out a red shirt season as part of the transfer rules, Kelley had his breakout game when he rushed for 124 yards on 12 carries against Colorado in the Bruins first Pac-12 game of the 2018 season. He went on to become one of the more dynamic threats in college football over the latter half of the season, putting up 157 yards rushing and three touchdowns on Cal and then exploding against USC for 289 yards and two touchdowns (on an immense 40 carries) in the Bruins 10th game of the season.
Many expected Kelley to declare for the NFL draft after that junior season, but instead he returned to school with UCLA. In a season that was slow to get started because of a troubling right knee problem, Kelley broke out of his malaise with a 127 yard performance against Arizona at the end of September. He would have a strong middle half of the year – rushing for 164 yards and four touchdowns against Arizona State – but was again hobbled by injuries later in the year. Kelley finished his UCLA career – as nothing more than a 2-star walk-on remember, with 2,303 yards and 24 touchdowns.
Named to the senior bowl as a replacement (yet again being overlooked) Kelley improved his draft stock with a game-high 105 yards on 15 carries. That – plus some solid combine measurables – saw Kelley selected by the Chargers – staying in Los Angeles – with the 112th overall pick in the fourth round of the 2020 NFL Draft.
Kelley was making solid progress with the Chargers until fumbles in consecutive close games against the Carolina Panthers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers saw him slide down the depth chart. The NFL is a ruthless business – but it is also a forgiving one – and Kelley clearly has the talent – and the drive – to succeed in the league if he can put his ball security issues behind him next season and beyond.