Former UCLA running back Joshua Kelley grew up in Lancaster without an NFL team to watch up close.
So when the Rams returned to Los Angeles before the 2016 season, Kelly took advantage of the opportunity and observed training camp practices at UC Irvine.
“It was kind of intimidating because I saw Aaron Donald, and like this dude is huge,” Kelley said Wednesday at the NFL scouting combine. “I saw Todd Gurley. Those guys are crazy big. I just soaked it up.”
The visits provided motivation.
“Just watching, just kind of like visualizing,” Kelley said, “Like one day, hopefully, I’ll be on an NFL roster at training camp. It was nice.”
After making a big impression at last month’s Senior Bowl, Kelley aims to continue his push to become an NFL player with a dynamic combine performance.
Kelley, 22, is among a 30-player running backs group that includes top prospects such as D’Andre Swift of Georgia, J.K. Dobbins of Ohio State, Jonathan Taylor of Wisconsin and Clyde Edwards-Helaire of Louisiana State.
“Some of those guys are projected first-rounders,” Kelley said. “It’s great to be around them and it’s awesome just to be here.”
The combine is another step in what has been a long journey for the 5-foot-11, 212-pound Kelley, who transferred to UCLA in as a walk-on in 2017 after playing two seasons at UC Davis.
Kelley sat out his first season in Westwood because of NCAA transfer rules, but earned a scholarship and rushed for 2,394 yards and scored 25 touchdowns in his final two seasons.
In 2018, Kelley had 289 yards and two touchdowns in 40 carries in the Bruins’ 34-27 victory over USC. It was the most yards rushing by a player in the history of the storied series.
Still, Kelley was somewhat under the radar playing for UCLA teams that finished 3-9 in 2018 and 4-8 last season. But he took full advantage of an invitation to the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala.
Playing for a North team coached by the Detroit Lions staff, Kelley produced consistently strong practice performances. During the game, he had 105 yards in 15 carries.
“It was definitely a confidence booster,” Kelley said of the Senior Bowl. “I just think it helped me understand where I’m at, and I’m grateful to be in the position I am now.”
Maurice Jones-Drew, a former UCLA star who had a nine-year pro career and won the 2011 NFL rushing title, is a Kelley fan.
“I love his style,” said Jones-Drew, an analyst for NFL Network. “He’s a physical runner, tough to tackle. Shows up in the passing game, both receiving and blocking.
“He did very well at the Senior Bowl. I truly think his stock rose there.”
Kelley said he was proud to be a part of a UCLA running backs tradition that includes players such as Jones-Drew, Bruins running backs coach DeShaun Foster, Gaston Green, Johnathan Franklin and Paul Perkins.
Foster and other former Bruins backs have reached out to offer advice and guidance for the combine.
“Make sure you just be yourself — that was the most important thing,” Kelley said. “Just be myself. Be confident, have fun, relax and enjoy it.”
Running backs are scheduled to go through on-field testing at Lucas Oil Stadium on Friday. Kelley wants to show coaches and scouts his versatility.
“I want them to know I can do everything,” he said. “The whole package.”
After the April 23-25 draft, regardless of whether he is selected, Kelley will be in an NFL training camp, just as he envisioned when he went to watch the Rams.
With the Rams and Chargers in Los Angeles, the next generation of players growing up in Southern California have models to emulate, Kelley said.
“For those kids in L.A., no matter where they live, having an NFL team nearby is something to inspire, something to cheer for,” Kelley said. “It’s something to like OK, to visualize, being at the practices, get a chance to see the pros, how they train.
“I think that’s huge for them because it helps their development, and helps them stay focused and motivated.”