We'll continue our unit previews today with the running backs...
The Texas running back committed to UCLA after a recruitment that, really, lasted only a few days. He decommitted from Stanford, and then UCLA flew in pretty quickly to pitch him on still coming West. From what we've seen of him on film and heard about him, there's a good deal to like about Stephens. He definitely projects as a bigger back, as he's already pretty long with a frame to get bigger. Some within the program have likened him to Sotonye Jamabo in running style, calling him a Jamabo mini-me, so it'll be interesting to see if that comparison is accurate. With three very good backs ahead of him, it could take a lot for Stephens to see much playing time this year, if any. Physically he looks like he could benefit from a year in the weight room.
RB/FB Jalen Starks
We're much more familiar with Starks, as he is a local product from Encino Crespi. The big back looks like a prototypical fullback, at all of 240 pounds, and he certainly has the ability to be that kind of bull-ish, straight-ahead, powerful back. That said, he has surprising agility for a guy his size, and his straight-ahread speed is nothing to sneer at, again, for a guy his size. Of the two freshmen, we'd actually say Starks might have a better chance of playing this year, because he gives UCLA size that none of the other backs has (he outweighs Bolu Olorunfunmi by something like 20 pounds), and he has the versatility to both carry the ball and play competently at fullback. Since he enrolled in June, the buzz has been that Starks has a good chance of playing.
As we talked about in the 30 most important Bruins series, it's still very uncertain who ends up starting at running back this year. All three of the top tailbacks showed very well in spring ball, and last season, all three of them averaged over 5.9 yards per carry. So, it's not an easy call, by any stretch of the imagination.
That said, our inkling is that it's going to be Jamabo, for a variety of reasons. First, and foremost, the coaching staff has already shown that they like him and his running style. Last year, when Nate Starks was probably the better back, Jamabo earned more carries, even if you prorate Starks' carries based on the times he was out with injury or otherwise. Then, this spring, Jamabo showed marked improvement from last year, which would seemingly shore up the starting job for him -- after all, he seemed to be the preferred back behind Paul Perkins last year as a true freshman, so it stands to reason that an improved Jamabo will be the preferred back again this year.
There's a lot to like about him, especially now that he's had some seasoning. This spring, he really ran with some aggression and power consistently, which is something we only saw in fits and bursts last year. He still has his slashing style of running that gives way to long-striding in the open field, but coupling that with some improved power and more of a willingness to deliver collisions at the line of scrimmage makes him a much more complete back. If he can carry that over to the season, that will go a long way toward filling the enormous shoes of Perkins.
At fullback, we liked what we saw out of both Ainuu Taua and Cameron Griffin this spring (Kennedy Polamalu, who picked both guys to move over to offense, obviously has an eye for talent), but if we had to pick a starter, we'd opt for Griffin. He's a more athletic player who gives UCLA a little more versatility at the spot. While he's not a polished pass-catcher (after all, he just switched from defense), he caught well enough during the spring to be a safety valve, and you could see him developing into a real offensive weapon there, especially with his rugby background. He'll have to continue to improve as a blocker, but he showed the aggression necessary to do so -- he just needs to work on the technique.
UCLA has an abundance of riches in the backfield. Even if you posit that Jamabo is going to be the starter, as we are, you could make an equally compelling case for either Starks or Olorunfunmi. Starks has the seniority, and boasts the best yards per carry among the trio, while Olorunfunmi was probably the best of the three this spring. