Demetric Felton Jr. has always been a people-pleaser, the UCLA running back happy to oblige his coach’s wishes to position him anywhere on a football field.
He’s played slot receiver, served as a speedy change-of-pace running back and even filled in as the every-down back last season when Josh Kelley sat out the opener because of injury.
Kelley’s move to the Chargers after back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons has created an opening for someone else to get the bulk of the carries for the Bruins in 2020.
If given the opportunity, Felton said he intended to, well, run with it.
“I’m definitely ready to take on that role,” Felton, a redshirt senior, said Wednesday during a videoconference. “This is something that I’ve been waiting on my whole time at UCLA and now that it seems like it’s that time, I’m ready for it.”
The question is whether Felton is built to absorb the pounding that comes with running between the tackles 20-plus times a game. At 5 feet 10 and 200 pounds, Felton is a bit smaller than Brittain Brown, the 6-1, 210-pound graduate transfer from Duke who is the other top candidate to assume Kelley’s spot as the top running back.
“Brittain’s a bigger back, more toward Josh’s size,” UCLA coach Chip Kelly said recently. “ … In the first couple of days we’ve had him out there, he’s impressive.”
Brown entered last season as a candidate for the Doak Walker Award as the nation’s top running back but played in only three games after reinjuring the left shoulder that had forced him to miss a handful of games in 2018. He said he underwent surgery after his most recent injury and considered himself fully recovered.
Like Felton, Brown heads into the season with designs on being the guy.
“Hopefully,” Brown told The Times last month, “I can do what JK did for UCLA rushing-wise.”
Of course, Kelly will have a large say in deciding who gets the chance to do his best Kelley impression. The coach said he was still assessing a large group of running backs that includes Kazmeir Allen, Martell Irby, Keegan Jones, Christian Grubb, Jahmon McClendon and Cole Kinder.
Everyone besides Felton and Brown is trying to prove himself at the college level. Irby, a junior, has been limited by a knee injury in the first week of training camp after getting only 10 carries during an injury-plagued 2019 season. Allen, a redshirt sophomore, got only 13 carries last season after serving an academic suspension.
Jones, Grubb and McClendon all arrived as freshmen last season with high hopes that required some quick adjusting. None had a carry last season.
“It was a real rough year because when I first got here, I didn’t know what to expect,” Jones said Wednesday. “So whenever I got all the plays and all that stuff down, it still was kind of iffy with the formations and all that stuff. But now it's kind of getting smoothed out. … I feel a whole lot more comfortable this season, I feel better, I feel stronger.”
Less than a week into training camp, it’s too early to tell how Kelly might deploy his running backs. Felton said he was lining up primarily in the backfield but acknowledged the team was still running its base plays and had not started any live practices.
Asked what he was looking for from his running backs, Kelly said they needed to be dynamic in their ability to run the ball, provide pass protection and catch the ball coming out of the backfield.
“When you figure out what their strengths are,” Kelly said, “you just play to those strengths.”
Felton has proved capable of doing a bit of everything, including special teams. He returned a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown as part of an epic comeback against Washington State in 2019 and finished the season with 86 carries for 331 yards and a touchdown, good for an average of 3.8 yards per carry. He also had 55 receptions for 594 yards and four touchdowns.
The COVID-19 pandemic couldn’t stop Felton from participating in informal workouts with quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson that Felton said he expected would “pay off huge this year.” Felton could have skipped this twice-delayed season to prepare for the NFL draft but said he didn’t want to miss out on what could be a special 2020 with the Bruins.
“I just feel like we’re really close to really going off,” Felton said, “and showing something to the world.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.