UCLA lost Jordon James, Steven Manfro, Damien Thigpen, and Malcolm Jones for various stretches of the season, with all four of them out for Arizona State, which left Paul Perkins and a roll of duct tape in the regular running back rotation.
The good news for UCLA is that the injured from last year looked fully healthy this spring. The Bruins will also add Craig Lee and Nathan Starks to the rotation this fall, and from everything we’ve heard, Starks has been impressive in off-season workouts.
With new running backs coach Kennedy Polamalu coming in, the Bruins have also begun working in a fullback position more. Nate Iese, who worked exclusively with the running backs this spring, could be a breakout star in the offense if he is used the way we think he might be. At 6’3, 240, with great athleticism, Iese could be a pass-catching nightmare out of the backfield.
*** Jordon James — Everything we’ve heard is that his ankle issues from last year are behind him.
Starks, as we said up top, has drawn favorable reviews during off-season workouts. We had a chance to see him during UCLA’s camps at the end of June, and physically he looks good, at about 6’0 with good weight.
If we had to handicap the running back race, we’d say James and Perkins are the two favorites, followed by Starks, Manfro, and Craig Lee in a group behind them. As every running back coach since the beginning of time has opined, though, being the starter isn’t overly significant since they’ll rotate constantly.
Based on what we saw this spring, we’d probably give it to James for a couple of reasons. First, he’s a senior who knows the offense thoroughly at this point. Second, he’s probably the best blocker among the running backs. Third, he’s the faster of the two between he and Perkins, and gives UCLA an occasional big play threat from the top spot.
That’s not to say another player couldn’t seize the role, but we’d peg James as the favorite right now.
At fullback, Iese took the job and ran with it all of spring, and we’d have to imagine it’s his to lose this fall. If he looks anything like how he looked in the spring, we’d be shocked if he isn’t a significant part of the offense this season.
Running back depth is solid, with Starks, Perkins, Manfro, and Lee making up the rotation. It’s not an elite group, which should be obvious, but if the offensive line doesn’t suffer an inordinate amount of injuries this year, it’s a rotation good enough to hit the right holes and occasionally break a big run.
Lee has the most physical potential of the group. This spring, he showed elite level speed and breakaway ability in the open field. The mental side of the game is the biggest hurdle for him as he continue to pick up the playbook and the blocking schemes. If he has made significant strides this off-season, his role could drastically expand this fall.
Manfro has shown that he’s a solid runner with good vision who probably doesn’t have quite the playmaking ability during games that he’s shown in practice. He still has enough quickness and shiftiness to occasionally break a big run, and as a cog in the rotation, he has real value.
Perkins, like we said above, could be the main contender for the starting job. He had a good spring, and his balance, which was always one of his main strengths, looked even better. He also looked as if he’d gotten a bit quicker and faster. The light seemed to turn on for him toward the end of last year, and it should be exciting to see his development this fall.
FALL PRACTICE UNIT PREVIEWS
Jul 28, 2014 -- Fall Camp Preview: Secondary - UCLA will need to figure out some depth behind the starters...
Jul 23, 2014 -- Fall Camp Preview: Linebackers - UCLA could shift its emphasis to inside linebackers this season...
Jul 22, 2014 -- Fall Camp Preview: D-Line - The group should be one of UCLA's most talented units this fall...