Welcome to Bruins Nation’s continued coverage of the 2019 UCLA Bruins football preseason. Today we will take a look at UCLA’s running backs. Obviously, Joshua Kelley was the breakout star for UCLA in 2018, and should be the feature back this season. Beyond that, however, let’s take a deeper dive into the Bruins’ backfield depth, which also features two “burners” and two “bruisers,” among others.
Joshua Kelley, Redshirt Senior
The transfer from UC Davis burst onto the UCLA scene in the third game last year as a redshirt junior, rushing for 124 yards on 12 carries versus Colorado. Kelley’s season would culminate with a historical performance versus Southern Cal, carrying the rock 40 times for 289 yards, and two touchdowns. The 289 rushing yards was the highest ever for a single player on either team in the rivalry game
For the season, Kelley carried the ball 225 times for 1,223 yards (a 5.5 Yards Per Carry average) and twelve touchdowns. He also did fairly well catching the ball out of the backfield, hauling in 27 passes for 193 yards.
Barring injury, Kelley will be the “bell cow” back for the Bruins in 2019. But he won’t sneak up on anybody as he did in 2018.
Martell Irby, Sophomore
The Morse (San Diego) High School product was a nice change of pace back for UCLA last season, along with Kazmeir Allen, providing an almost “Thunder and Lightning” approach for the Bruins behind Kelley, with Irby providing the thunder.
In ’18, Martell carried the ball 45 times for 187 yards (a 4.1 YPC average), with one touchdown. In interviews conducted during Spring Practice, Irby admitted that playing for UCLA as a true freshman was somewhat overwhelming, adding that now he tries to make a play rather than to simply avoid making a mistake. Hopefully, Irby continues his positive development in his sophomore campaign.
Kazmeir Allen, Sophomore
Kazmeir Allen came to UCLA last season highly regarded after having a monster senior season in high school (3,336 yards rushing, 62 rushing TDS), as well as winning the California state title in the 100-meter event in track. On the other hand, he was only a three-star recruit from Tulare, California, not exactly a hotbed of high school football and leading some to speculate that he was racking up big numbers against inferior competition.
There is no denying that Allen has blazing speed as he demonstrated with a 74-yard touchdown run in his first game versus Cincinnati. Take away that run, though, and Allen only had 29 more carries for 114 yards (a 3.9 YPC average). Like Irby, expect Allen to improve on his freshman campaign this season. Hopefully, Head Coach Chip Kelly will come up with some ways to get Allen the ball in space, where he can do significant damage.
Keegan Jones, Freshman
Jones is a speedster from Tennessee, where he ran for over 1,000 yards and 19 touchdowns as a senior in high school. He could also return kicks for the Bruins, averaging 37.7 yards per kickoff return in his senior year, scoring three touchdowns. Jones also participated in track in high school, where he was state champ with a 21.10 time in the 200-meter event. With Allen and Jones, the UCLA backfield has some elite speed. I expect to see Jones in the mix this season.
Jones has a leg up on the other true freshman in the 2019 class, as he enrolled early and participated in Spring Ball.
Sitivei Kaufusi, Freshman
Kaufusi is a true freshman from football powerhouse Punahou School in Hawai’i. A true fullback who also played linebacker in high school, he is a big body, measuring 6’2” and weighing in at 262 lbs.
Kaufusi presents an interesting option for Coach Kelly, in the event that Kelly chooses to use a fullback in a two-back set this season. Such a two-back set could also benefit Irby who is more of a power back than Kelley, Allen, or Jones.
Cole Kinder, Redshirt Sophomore
Kinder, out of Newport Harbor High School, only carried the ball six times last season for a total of 19 yards. It looks like he has added close to 25 lbs. of mass (up from 196 to 219 lbs. from last season to this season), so perhaps Coach Kelly is looking to use Kinder as a fullback.
The Other Freshmen
Rounding out the backfield are Christian Grubb, Jahmon McClendon, and Dusty Mitchell. All three are true freshman who do not figure to get much playing time this season. Unlike Jones, none of these three enrolled early for Spring Practice. Grubb was very productive as a senior at Notre Dame High School, rushing for over 1,300 yards and 18 touchdowns. He can also catch the ball out of the backfield and returns kicks. McClendon, out of Monte Vista (San Diego) High School, rushed for back-to-back 2,400 yards plus and 40 TDs plus seasons in his junior and senior years. Mitchell, who is listed as a running back, didn’t even play on offense in high school.
Here’s the full roster of UCLA’s running backs for this season:
UCLA 2019 Running Backs Roster
2019 should be all about Joshua Kelley. But, Coach Kelly has other options, both with the power running game and with the speed game. After his great 2018 season, teams will game plan for Kelley, so Coach Kelly will need to get creative with the offense to ensure that Kelley has another excellent season and that the back-ups mentioned continue to develop and are put in situations where they can be successful.