Without a running game, UCLA's offense took a while to adjust, particularly through the middle of the season. Many of the struggles of the offense during that period actually seemed to stem from the lack of great pass blocking from the running backs filling in for James. We'd have to imagine that blocking will be a point of emphasis for the running backs throughout spring and fall camp.
A Look at Spring
Running backs coach Steve Broussard was fired immediately after the regular season ended, and Kennedy Polamalu, the former USC assistant, was hired soon after to replace him. Polamalu should bring a wealth of knowledge and experience to the position and it'll be interesting to see what kind of impact he has. He watched practices through the bowl game and seemed to take on an increasing role with the actual coaching as the team went through bowl practices, and now, in spring, the position group should be entirely his, and he'll have the opportunity to put his stamp on it.
Coach Mora told us on the BROCast that the two biggest areas of concern for him are linebackers and running backs, and with good reason. With James sitting out much of last year, and Damien Thigpen and Malcolm Jones both graduating, finding a solid group of backs to carry UCLA through what should be a very good season will be a very big priority this spring and fall.
What to Watch For
-- Is Jordon James fully back? When he returned toward the end of last year, James was not the same runner who was, statistically, one of the top backs in the country through the non-conference slate. He suffered an ankle injury against Utah that proved serious, and then nicked it again when he returned later in the season. When he was in, the offense ran well, with a good balance of running and passing. His blocking, too, was significant. When he was out, the offense sputtered, with no other back able to recreate James' contributions. If he can have a solid spring and, perhaps more importantly, actually play the entire spring without injury, that would go a long way toward figuring out the running back depth.
-- How does Craig Lee fit in? Last year, we liked what we saw from Lee's speed and elusiveness during practice, but he also seemed to struggle a bit with picking up blocking assignments and knowing the offense. He's probably the fastest of the running backs, though, with a very good burst, and you have to imagine that the coaching staff will be able to find a role for him just because of that speed. It'll be interesting to see how far along he is this spring and whether he'll be able to make a move up the depth chart.
-- Can Paul Perkins and Steven Manfro compete for the starting job? James was the starter before he got hurt, but the coaching staff has said repeatedly and often that any of the backs could turn into the primary ball carrier if they seize the position. Perkins had the better year of he and Manfro, and would seem to be the most likely challenger to James for the starting job, particularly with Manfro's injury history. We'd still say it's likely that James retains the starting role, based on his experience, talent, and blocking ability, but with a new coach this spring, you'd have to imagine there will be a real competition.
-- Will UCLA begin developing a permanent package for Myles Jack? Getting Jack some work in spring would be a very clear sign that he'll see work on the offensive end throughout his career at UCLA. From what we've heard, him working with the offense at various points in the spring is a real possibility.
Projected Depth Chart for Spring