Now that spring practice is over, and we've gotten an eyeball on the personnel, a few more questions have come up that UCLA is going to need to solve.
These questions may not be pressing for this fall, but they'll become more important as the 2013 season bleeds into 2014. The key to success under Jim Mora will be maintaining a talent level so there is continuity of a sustained quality of play. That, of course, starts with recruiting, but management and evaluation of the existing players in the program is probably just as key.
We've seen in the past, both in UCLA football and basketball, how poor evaluations of a program's own players can dramatically contribute to that program's demise.
UCLA's personnel is in a critical transition period – between when it is still dealing with the aftermath of the tail end of a departed coach, which typically leaves at least some cupboards of a program bare, and a new coaching staff bringing in their own talent. Personnel decisions during this time can either be huge boosts in that transition, or mistakes that can ultimately be costly. The thing is, personnel decisions made now can not only affect the 2013 season but the 2014 season, so the UCLA coaches have to be good evaluators, have a good sense of their overall talent and personnel, and have some vision on where all the puzzle pieces fit.
Some moves can end up being like Anthony Barr being moved to linebacker last season, or former quarterback Osaar Rashaan being moved to wide receiver as a senior.
We've already looked at:
Projected Depth Analysis: D-Line
Projected Depth Analysis: D-Backs
Projected Depth Analysis: QB
Projected Depth Analysis: Linebackers.
Projected Depth Analysis: Offensive Line.
A position that looked lean on talent heading into the spring received nothing but good news throughout the last month. First, Malcolm Jones (2013 SR) looked much better than anyone had any right to expect in his first time back with the team since September of 2012. Leaner than he has been at any point in his UCLA career, and obviously rededicated to the sport, Jones had a very good spring, and projects to be a solid contributor this year.
Next, UCLA received a transfer commitment from Pittsburgh running back, and former five-star prospect, Rushel Shell (2013 SO). Shell, like Jones, is a big-bodied back, but judging off of film, might have a better burst. He completed his freshman season at Pittsburgh in 2012, but we've heard that he's applying for a waiver to be able to play this upcoming season. Those rarely get granted, but if it does, he could be right in the mix to start this season.
Finally, we learned that Craig Lee (2013 FR), who was not immediately accepted to UCLA due to some academic issues, has earned what could be an acceptable ACT score if he maintains his grades through the end of the school year. Lee is another player who could have the potential to win the starting spot if he's available this year.
So a position group that was thought to include just Jordon James (2013 RS JR), Paul Perkins (2013 RS FR), the hope of Damien Thigpen's (2013 RS SR) healthy return, and Steven Manfro (2013 RS SO) now potentially includes two former five-star running backs and a four-star running back. All of a sudden, UCLA appears to be loaded at running back for 2013, and perhaps even more so for 2014.
Assuming UCLA applies for it, there's little reason to believe that the NCAA, even with its typical capricious nature, would not Grant Jones an additional season of eligibility. He played in just the first game of his junior season, and only carried the ball three times. Penalizing him one game and granting him the extra year would seem to be the obvious solution, and one that we would project happening for 2014.
Shell, who transferred to UCLA for unspecified family reasons, could be granted a waiver to play this season, but, based on the percentages of such things, we doubt it'll be granted. If it isn't, Shell still has a redshirt year to burn, so would still have three years to play at UCLA. He looked like he might be carrying a little extra weight when we saw him at practice in April, so a season of weight training and preparation could be perfect for him.
It's a little surprising considering how this saga has played out over the last few months, but if Lee can maintain his grades through the spring and gain acceptance to UCLA, he'll be able to start summer with the rest of the freshman class and be right on track for competing for the starting job in August. As we've said before, Lee has the talent to potentially start this coming season, and his potential eligibility this year might be the most important development of the offseason thus far.
With each of those three potentially eligible for the next two years, it does create a bit of a numbers crunch at running back. Right now, Perkins, James, Lee, Shell, Jones, Thigpen, and Manfro comprise a very talented and very crowded backfield (not counting Jalen Ortiz, who we project as a slot receiver). Even if you project that Shell will sit out the year, that still leaves six players to vie for a limited number of carries in 2013, and then, with only Thigpen graduating after the year, at least six players vying for carries in 2014. Obviously, UCLA is going to want to move some of those players into positions where they'll be able to contribute more over the next two seasons.
We doubt Jones is moving anywhere. He doesn't have much position versatility on offense, and we doubt very much that UCLA would move him to linebacker, given the depth at that position and the amount of time since Jones played the position. About the only thing we could see him playing aside from running back is fullback, but that position is used so minimally that it's almost not worth mentioning.
Although right now he's the first string running back, we could actually see James spending at least some time in the slot to get more talent on the field. Aside from some hiccups toward the end of last season where he was clearly affected by a loss of confidence, James has shown decent hands in his time at UCLA. With the deluge of good running backs entering the program, we could see James lining up quite often as a slot receiver this year and next.
Manfro might be the most negatively affected by the addition of Lee, Shell, and Jones. We actually liked him more as a running back than as a receiver, but with so many players potentially ahead of him at running back, he might be better served to switch back to receiver in the fall. At this point, we think this move is likely going to happen.
Since it's unlikely that Thigpen will be in position to win the starting job this season coming off of an ACL tear, whoever wins the running back competition this fall has a good chance of starting for at least the next two years. UCLA is in a strong enough spot, in fact, that even if the Bruins don't sign a running back in 2014, the position will likely still be loaded. You could make an argument that the running back position in 2014, without any additions, could be one of UCLA's most talented position groups, top to bottom. Imagine that two months ago.
Projected 2014 Running Back Depth Chart
Craig Lee SO
Jordon James RS SR
Rushel Shell RS SO
Paul Perkins RS SO
Malcolm Jones RS SR
Projected Depth Analysis: Running Backs
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