UCLA Fall Camp Preview: Running Backs

Jul. 29 -- UCLA has a very settled situation at the top of the running back depth chart...

When we first saw him in fall camp of 2012, we thought Paul Perkins had the potential to be pretty similar to Johnathan Franklin -- as we've said a few times, there were even moments where he ran kind of like Franklin during that period, to the point where it was hard to tell which one of them was carrying the ball.

But little did we expect that Perkins, in his first year as the main starter in 2014, would put up senior-year Franklin-type numbers: 6.3 yards per carry, 1575 total yards rushing, 11 total touchdowns, and a handful of 50+ yard runs. He was more explosive than we ever gave him credit for leading into the season (or, heck, even coming out of it), and he showed off all of the traits that make him, still, one of the most underrated backs in the country: elite vision, great balance, good strength, and good quickness. His top-end speed isn't among the elite, but it was plenty good enough for him to rattle off carries of 92 yards, 81 yards, and 58 yards at different points last year.

There's an easy argument to make that Perkins was the offensive MVP last year with his consistency from game to game and his ability, even against tough defenses like Utah, Oregon, and Stanford, to put up great numbers. Against Stanford, he was one of the lone bright spots, averaging 6.8 yards on the ground, and against Oregon, he was spectacular, averaging 8.9 yards per carry.

UCLA's running back situation has rarely been this good heading into a season, between Perkins, Nate Starks, and whatever contributions UCLA gets from Sotonye Jamabo, Craig Lee, Steven Manfro and Bolu Olorunfunmi. For a team that could lean pretty heavily on the running game at least to start the year, having a group of backs this talented is key.

Injury/Personnel Updates

***Steven Manfro -- Manfro sat out all of the contact portions of spring practice and spent most of April on the sidelines with Sal Alosi. We heard that he should be healthy by the start of the season, but might be limited to begin fall camp. He tore his ACL at the beginning of September last year, so he should be approaching full health fairly soon. With ACL injuries, the big thing after a certain point is rebuilding the confidence to make hard cuts, and that might still take some time.

Incoming Freshman

Sotonye Jamabo

The former five-star running back took a bumpy road to UCLA but has ended up on campus all the same. From what we've heard so far, Jamabo has wowed some around the program with his athleticism, with many comparing him to elite running backs like Eric Dickerson or Adrian Peterson. He's one of the two or three players we're most excited to see in San Bernardino, and we'd bet that he ends up playing quite a bit out of the backfield.

Bolu Olorunfunmi

The former three-star running back is also drawing solid reviews, from what we've heard around the program. He projects as a power back at the UCLA level, but continuing to work on his hands is going to be key, as he isn't a great pass-catcher yet. If we had to guess, we'd anticipate Olorunfunmi redshirting this year, but we'll see how he looks in a couple of weeks.

Projected Starters

Paul Perkins

Running Back -- Paul Perkins
Fullback -- Nate Iese

Obviously, Perkins is the guy, and he'll no doubt get the lion's share of the carries. In fact, without Brett Hundley running the ball 150+ times this year, and with Rosen nowhere near that threat to run, we'd anticipate Perkins ups his carries into the 280+ range after carrying the ball 250 times last year. That kind of added workload can take a toll on a running back physically, but Perkins was planning on adding a little bit of weight this offseason to help deal with the added work.

If Perkins come even close to his average numbers from last year, when he was well over 6 yards per carry, and does up his carries closer to 300, he should comfortably lead the Pac-12 in rushing again. Given the way he performed last year against the top defenses on the schedule, there's little reason to bet against him maintaining the same sort of quality.

Perkins has a chance this year to solidify himself among the upper echelon in the history of UCLA running backs. Franklin, UCLA's all-time leading rusher, had 4,369 yards in his four-year career. While he's almost certainly not going to hit that this year, Perkins has a really good chance of getting into third place this year (he needs just 1048 to eclipse Freeman McNeil) and an outside chance at second place (he'd need 1,584 to get past Gaston Green, so basically he'd need to replicate his 2014 campaign). In other words, there's a really good chance that after this year, Perkins' name will come up when we discuss the best UCLA running backs of all time.

Iese will start at fullback once again, but we'd imagine that he'll also be used as an H-back of sorts out of the backfield, essentially playing tight end at times. He is a dynamic athlete who has been effective when targeted over the last couple of years.

Depth

Nate Starks

Many of us are going into the season expecting Nate Starks to shoulder the load as the No. 2 back, and while in limited time he looked pretty good last year, it's important to bear in mind that he did only carry the ball 32 times all year for an average of 4.3 yards per carry. UCLA's No. 2 back last year was more or less Hundley, and behind him, Jordon James actually had the most carries, at 57. So, to a certain extent, Starks is still a somewhat unknown quantity.

From what we saw of him this spring, though, we're pretty confident in his ability to be a more than solid second back. He looked much more explosive this spring than a year ago, having trimmed his body down a little bit. Last year we would have said he was trending more toward being a power back, and while he still has plenty of strength, he looked much more like a balanced running back this spring. Kennedy Polamalu has, in just a year here, shown himself to be among the top tier of running back coaches, and it appears that Starks is already benefitting from his tutelage.

Behind Starks, there's quite a bit more uncertainty. Last year's fourth leading rusher was Myles Jack, and the only other running back to even earn a carry was Steven Manfro, who had two before tearing his ACL. Going into the season, there are four options for that third running back slot that Starks basically occupied this year: Jamabo, Manfro, Lee, and Olorunfunmi. One of those four could easily see 40 or so touches this year if they win the No. 3 job, and plenty more if there's an injury, so it's a pretty significant role.

As we wrote above, it's still a little uncertain if Manfro will be fully ready to go for the start of fall camp after sitting out basically every contact portion of practice in the spring. We'd imagine he'll be ready to play at some point during the season, but he might be limited for a good portion of camp, so if we had to guess, we'd say he won't really factor into the initial competition for the No. 3 spot.

That leaves three contenders, Jamabo, Lee, and Olorunfunmi. We thought Lee had a productive enough spring. Yes, he's still a little limited in the secondary tools of a running back (blocking and catching mostly), but his elite speed makes him an intriguing option. Jamabo, as we wrote above, has earned rave reviews this offseason, and is a dynamic enough athlete that it's virtually a certainty that he will see the field in some capacity at some point this year. He has the versatility to be anywhere from a running back to an outside receiver, so assuming he picks up the offense fairly quickly, he could see an expanding role as the season wears on. Olorunfunmi, as we said, could be a redshirt candidate with all of the depth ahead of him, but, again, we'll see what camp shows us.

Behind those three, Roosevelt Davis has always impressed us with his quickness, and, at the very least, he'll once again be a very, very good scout team player with the potential to play pretty well if disaster strikes. We'd have to imagine Jack will still get a little bit of time at running back this year as well, especially in goal-line situations with Hundley, and his ability to score off of quarterback draws, no longer on the roster.


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