Previously in this series
Quarterback Depth Projection
Running Back Projection
A Look at 2016
It's no stretch to say that the running back group was UCLA's strongest, most consistent unit this season. UCLA got solid contributions from, really, five different running backs if you're inclined to count Roosevelt Davis' 13 carries. The true freshman running backs combined to average just over six yards per carry, while Paul Perkins, the workhouse, once again put together an excellent season, rushing for 1275 yards on 225 carries. Despite not having Myles Jack beyond a couple of early season carries, and despite trading a great running quarterback for a mostly pocket passer, UCLA rushed for just one fewer touchdown than the Bruins ran for a year ago, which is in large part a credit to the running backs and their improvement from a season ago.
Perkins now has a choice ahead of him. There's some conventional wisdom out there that running backs, if they are draftable, should put their names into the NFL Draft as soon as possible, because the body can only take so many carries. We went into this season thinking that Perkins would most likely declare after the season if he remained healthy, since he's put together two nice seasons and is probably draftable. But we really haven't heard any information that he has made up his mind, and in fact, as of a couple of weeks ago, we had heard that he hadn't even put in his name to be evaluated. Obviously, things could change over the coming weeks as he gets more information, but it certainly doesn't look like it's a foregone conclusion that Perkins will leave.
The good news for UCLA is that there isn't a more stacked depth chart on the team than at running back. Behind Perkins, UCLA has a few potentially very good options. Nate Starks only carried the ball 48 times this year, but he was exceptional in those carries, and looked the most Perkins-esque of any of the backup running backs. If anything, he actually looked a little more explosive, if not quite as balanced. His vision is also not quite at that Perkins level, but that could come with reps. He definitely appears to have the body type and skill set to be that workhorse back if Perkins does end up deciding to leave.
Sotonye Jamabo actually got more carries than Starks this year, so he might even be the front runner for the job if Perkins leaves. We'll admit -- we like Starks more as a pure running back, but there's no denying Jamabo's athletic ability and potential. He showed flashes of really good play this year, including a nice stretch against California where he ran with some real power. He was reportedly up to about 220 pounds by the end of the season, and if he can continue to get a bit more physical and adopt a more decisive running style, he could provide a slashing presence in the backfield with the added threat of being a dynamic pass catcher as well.
And then UCLA has Bolu Olorunfunmi, who was really fun to watch this year. Olorunfunmi was probably one of the major surprises of this recruiting class for UCLA, in that he not only looked ready to play as a freshman, but actually ready to make a significant impact. An injury early on set him back a little bit so he didn't finish quite as strong as he started, but he showed a decisive running style and surprising quickness in his carries early on. He'll need to continue to work on catching the ball better, but there's a lot to like about him as a running back.
So between those three or four, depending on what Perkins does, UCLA is poised to have another very productive year in the backfield next season. Kennedy Polamalu has done an excellent job recruiting and developing that entire position group, and it has paid off in a major way the last two years with really productive play from Perkins and some obvious improvements made by the backups. If you throw in whatever short yardage carries Polamalu can get out of the big, bruising power back that will be freshman Jalen Starks, UCLA should have one of the best running back groups in the Pac-12, with or without Perkins. And for now, we'll project that Perkins elects to stick around and pursue UCLA's career rushing record.
Will the position perform better, worse, or the same in 2016? Better.
Projected 2016 Depth Chart
RS SR Paul Perkins
JR Nate Starks
SO Soso Jamabo
SO Bolu Olorunfunmi
FR Jalen Starks