When Josh Kelly was a senior at San Joaquin Memorial High School in 2018, Fresno State won the Mountain West Championship and wrapped up the season ranked No. 18 in the nation.
Kelly had his eyes on that ranking when then Head Coach Jeff Tedford was recruiting him and desired to be on a team that reached those same heights.
Now, just four games into the season, Kelly has been instrumental in Fresno State earning the No. 22 ranking in the Associated Press Poll, marking the first time since that 2018 season that the ‘Dogs have been nationally ranked.
“Watching the 2018 season, being recruited during that year by Coach Tedford, just wanting to have that feeling that they had, and now we’ve got that,” Kelly said. “So now that we have that, we can’t get our heads all big, just keep moving forward, keep pushing because we still have a whole lot of football left. Having that ranking of 22 right now is big for us.”
Four games in, Kelly has been one of quarterback Jake Haener’s favorite targets. The third-year sophomore leads the Bulldogs with 373 receiving yards and is second with 19 receptions and 2 touchdowns.
While he saw the field in the six games that were played last year in the pandemic-shortened season, he has already surpassed his accomplishments last season and is looking early on to be one of the top pass catchers in the conference.
That transformation is not one bit surprising to Offensive Coordinator Ryan Grubb.
“No Surprise. He’s been working for this for a long time,” Grubb said. “I think since last season ended, the growth and the type of work ethic that he’s had has been a huge difference, and you see it out here every day.”
Grubb noted that Kelly was one of the leaders at Wednesdays practice, bringing the team together to discuss the team’s fourth-quarter push, which was a vital aspect of the 40-37 win against UCLA last weekend.
“It’s not a surprise to the people that have been here and had seen the offseason and all that,” Grubb said. “It’s been awesome.”
Kelly credits much of his improvement to simply having a normal offseason that was not hampered by COVID-19 restrictions, allowing him to build a stronger connection with Haener.
“Just building that trust in each other over the offseason,” Kelly said. “When we first played last season, it wasn’t really a connection as well as it is now. We jumped into the season and then never really built chemistry, but now we have that trust in each other that we’re going to make plays and everything’s going to be possible.”
“Obviously last year was unique for a lot of people, and in terms of just the fewer number of reps you have and in terms of the passing game, it’s so much about alignments, landmarks, timing with the quarterback,” Wide Receivers Coach Kirby Moore said.
“There’s been a ton of improvement there this year.”
Coming out of Memorial, Moore saw an attribute in Kelly that was key to beating the Bruins: Being able to make difficult catches in a wide radius around his body.
“The biggest thing that stands out with Josh is his ball skills, just in terms of catching the ball away from his body, high pointing the football,” Moore said. “He’s a very, very natural pass catcher.”
Kelly could have taken his talents to some of Fresno State’s conference rivals as he had other scholarship offers, but the Fresno native chose to remain in his hometown, close to his family.
His performance and experience as a Bulldog has been even better than he imagined it would be.
“It has exceeded, actually, more than my expectations,” Kelly said. “Just being a local kid, coming here wanting to play in front of the town, in front of the family – this has definitely exceeded my expectations, so definitely proud of that.”
Photo: Fresno State Athletics