The decision to go with the pistol offense may have helped to doom Rick Neuheisel at UCLA, but the running backs probably weren't complaining. In an offense designed for, at the very least, a 60/40 split of run vs. pass (and which often times crept up into the 70/30 range), Johnathan Franklin and Derrick Coleman thrived, combining for just under 1800 yards on 318 attempts. It really was an offense built for running backs, because of the amount of misdirection. When the quarterback is a credible running threat, and when, often times, a wide receiver is going in motion pre-snap, lanes start to open up in the middle of the defense. Really, one of the primary issues for UCLA last year was that, sometimes by volition and other times by necessity, Coleman and Franklin did not see the ball enough.
Franklin, unfortunately, did not shake the fumbling bug that has plagued him during his entire run at UCLA. In fact, it almost seemed to get worse last season, when he capped off the season with a two-fumble performance against Oregon in the Pac-12 championship game. It's really bizarre, because he's well aware of the issue, and he's a pretty focused guy, as far as practice goes. You'd have to think that, like a good shooter who struggles with free throws, it's largely a mental thing. If he can get that figured out, the only other chink in his armor is open-field running, where he doesn't always make great decisions. For a guy with good speed, and very good vision at the line of scrimmage, he should break long touchdown runs much more often than he does. Still, for Franklin, the positives are the positives: great burst, good vision at the line of scrimmage, and good open-field speed. If he puts the rest of it together, he'll be among the top tier of Pac-12 running backs.
The really welcome surprise on the offense was Coleman. Although he's always been a steady presence, his reputation as a bruising power back was largely unearned prior to last year. In years past, you always got the sense that Coleman could have gotten more out of his runs, and that he often went down too easily. That all changed last year. Not only did he run with more power, often times bowling over unwitting defenders, he also showed a much better burst off the snap. In fact, there were times when he was a more effective runner than Franklin, and probably should have gotten more carries. Ultimately, Coleman's success last year solidified him as an NFL prospect, and could possibly get him drafted.
Malcolm Jones, after not being used much in what should have been a redshirt year in 2010, was used even less last year, when he was arguably in better shape. That's not really a knock on the previous coaching staff, as Franklin and Coleman probably should have gotten even more carries, but they should have found a way to redshirt Jones during one of those two seasons. During practice, he showed a better burst than he had a year ago, but still looked a little stiff, without much shiftiness.
Jordon James spent most of the season as a receiver, and got just a few carries from sweeps. He has good speed, but we were really only able to see it running horizontally, ten yards behind the line of scrimmage. He's really an unknown quantity at this point as a running back, but as a pass catcher, after spending a year with the receivers, he should be a threat out of the backfield.
A Look at Spring
Going from the pistol offense to Mazzone's spread is about as dramatic a switch as an offense can make. Instead of slow, deliberate play and about 60% running, it's going to be an up-tempo, pass-first offense. One big switch for the running backs will be the amount of passes they will be expected to catch. Last year, Franklin caught just nine passes on the entire year. In Mazzone's offense, at least at ASU, passing to the running backs is a key feature, whether on swings or screens. Franklin, who's shown OK hands, will have to show himself capable of catching at least a couple of balls per game.
Coleman leaves a 230-pound hole to fill in the middle of UCLA's running back rotation. While Franklin is a known quantity, there really isn't an obvious choice for the second-string guy. Even in the new pass-happy offense, UCLA will probably run the ball between 20 and 30 times per game, and Franklin isn't going to do that alone. Whether UCLA will opt for the bigger back in Jones, or the one more obviously suited to a passing offense in James, remains to be seen.
The really big news for the running backs is the addition of Dalton Hilliard. The senior wanted to give offense one last go this spring to see if he can make some noise. Given the safety depth, however, it's a question as to how long he'll be able to stay with the offense.
Things to Watch
-The drills new running backs coach Steve Broussard puts Franklin through. One of the first things Broussard brought up about Franklin was the fumbling issue. Although it may not be entirely a technique issue, look for Franklin (and the rest of the running backs) to be put through a battery of drills to improve grip on the ball.
-How soon will Hilliard be moved back to the defense? Although the coaching staff wants to give Hilliard every opportunity to pursue his dream, simple desperation may force them to put Hilliard back on defense. Unless he manages to dent the top three on the depth chart in the first couple of weeks, you'd have to expect he'll return to safety.
-Can Jones live up to his billing? The former five-star recruit, like so many prized recruits under Neuheisel, has under-achieved during his time at UCLA. Now a junior, this spring is hugely important for him to make an impression on the new staff, and solidify himself as the heir apparent to Franklin.
-Is the offense going to use a fullback? Even a little? Although there are fullbacks listed on the website, you'd have to expect that they'll only be used in goal-line situations, which we probably won't see UCLA practicing much in the spring.
Projected Depth Chart
1. Johnathan Franklin
2. Malcolm Jones
3. Jordon James
4. Dalton Hilliard
5. Steven Manfro
And, what the heck: Fullback
1. David Allen
2. Luke Gane
3. Philip Ruhl
4. Alek Cusick
Spring Preview: Running Backs
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