2016 Recruiting Analysis: Running Back

Feb. 15 -- The running back class out West is weak, but one player already projects as a heavy UCLA lean...

This is the second in a series that gets into some deep analysis of UCLA's recruiting needs for 2016 position by position.

The first was: 2016 Recruiting Analysis: Quarterbacks

UCLA clearly signed a considerably talent-laden class for 2015. Plugging that into the existing talent in the program, UCLA is definitely at its most talented point in quite a long time.

In analyzing the projected depth chart after plugging in the incoming freshmen, it’s fun to nitpick and analyze what are some areas of need for the program, specifically for the 2016 recruiting class.

It definitely is a new era in UCLA football recruiting. Just a few years ago, we couldn’t write the type of article this is – where we selectively pinpointed specific needs in the program. Pretty much under the last couple of coaching staffs you didn’t have that luxury – you’d just say UCLA needed to load up on talent at every position from top to bottom.

So, here it is, what UCLA needs position by position, in 2016, and the 2016 prospects out there that UCLA has a chance to get that best fills that need.

Running Back

Need and Recruiting Tactic: If this were ten or fifteen years ago, UCLA’s depth chart would look pretty set for the foreseeable future. Paul Perkins is just going to be a redshirt junior next year, Nate Starks will be a sophomore, Craig Lee will be a redshirt sophomore, and Bolu Olorunfunmi and Sotonye Jamabo, the former No. 1 running back in the country, will both be true freshmen (and that’s not even mentioning Steven Manfro, who will be a redshirt senior). But with the diminishing value of running backs at the NFL level, and a clearer understanding of how short a running back’s career may be, it looks at least somewhat likely that Perkins will elect to forgo his final year of eligibility after next season to enter the NFL Draft. That makes it imperative that UCLA get at least one running back in the 2016 class.

But what type of back should UCLA prioritize? Looking at the players we’d project to be on roster in 2016, the Bruins have a power guy (Olorunfunmi), a big playmaker (Jamabo), and a potential workhorse (Starks). The question mark is Lee. He’d provide a serious speed element, but at this point, it’s still uncertain whether he will develop enough in the eyes of the coaches to earn a considerable role in the offense. With that being the unknown, and with three bigger, more physical types of running backs already in the depth chart, the real missing piece is some legitimate speed at the position. Jamabo is certainly a playmaker, with great quickness for his size and good speed, but UCLA currently lacks a true speedster running back, the kind that is a threat to outrun any player on the defensive side of the ball. Jamabo might even end up playing F receiver more than anything at the college level, since he has very good hands and projects as being devastating on the swings and screens that Devin Fuller has taken the past three years.

So, there’s definitely room for an elite speed guy in that depth chart. Of course, this hypothetical elite speed guy would have to be fairly comfortable with the idea of not starting his freshman year. Starks, at least, will likely be in front of whoever it is, and there’s a chance that Jamabo and Olorunfunmi both will be as well. Running back is different from quarterback, though, in that elite players don’t have as much trouble following elite players from the year before, but having Jamabo in the depth chart may preclude some from wanting to join that backfield. If he did end up at the F by the end of fall camp, though, that could go a long way toward clearing up depth chart issues and making UCLA an attractive landing spot for the next big-time running back.

Luckily, it’s not a particularly difficult cycle for running back recruiting. Though it’s not a deep class out West, there’s already one player who projects as a UCLA lean who could fit the bill for what the Bruins are looking for.

Our Pick for the Right Fit

McGrew impressed us this year with his ability to run with surprising power between the tackles; we already knew he was very fast, but had real questions about his ability to play running back longterm. As it stands, we’re still a little uncertain if he’ll ever be an every-down back at the college level, but we’re much more confident in his ability to stick at running back, at least part of the time, than we were prior to this season. He is a very decisive runner, and doesn’t cheat the way you often see very fast players cheat at the high school level by making a bunch of cuts in the backfield or reversing the field. He’s excellent catching the ball out of the backfield, and adds a bunch of value as a returner as well. And, again, he’s exceptionally fast — in an excellent high school league, he was very often the fastest player on the field, and he was a legitimate threat to score a touchdown every time he got the ball with a little bit of space in front of him.

