Spring Preview: Running Backs

Several running backs will compete to fill Johnathan Franklin's shoes, including Malcolm Jones, who's coming back as a walkon this spring...

Last Season

Johnathan Franklin had an explosive year last season, setting the career rushing record for UCLA, and capping off what was already a solid career. UCLA's running game, which had been the focus under the pistol offense, was somehow even more successful in Noel Mazzone's offense, which is a credit to the improvements in the scheme as well as the tremendous strides Franklin made in his play from 2011 to 2012. Gone, largely, was the fumbleitis that had plagued him his entire career. Franklin's balance, strength, and speed were all improved, as he finally showed the ability to break big runs without being caught from behind. Breaking tackles was always difficult for him early on in his career, but last season that was a strength of his. Much of the credit goes to Franklin, and much of it should also go to Sal Alosi, who did some amazing work with Franklin's body.

Damien Thigpen also emerged as a home run threat out of the back field after spending the Neuheisel years wandering in the proverbial desert. He was especially devastating catching passes out of the back field, on both swings and wheel routes. When he went down with an ACL tear in November, it fundamentally changed the offense, with no one else really capable of filling that role. Jordon James, notably, had trouble duplicating Thigpen's role, and had special difficulty catching swing passes. James had a forgettable year overall, looking tentative at the line of scrimmage, and looking like he'd lost his confidence by the end of the year.

Paul Perkins spent the entire year on the scout team, waiting in the wings, but excelled there. He was one of the most impressive players during fall camp on the entire team, and if UCLA hadn't had so much quality depth in front of him, he likely could have played last year.

In one of the more interesting developments, Malcolm Jones left school after the first game of the year with the intention of transferring to San Diego State. After a change of heart around the new year, Jones decided to come back to UCLA, only this time as a walkon.

A Look at Spring

Running back may be the most interesting competition of the spring, and might be one of the only competitions that could be wholly settled by the end of the spring—at least, who the starter ends up being. Although reportedly James will start as the No. 1 back, we have to figure that Perkins will overtake him in short order after an offseason of getting stronger and more explosive. Perkins and Franklin were the two best running backs in fall camp last year, and on rare occasions, you'd see Perkins hit the hole and almost think it was Franklin because his cuts were so sharp. James, even if he has gotten over the issues that plagued him toward the end of last season, has never really shown that same level of consistent running ability between the tackles, and doesn't project as an every down back unless he's made some serious strides. Steven Manfro also could factor into the competition, given that he looked much better last season as a running back than as a receiver. He'll be limited to start the spring after injuring his shoulder last season, but should be good to go by the end of spring.

Getting Jones back as a walkon is a huge coup for the coaching staff, especially with the possibility that Craig Lee may not be ready to enroll this fall. With nearly nine months away from a college program, and no participation in offseason strength and conditioning, there's no way of knowing if he's in football shape. If he is, and can provide some depth in the spring and contend for a spot in the rotation in the fall, that would be a huge asset to the unit as the coaches look to replace some of Franklin's production.

Thigpen, who probably would have been the assumed starter over James if healthy, will sit out the spring as he continues to rehab his knee. The hope is that he'll be ready to go by the end of summer workouts, and potentially be fully healthy for the start of the season, but it's difficult to say. With ACL tears, unless you're a freak like Adrian Peterson, there's still an adjustment period where you have to learn to trust the knee again.

What to Watch

*Is Perkins the real deal? It's one thing to excel when no one expects much of you; it's quite another to do it when many people expect you to win the starting spot. Perkins looked great last year in fall camp and throughout the season, but now he'll have to show he can handle the workload of a starter. UCLA has enough talent at running back to be decent this season, especially with an improved offensive line, but the Bruins will need one of the backs to rise up and seize the 15 to 20 carries at the top of the food chain. Our best guess is that it'll be Perkins.

*Where is Jones physically? After nine months without a strength and conditioning program, it's going to be very interesting to see how in shape Malcolm Jones is. We've heard that he's shown the coaching staff, verbally, that he's rededicated to the sport after there was some speculation that he didn't really love the game. Now that he's making the effort to come back in, as a walk on no less, you have to assume that there's at least some understanding that this is his last opportunity to give football a real chance. Anything he can give UCLA this year would be a bonus.

*Can Manfro play like he did last spring? One of the shockers of last spring was how well Manfro did at tailback. The previous year, on the scout team, he was nowhere near as impressive. He was miscast as a slot receiver last season out of necessity, but we thought he looked more natural at running back from the beginning of spring. If he can be a full go by the second week of spring, he can certainly work himself heavily into the running back rotation. At this point, the position is almost entirely up for grabs.

Projected Spring Depth Chart

Tailback
Jordon James (5'9, 193)
Paul Perkins (5'10, 198)
Steven Manfro (5'9, 193)
Malcolm Jones (6'0, 220)
Melvin Emesibe (5'9, 191)

Fullback
Luke Gane (6'2, 237)
Philip Ruhl (6'0, 235)
Tre Hale (6'2, 261)
Alek Cusick (6'1, 232)

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