Determining a starting running back was one of the key goals for UCLA heading into the spring, but now, it's apparent that actually naming a starter is a fairly long way off. With three main candidates this spring for the job in Jordon James, Paul Perkins, and Malcolm Jones, not one of them showed enough to rise above the pack. Going into the spring, our expectation was for Perkins to seize the position, but that didn't happen. Malcolm Jones may have actually had the most consistent spring, but his brand of power running isn't particularly well suited to a starting role in this offense.
Steven Manfro, who should also factor into the competition, didn't participate in team drills in this spring while he recovered from offseason shoulder surgery. Damien Thigpen, who may factor into the competition in the fall, didn't participate in anything except rudimentary individual drills as he recovers from ACL surgery. All five players, in addition to, perhaps, Craig Lee and Rushel Shell, could make for an interesting competition in August.
Jordon James RS JR: James drew some criticism last season for a perceived aversion to downhill running. After a year playing under Rick Neuheisel where most of his carries came running parallel to the line of scrimmage, he seemingly learned all the wrong habits. Much of the time last year, he danced behind the line of scrimmage instead of hitting the hole, and displayed poor vision. This spring, he was better, though obviously still a work in progress. His decision making was improved, and he was making more decisive cuts. It seems pretty clear that he's been given some direction on taking just one cut and going, and now it's a matter of making it muscle memory. He still has the same great speed he's always had, as evidenced by that one swing pass he took nearly 40 yards in the spring game. If he can put it all together this year, he could be a candidate for a break out year.
Malcolm Jones SR: The surprise of the spring was just how good Jones looked. Physically, he looks better than he ever has, trimmer through the torso and stronger in his legs. He also seems rededicated to the sport, practicing with more energy and fire, over a longer period of time, than we've seen from him in his time at UCLA. The exciting thing is that, this spring, you could see flashes that he was finally embracing his role as a big, power back. He had several runs during the spring where he'd hit the hole, lower his shoulder, and look for guys to hit. With the way UCLA likes to use running backs as open field threats out of the back field, we can't see Jones starting, but we could see him as a heavily used No. 2 back. If enough guys drop from the program this offseason, Jones should be the first guy to earn a scholarship based off how he played this spring.
Paul Perkins RS FR: We're grading on a curve here. Perkins looked so good last fall that it was a bit disappointing to see him not have the same impact this spring. Last summer, in San Bernardino, there were times when, if you weren't paying attention to the numbers on the jerseys, it was easy to mistake Perkins for Johnathan Franklin. He had a similar combination of balance and quickness, and showed great vision at the line of scrimmage. This spring, he just didn't have that same kind of impact, and looked much more how a freshman back should look. He wasn't as decisive hitting holes, and some early fumbling trouble in the first week of camp seemed to get in his head a bit. He still showed flashes of his ability, and we'd have to assume he's still going to be given a long look in August to see if he can make up some ground on James, but you have to assume that James has a leg up at this point.
Where Things Project:
At this point, it's really difficult to say who the starting running back is going to be in the fall. If you tap James for the job, you're banking that his practice performance is somehow more indicative of his future than his past game performance. Perkins probably hasn't shown enough at this point to earn the job. Jones, with his style, isn't a great candidate, but you can't rule him out either. Although he looked much better as a running back last year than as a receiver, it would probably be a tall order for Manfro to leap over James and Perkins. Thigpen may not be fully healthy in August, or even by the start of the season.
The puzzle is further complicated by the potential addition of Shell and Lee. Shell is fresh off of a season at Pittsburgh, and is a former five-star prospect who has the potential to come in immediately and compete for the job. Lee might actually have the best combination of tools for the starting running back job in this offense, with good speed, good pass-catching ability, and excellent balance. We said in December that we thought Lee had a decent shot of starting at running back in the fall, and nothing we've seen from the candidates this spring has given us any reason to back off the statement. Getting him eligible, which is still not a done deal, would be a huge coup for this coaching staff
No position this year is more difficult to project than running back, but that's why you pay us the big bucks. Two big caveats: one, Thigpen being totally healthy at the beginning of August would change this depth chart, and possibly move him to the top; two, there isn't much separation in this depth chart, and we'd have to say that the idea of a running back by committee is not entirely coachspeak.
Our Best Guess Depth Chart for Nevada
Jordon James RS JR
Damien Thigpen RS SR (if healthy)
Craig Lee FR
Paul Perkins RS FR
Malcolm Jones SR
Steven Manfro (likely moves back to the F in the event of this depth chart)
Rushel Shell (best guess is he sits out the year per transfer rules)
Spring Review: Running Backs
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