Fall Camp Preview: Running Backs

Jordon James is at the top of the heap heading into Fall Camp, but the race to replace Johnathan Franklin is not even close to over...

It's almost fall football camp, right? To kick off our camp previews, we took a look at the status of UCLA's offensive line heading into August. Next up, we're going to tackle the unsettled running back position after the loss of Johnathan Franklin.

Off-Season Developments

UCLA's running back situation this offseason has been a series of highs and lows.

Low: In February, incoming freshman Craig Lee found out he'd need to do further work to qualify for UCLA, and wouldn't be able to sign immediately.

High: In June, Lee finally put together the necessary grades and test scores to earn admittance to UCLA and qualification by NCAA standards.

High: In April, UCLA seemingly locked in Pittsburgh transfer running Rushel Shell, who, depending on the determination of his transfer, might have been a candidate for immediate playing time in the fall.

Low: Shell never made it to campus, and it turns out that his transcripts were so bad that there was nothing to be done in order to get him into school.

High: Malcolm Jones returned to school in the offseason, and this spring looked in-shape and focused for the first time in a long time.

In short, it's been a wild offseason, not even taking into account the efforts to replace Johnathan Franklin's record-breaking production. Generally speaking, though, even taking into account all the highs and lows, it was a good offseason, and a position that seemed unsettled after last season looks like it's in fairly good shape going forward.

Breaking Down the Running Back Race

As Jim Mora often repeated during spring practice, it's not easy to replace a player like Johnathan Franklin, and the odds are that it won't be just one guy who replaces him. While there's almost certainly some truth to that, and there's a good chance that UCLA will divide the carries a bit more evenly this year, we still anticipate that there will be a primary back who gets at least 50% of the carries.

UCLA actually has a good amount of running backs on roster, but our expectation is that the competition for the lion's share of the carries will boil down to three guys in fall camp: Jordon James, Paul Perkins, and Craig Lee.

Damien Thigpen will likely not be fully recovered by the start of fall camp, so he will probably not be a serious factor in the initial competition. Malcolm Jones doesn't really fit, offensively, with much of what Noel Mazzone wants from a starting running back. Steven Manfro might be considered a darkhorse candidate, but with the number of potential running backs on the team, we actually would guess that he'll move back to receiver at some point before October.

So that leaves James, Perkins, and Lee. James figures to get the initial shot at the starting job, since he was probably the better of he and Perkins in the spring and is also the oldest of the three. We heard this offseason that James ran about a 4.5 40, which sounds about right. James improved this spring as a decision maker at running back, frequently hitting the hole hard rather than dancing behind the line of scrimmage. He's still a work in progress in that respect, though, and the changes thus far have not been drastic.

With James, the coaches will have to keep in mind that practices don't necessarily dictate game performance. Last year, during summer camp especially, James actually looked very good in practice. By the end of the year, though, he had clearly lost a great deal of confidence, and the number of dropped passes and indecisive cuts accumulated. If he does win the job in the fall, you have to hope that the boost in confidence from having a good camp will help carry him through the year.

Perkins was thought by some to be the heir apparent to Franklin heading into the spring, but his performance was fairly underwhelming. It would not be fair to say that he performed poorly this spring—he just did not provide much reason to start him over a redshirt junior. After the way he looked in summer camp last year, when at times he was the best running back in practice, the spring was a disappointing one. He didn't display the same level of vision, and was more indecisive behind the line of scrimmage, falling prey to the dancing disease.

That being said, the job was neither won nor lost in the spring, and there's every reason to believe that Perkins will have a legitimate shot at winning the job in August. Perhaps the pressure of the spring, and the expectation that he'd take the reins from Franklin, was a little too much and he'll be more settled in the fall. He has a good burst, good balance, and good vision—tools which should stand him in good stead next month.

The saga of Craig Lee has finally ended with Lee fully cleared by the NCAA and admitted to UCLA, which drastically changes the complexion of the running back competition this year. Lee is very talented, and as we wrote about prior to signing day, he has the potential to be an instant impact contributor. It's always tough to project that a true freshman will compete with other, older players for playing time, but running back is one of those positions where there's a greater probability of it happening.

