For the first time in three years, Paul Perkins will not be carrying the ball out of the backfield for the Bruins. Perkins, who elected to forgo his final season of eligibility and declare for the NFL Draft, was an exceptional running back in his three years at UCLA, and will probably be more appreciated in his absence than he was in his presence. Perkins wasn't particularly flashy, and didn't have game-breaking speed, but his exceptional vision, quickness, and balance made him one of the most successful backs in UCLA history.
Perkins, from what we've gathered, has drawn some pretty high praise from NFL scouts, and though he currently has a hamstring injury, many expect him to get drafted somewhere in the middle rounds of the NFL Draft, which is altogether not bad for a former three-star back.
UCLA's potential successors all got a reasonable chance last year to audition for the starting job, with Sotonye Jamabo getting 66 carries, Nate Starks getting 50, and Bolu Olorunfunmi getting 34 carries. The beauty for UCLA (and maybe a really positive thing about the UCLA offensive line last season) is that every one of those three averaged at least 5.9 yards per carry, so there are plenty of very good options on the roster for the Bruins next year.
A Look at Spring
Even though each of those three have obvious talents, replacing Perkins is still not an easy task. He was the best blocker among the running backs by far, and did everything so well that it's really impossible to replace everything he did with just one player.
Among the three main options this spring, Starks probably checks the most Perkins-esque boxes, with pretty good balance, vision, and speed, and a willingness to block, even if he isn't yet the same kind of blocker that Perkins was. He's also a little bit bigger than Perkins was, and probably fits more of a power mold than Perkins, who was more of a slasher. Significantly, though, he got 16 fewer carries than Jamabo last year, though he did miss two whole games. For our money, he was the best of the backup backs last year.
Jamabo showed flashes of very good play last season and improved as the year went on. Our biggest knock on him at the beginning of the year was his finesse running style, as he seemed to shy away from contact a bit and went down a little too easily, but by midway through the year, he started to show some improvement in that department, which is likely a credit to both Jamabo and running backs coach (and now offensive coordinator) Kennedy Polamalu. He averaged 6.1 yards per carry and clearly has the talent to be a very good playmaker for the offense. The biggest thing for him is to continue to refine his running style so that he can use his size to his advantage, but there's certainly a lot to like there.
Olorunfunmi had a really nice start to the year, but got dinged up a little bit and was a little more limited over the last half of the season. He was actually much quicker than we expected after having seen him a bit in high school, which makes him a pretty intriguing prospect in his own right, because he's also the closest thing to a power back among the three. His vision is probably his biggest area of weakness at this point as a runner, but if he can improve in that department, he could be a very decisive one-cut back. His hands showed some improvement last season, but that's also an area where he needs to improve. Still, as a projected third back in the rotation this year, there is a lot to like about Olorunfunmi.
The competition should be fun to watch this spring, and there's no guarantee that there will be an obvious winner. UCLA seemed content to split up the backup carries last year, and we wouldn't be shocked to see Starks, Jamabo, and Olorunfunmi rotate pretty evenly again this year, with maybe Starks and Jamabo taking 10 or 20% more carries than Olorunfunmi. With three talented backs with different skill sets, it would make sense to find ways to get all of them on the field.
Steven Manfro, from what we understand, fully intends to play another year, after missing two full seasons to injury, and he'll more than likely get a sixth year of eligibility. We don't really have a feel for what to expect from Manfro coming off of significant injuries to his knee (2014) and shoulder (2015), so that'll be something to watch this spring. When healthy, Manfro is a solid back to have in the rotation, and depth is always nice to have.
Obviously, UCLA has Brandon Stephens coming in this fall, and it's going to be fun to see what he brings to the table. He's another big-bodied back who could eventually develop into a nice combo back with the ability to run past guys but also deliver big hits of his own. In any case, we'll wait to see him this fall, but we wouldn't rule out the possibility that he plays this year. Jalen Starks could also factor into the mix, at either fullback or tailback, and he's a big, bruising back with underrated athleticism. He too will come in the fall.
Projected Post-Spring Depth Chart
JR Nate Starks
SO Soso Jamabo
SO Bolu Olorunfunmi
RS SR Steven Manfro
(incoming) FR Brandon Stephens
(incoming) FR Jalen Starks