Running Backs Review
Top Performer: Bolu Olorunfunmi
This might be a slightly controversial pick, given that Olorunfunmi was fourth-string last year behind two of the guys he was competing with this spring, but from our vantage point, he was the most consistent back in the bunch, with his hard-nosed style of running seemingly meshing very nicely with Kennedy Polamalu's style of offense. Olorunfunmi has improved a good deal in the last year, and somehow looks both stronger and a little bit leaner, which has contributed to more quickness and burst. He also has learned to shield himself a bit better from huge hits, and his vision looks like it has improved with the move to more of a traditional offense. His hands were also significantly better than they were during the season last year, so that's a big key. Now, this isn't necessarily a prediction that he'll start this year, and it has to be said that both Sotonye Jamabo and Nate Starks were very good this spring as well, but to our eye, Olorunfunmi flashed a little bit more often.
Most Improved: Soso Jamabo
This is actually second-most improved, since Olorunfunmi would again take this title, but Jamabo was right there with him. He ran with a lot more aggression this spring, and has developed a tougher running style and overall mentality. He's still more of a slasher than a pounder, but that makes him a great change of pace from a guy like Olorunfunmi, who is truly a one-cut, between-the-tackles back. Jamabo's the best among the backs at catching the ball out of the backfield, and with his newfound toughness running the ball, we'd completely understand if UCLA opted to give the starting job to him -- there really isn't a bad choice in the bunch.
We still haven't even really talked about Starks, who was maybe the best running back through the first week or two of camp. This truly feels like a stacked position, with three players we could absolutely see starting and putting together fantastic games for the UCLA offense. Starks probably mimics Paul Perkins' style of running the most, with a good combination of vision, quickness, power, and balance. Jamabo is something else, with his long strides and very good vision making him an almost deceptively good runner -- he changes pace exceptionally well, which can throw off defenders trying to get an angle on him. And then Olorunfunmi is the power back of the bunch, though that does him somewhat of a disservice. While he is certainly the most powerful runner of the three, he has good quickness and the ability, at times, to run away from defenders.
It's a stacked, stacked position group. Each of those three guys could start, and it's actually going to be tricky for the UCLA coaches to figure out exactly how to manage their carries. Ideally, you'd like to have a lead back for a sense of consistency, but this seems like a year where the committee approach might actually be the best way to go. Each of the backs brings a little something different to the table, and the difference in quality between the three seems, at least to us, to be very slight.
In any case, Polamalu has a stated intention of being a pounding, forceful offense, and it's a fair bet that UCLA will run the ball quite a bit this year. Each of these three guys looks more than capable of shouldering the load, and if UCLA can get anything out of Brandon Stephens or Jalen Starks, that'll just be icing on the cake for what should again be the best position group on the team.
And then you factor in the fullback position, just introduced in earnest this spring, and that might have been the most pleasant surprise of the spring. Both Ainuu Taua and Cameron Griffin seem capable of filling the needs of that position and more. Griffin is the more nimble athlete, as he's at least 40 pounds lighter than Taua, and he probably has the better hands of the two, so he makes the most sense as a pass-catching threat out of the backfield. On the other hand, Taua is significantly more athletic than you'd expect from a guy of his proportions, and he's had a couple of eye-opening plays over the last week where he ran the ball out of the backfield for significant gains. The two of them looked like capable blockers from what we could tell, but obviously that's something we'll be able to see more of in games than from where we stand in practice.
Projected Fall Depth Chart
Tailback: Jamabo, Olorunfunmi OR N. Starks, Stephens, J. Starks
Fullback: Griffin, Taua