Will Lee be that kind of player? It's anyone's guess how a player will respond to his first college practices, and moreso with Lee after all the effort that's been expended simply getting admitted into school. For now, we'll slot him in behind James and Perkins, but it really could be a very even race between the three.

Depth

The most intriguing player left off that initial list is Damien Thigpen. From what we last heard, Thigpen's recovery from an ACL tear is going well, but not exceptionally so, and it's doubtful that he'll be fully ready to go for the beginning of fall camp. We do know that, if and when he does come back, he's probably not going to be slotted at either of the return spots, in order to save him some wear and tear.

Thigpen was arguably UCLA's second best big play threat behind Franklin last year, and his return to full health would change the way the offense functions. Last year, when he went down, it reduced the dynamism of Noel Mazzone's offense, since Thigpen could do so much with so little—taking swing passes 20+ yards, running wheel routes better than any other player on the team, cutting quickly between the tackles to turn dive plays into long gains. If he'd remained healthy, even with his short stature, we probably would have projected him as the starting tailback this year.

So what can you project from a player coming off an ACL tear? If history is our guide, he probably won't be quite as good as he was last year, and, once he returns, will likely be a bit more tentative as he learns to trust his knee again. The usual expectation is that it takes nine months or so to recover physically and another year or so to recovery mentally from that kind of injury. You can point to semi-miraculous recoveries like Adrian Peterson's in the NFL, who recovered completely in a little over eight months, but those are few and far between.

In other words, it's very difficult to project exactly what to expect from Thigpen, which makes him one of this fall's most intriguing players to watch. Obviously, the earlier he can return to full health, the better his chances are of competing for more playing time. If he is fully healthy near the start of fall camp, which we consider unlikely, you could immediately toss him into the group above. It'll be very interesting to watch.

Malcolm Jones had a substantially better spring than could have reasonably been expected, given that he sat out of football for over five months, and wasn't taking part in a college weight-training program. If anything, his body looked better than it had the previous two years. More importantly, he appeared rededicated to the idea of being a football player, which never seemed to be a priority for him in the past. He showed improved explosion, strength, and decision making, which was good to see and will likely earn him some playing time in the fall.

Our expectation is that Jones will primarily fill a situational, short-yardage role as a big back. We know Mazzone likes quickness out of the backfield, which is not a quality that Jones has in abundance, so it's hard to see him getting more than a handful of carries each game. He surprised us this spring, though, so we'll see what his new level of dedication gets him.

As we stated above, we expect that Manfro will move back to receiver at some point during summer camp or early fall. Between the three players who figure to compete to start, Jones, and Thigpen, UCLA probably has enough at running back to not want to waste Manfro there. We think Manfro projects better as a running back, actually, but the depth chart may dictate a position change.

Incoming freshman running back Jalen Ortiz projects as an F to start out with, but after recently seeing him on campus, he looks thicker and stronger than expected, so he may be an option at running back down the line.

What it All Means

Running back is an interesting position in a lot of ways. In the NFL, running backs have seen their level of importance drop as teams have begun to realize that, with the quality of their offensive lines, many running backs are interchangeable. At the college level it's a bit different, since offensive lines aren't as good and players need to make individual plays a bit more, but there's still some merit to the argument that the quality of a running back is directly proportional to the quality of his offensive line.

So, between James, Perkins, and Lee, UCLA may not have an adequate replacement for the talents of Johnathan Franklin. However, determining whether UCLA will be able to adequately replace Franklin's production is a different question entirely, and one dependent as much on UCLA's offensive line as it is on the running backs themselves.

Last year, Franklin ran behind a line that would probably be rated somewhere between bad and mediocre, and racked up a tremendous amount of yards. This year, you have to project that the offensive line is going to be better, simply through another year of experience and added talented depth. You also have to say, to be fair, that UCLA's running backs will be worse than last year, since you don't simply replace UCLA's career leading rusher and have no dropoff. Still, UCLA has talent at running back, and if the offensive line can open holes at a better rate than last year, the Bruins could go a long way toward replacing Franklin's tremendous production.

Running Back Depth Chart Going Into Fall Camp

Jordon James, RS JR
Paul Perkins RS FR
Craig Lee FR
Malcolm Jones SR
Steven Manfro SO

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