The issue is his size. McGrew really isn’t much more than 5’7, and it’s not like he’s a Maurice Drew 5’7. He doesn’t carry half his weight in his thighs like Drew, and doesn’t have that same stocky build. He could probably gain a little bit of weight, maybe pushing him into the 185-pound range from the 170 or so he is currently, but you’d have to be cautious with putting weight on him since you wouldn’t want to sacrifice any of his speed. He does run with good toughness and physicality, especially for his size, and durability hasn’t really been a question for him in high school, but going against bigger athletes in college would make that a bit of question mark.

What makes him even more attractive as a prospect, though, is that he’s in the West, and at this point can safely be considered UCLA’s to lose. Even with Jamabo coming in, McGrew is still considered a heavy UCLA lean. Rather than having to go national for the Ryan Newsomes or Ray Ray McClouds of the world to add speed to the roster, UCLA can go down the street to St. John Bosco, where the Bruins are already building a bit of a pipeline, and snag one of the elite speedsters in the West. Whether he ends up at running back, slot receiver, or a combination of the two, adding local speed like McGrew is a no-brainer. In the very unlikely case that McGrew doesn’t choose UCLA, though, we have some other options listed blow.

Others Who Could Fit:

He doesn’t really fit the same mold as McGrew, but in terms of sheer talent, he’d be hard to pass up. Lucas is a bigger back, at a well-built six feet or so, but he’s a really fluid runner with good speed. Kennedy Polamalu really does like physical backs with the ability to deliver hits, and Lucas would certainly fit that mold. The issue is that Lucas is already a very strong lean to Arizona State, and it’d be hard to pull him away from the resurgent Sun Devils program. We list him here, though, because the running back class out West is very weak, and even nationally, there aren’t many players UCLA is currently pursuing that pop out as can’t-miss prospects. Given the difference in playing style, UCLA would probably feel fine taking both Lucas and McGrew. Even if not, in the unlikely event that UCLA misses on McGrew, keeping an eye on Lucas to see if anything changes with his recruitment would be prudent.

Felton is getting recruited as an athlete – a running back or slot receiver – but we think he’s destined to be a running back. At 5-10ish and 170ish, he might be a little light for an every-down back but he has a good frame that could put on more weight. We’re really looking forward to seeing him in person this spring to get a better idea of how he projects, and what position he projects to playing in college. From a standpoint of his game and not his body, he projects as a running back, with the quick feet and elusiveness, and a running back’s vision, but he very well could be a slot. Heck, on tape he looks like he could play cornerback, too. We really don’t know exactly how fast he is (he looks like lightning on film against his mediocre high school competition), so that will be another thing we’ll want to see this spring. Felton has great hands, it's one of the reasons why Scout has him as a receiver, and that really is a vital characteristic for being in UCLA's offense, either as a running back or a F. ASU, Cal, Utah and Michigan have already offered Felton. If he passes the in-person test, Felton, with it being a down year for running backs, has a chance to be one of the few best running back prospects in the west.

Stovall is another smaller back, but like McGrew, he has very good speed to make up for his size. He’s not quite as fast as McGrew is, but might have a slightly better build, which would in theory give him a better chance of being an every-down back. UCLA hasn’t offered yet, but the Bruins are among the schools recruiting him, and we could envision them offering at some point in the coming months. With Polamalu’s stated preference for bigger, more physical backs, though, it’s hard to envision a scenario where the Bruins would take McGrew and another small running back in the same class (especially given that UCLA also prefers bigger defensive backs, so there wouldn’t be a lot of potential for a position change if running back didn’t work out). In other words, we’d have to figure that Stovall would only be a real option if something odd developed with McGrew.

Bruin Report Online Top Stories