Spring Preview: Running Backs

Mar. 18 -- Paul Perkins, the Pac-12's leading rusher from a year ago, returns, making the running backs one of the most solid units on the team heading into spring...

If you can cast your memory back all the way to this time last year, the running back depth chart was actually somewhat of a concern. There were a host of unknowns -- whether Jordon James could remain healthy, whether Craig Lee's light would turn on in a big way, whether Paul Perkins could make a leap from part-time back to full-time starter -- and it looked like the kind of situation where whoever won the starting spot would simply be holding onto it for a year until a talented freshman came in to take the job away in 2015.

Of course, that's not the way it turned out. Instead, Perkins did his best Johnathan Franklin impression all year and put together one of the best seasons for a UCLA running back. He was remarkably consistent all year, showing the balance, toughness, and vision to be an obvious every-down back. We've lamented his speed, but he actually showed enough to break off a couple of big touchdown runs. With Perkins in position for a big redshirt junior season, the questions now revolve more around the discussion of the second and third string.

A Look at Spring

Perkins is likely going to be counted on a great deal more this year than even last year, with UCLA breaking in a new quarterback and likely wanting to rely more on the running game. Perkins has already shown the ability to be a bit of a workhorse, and he's been durable so far in his UCLA career. We'll be interested to see, though, if he's put on a little bit of weight heading into spring and fall camp to help withstand the rigors that the coming season will bring. There isn't a whole lot else we'd need to see from Perkins; at this point, he's a known quantity, and a very good one.

Nate Starks.
The potentially interesting developments would be behind him on the depth chart. Nate Starks showed flashes of real ability last year, looking especially strong and physical for a freshman running back. He's a bigger back who knows he's a bigger back, and runs with purpose. The biggest issue we saw with him last year was a tendency to run a little high. Getting his pad level lower should make him much tougher to bring down, and should make him a much more consistent runner between the tackles. If he shows a good deal of development this spring, that'll give UCLA two quality Pac-12 running backs to help take some pressure off the new quarterback (and that's not even counting Sotonye Jamabo and Bolu Olorunfunmi, who'll arrive in the fall).

The enigma in the group is Craig Lee. As we've said a few times, he is among the fastest players on the team, and he's typically good for a "Wow, who was that?" type of run every couple of practices. As we've also talked about, though, he's had some issues picking up everything the coaches want out of him at the position, from blocking to knowing where he's supposed to go on every play. We'd really like to see him see the field this year, and this spring could be a big step for him if he's started to nail down the particulars of the position. Even if he hasn't, we'd like to see him get some sort of work in a package or on special teams, since his speed is not something to be discounted.

From what we heard last, Steven Manfro is still recovering from the ACL tear he suffered at the beginning of last season. He'll be limited through the spring, likely working mostly with Sal Alosi. With only three scholarship running backs fully ready to go, we wouldn't be shocked to see Adarius Pickett take some reps there, though we've heard the plan is to transition him to safety. Roosevelt Davis will also get his share of reps, and he's always in the conversation as one of the MVPs of spring. He's quick and shifty, and if he had a bigger frame, he'd be a scholarship-level player.

At fullback, we fully expect Nate Iese to be the main contributor there again in spring, but we'd really like to see some commitment to actually using him as receiver out of the backfield more. He's a big, physical athlete with very good hands, and he was probably under-utilized last year. Perhaps with a new quarterback, he'll be perceived as more of a safety valve and get more work, but whatever the case, as one of the best jumbo athletes on the field, it'd be great to use him more. If fullback isn't a long-term thing, as we've said before, perhaps he can split time between outside linebacker/defensive end and fullback. Taylor Lagace also worked there last year, and if there's only going to be spot work at the position, we'd be more inclined to just use Lagace and transition Iese to a position where he might make more of an impact.

Project Depth Chart Post-Spring

Running Back
RS JR Paul Perkins
SO Nathan Starks
RS SO Craig Lee
RS SR Steven Manfro (injured)
RS SR Roosevelt Davis

Fullback
RS JR Nate Iese
RS JR Taylor Lagace

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