Projected Depth Analysis: Running Backs

UCLA's running back corps will likely be a solid one in 2015, but the question is whether it will be good enough for UCLA to contend for a national championship...

With spring practice over, we now have a much clearer picture of what UCLA's talent and depth looks like across the board. On the surface, and through most of the starting positions, UCLA is fairly set through 2015 with high-level talent at most positions. More specifically, though, we've identified a few issues based off what we saw through April that could require adjustments to the recruiting strategy for the 2015 class and beyond.

We already covered the defensive backs, linebackers, defensive line, quarterbacks, and receivers over the last month. Now, we'll turn our attention to the running back position, which doesn't yet project to have elite talent in 2015.

Projected Depth Analysis: Running Backs

If there's been an area of relative weakness for UCLA so far in the Jim Mora era, it's been running back recruiting. We say "relative weakness" because, judging in a vacuum, UCLA has managed to snag a few players, with three-star Paul Perkins arriving in 2012, four-star Craig Lee signing on in 2013, and four-star Nate Starks coming in with the 2014 class.

Still, there's been a feeling that UCLA has lacked a bit in running back recruiting, particularly with respect to landing an elite running back. Steve Broussard was let go at least in part due to the inability to build relationships with elite West Coast running backs (like, for example, Joe Mixon).

This upcoming season, UCLA's running back corps is fairly deep, with what you'd project as five decent-to-good running backs filling out the primary depth chart (Jordon James, Paul Perkins, Steven Manfro, Craig Lee, and Nate Starks). James, who we would have to suspect will earn starter's carries this year, graduates after this season, though, and there isn't a clear successor among the remaining players.

Perkins and Manfro, at this point, are fairly known quantities and, while we think Perkins could definitely be a starting-caliber Pac-12 running back, we'd be hard-pressed to describe him as an elite one. Manfro, from everything we've seen in practices and games, is probably a step below Perkins, but still a solid back who can be counted on for significant carries.

Craig Lee.
The two mostly unknown quantities are Lee and Starks. From what we saw of Lee last fall and this spring, he certainly has the speed to be a game breaker from the running back position. His weaknesses, from what we've heard, are mostly based on understanding his role in the offense on every single play (not just those plays where he's running the ball) and picking up the finer points of the game (like blocking). With his speed, you'd have to figure UCLA will find a role for him as early as this year, but the other aspects of the game could hold him back.

Starks is intriguing. He has good size, at 6'0 and probably north of 190 pounds, and at one point during his junior year was actually the No. 1 running back in the West. His size should appeal to running backs coach Kennedy Polamalu, who favors bigger running backs who can take a beating. If he can show the ability to block, hold onto the ball, and hit holes hard, we wouldn't be shocked to see him get a surprising amount of carries this fall, which could set him up for competing to start in 2015.

The question for UCLA, as has been the question throughout most of these analyses, is this: are any of these options elite? It's difficult to answer that without having seen Starks in a UCLA uniform, but as of right now, we'd lean toward no. Lee likely has the most potential, because of that elite speed, but he probably still needs to get stronger, along with working on picking up his assignments. Starks, Perkins, and Manfro all look like solid, possibly very good running backs — but none look like the reincarnation of Maurice Jones-Drew, Reggie Bush, Marshawn Lynch, or any of the other NFL-caliber running backs that have come through the Pac-12 in the last decade.

We should say, before getting more into it, that we don't think it's necessary to have an elite running back to have an elite offense. In fact, it's probably the least essential area to have elite talent. A good offensive line can make a decent running back look very good, or a very good running back look elite. So, we should note, UCLA projects to have a good offensive line in 2015 (and beyond) which perhaps mitigates the need for a really incredible running back.

That said, UCLA's goal in this class and the next one will obviously be to sign the best running back possible. Missing on Joe Mixon this past cycle stung a bit because he would have provided, first, UCLA's starting running back for the next three years, and, second, an offensive playmaker who could have lined up in the slot, out wide, or in the backfield as a receiver. Perhaps the bigger miss, though, with how Polamalu likes bigger backs, was Royce Freeman, who Broussard got on very late. Polamalu very much wants Myles Jack to play running back for him, even thought that will likely happen only sporadically, and Freeman was probably the closest thing to Jack that could have conceivably been on the roster next year.

Right now, UCLA has Bolu Olorunfunmi committed in the class of 2015. We like Olorunfunmi, and think he could give UCLA some needed power on the inside, but he doesn't fill the main need, which is getting someone who can bust plays open for the occasional long touchdown. Perhaps recognizing this, UCLA is actively recruiting a second running back in the class, despite having limited scholarships, and has several options, perhaps the most exciting of which is Texas running back Sotonye Jamabo, who may have that elite combo of size and speed that's currently lacking on the roster.

It's going to be interesting to see how running back recruiting shakes out this fall. Polamalu has a reputation as an ace recruiter, but it's a down year for West Coast running backs, which makes the recruiting job much more difficult. Pulling a truly elite running back this year, like, perhaps, Jamabo, will require going out-of-state to do so. If Polamalu can pull that off, it'll be a great indication that UCLA's running back recruiting is in good hands.

Projected 2015 Depth Chart

Running Back
Paul Perkins
Nate Starks
Craig Lee
Steven Manfro
Bolu Olrounfunmi (verbal)
2015 Freshman

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