He was supposedly too slight of build, too frail, too vulnerable to become an every-down running back.
His own college coach once said so.
Kelly made Felton his primary running back and could be riding him all the way to his first winning season at UCLA.
In his latest workhorse performance, Felton lugged the Bruins to a 27-10 victory over winless Arizona on Saturday night at the Rose Bowl that moved them back to .500 for only the second time under Kelly.
UCLA (2-2) has a chance to nudge itself into winning territory for the first time since midway through the 2017 season next week with a triumph over Arizona State.
Felton rushed for 134 of his career-high 206 yards in the first half and finished with one touchdown and an average of 6.4 yards on his 32 carries before limping off the field late in the game. Kelly said he did not know the extent of Felton’s injury, but UCLA running back Brittain Brown said it didn’t appear to be anything serious and that Felton should be ready for the next game.
Felton was not made available to speak with reporters. The redshirt senior has run for at least 100 yards in three consecutive games after topping that threshold only once before this season as the backup to Josh Kelley.
Kelley’s departure for the Chargers opened a massive hole that the 5-foot-10, 200-pound Felton has capably filled while showing he’s sturdy enough to absorb blow after blow while running between the tackles.
“He’s worked extremely hard since he moved to running back,” Kelly said, “and has really turned himself into a quality back.”
UCLA has relied heavily on its running game this season and even more so with quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson sidelined the last two games because of contact tracing related to positive COVID-19 tests on the team.
The Bruins finished the game against Arizona (0-3) with 281 yards rushing and an average of five yards per carry. They nearly surpassed their season average of 228 yards rushing by halftime, when they had 192 yards on the ground.
Those early yards were needed when UCLA’s offense stalled after halftime. Arizona rallied and had a chance to pull within seven points early in the fourth quarter when it lined up for a field goal, but holder Jacob Meeker-Hackett bobbled the snap and got crushed by Datona Jackson while running out of bounds.
Felton then ran for a pair of first downs on a clock-burning drive that gave the Wildcats only four minutes left to work with for a comeback that fizzled when Bruins safety Stephan Blaylock intercepted a deep pass. Elijah Gates added an interception in the final minute for the Bruins, who won the turnover battle, 2-0, after not giving the ball away once for the first time this season.
“I challenged our defense to see if they can come up with them,” Kelly said of the takeaways, “and they came up with two.”
It’s shaping up as a potentially historic season for UCLA running the ball. Brown has been a nice running mate for Felton, rushing for 72 yards and a touchdown in 16 carries against the Wildcats. The Bruins are averaging 5.19 yards per carry this season, which would be their best since they led the conference with 5.4 yards per carry in 1976.
“It’s a lot of fun being a one-two punch because you know you have a teammate who can help you out,” Brown said. “If you’re down a little, then the other person can pick you up.”
UCLA’s rushing success relegated what became an unexpected battle of backup quarterbacks to a secondary story line.
Any advantage Arizona might have had with Thompson-Robinson sidelined disappeared on the Wildcats’ first offensive play when quarterback Grant Gunnell got mashed into the turf after taking a hit from blitzing Bruins linebacker Bo Calvert. Gunnell hurt his shoulder on the play and stayed down for several moments before rising slowly and walking off the field.
Enter backup Will Plummer, a freshman who spent much of the game with UCLA defenders chasing him around the backfield. He completed 17 of 35 passes for 151 yards with two interceptions while getting sacked twice and pressured on several other occasions.
Meanwhile, UCLA quarterback Chase Griffin was steadier in his second college start than he had been in his debut. He completed 12 of 20 passes for 129 yards and a touchdown. More important, he did not turn the ball over after having two passes intercepted and losing a fumble last week during a loss to Oregon.
Griffin gave the Bruins a 10-7 lead early in the second quarter when he completed a 16-yard touchdown pass over the middle to Brown. Felton extended the advantage shortly before halftime when he ran for a one-yard touchdown on third and goal. It was a happy ending to a first half that had started poorly.
Kelly opened the game by calling for four consecutive Felton runs, including one on fourth and one at UCLA’s 25-yard line. It didn’t go well. Felton ran into a wall of defenders for a three-yard loss and a turnover on downs that led to an Arizona touchdown.
The rest of the game, he might as well have been running downhill.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.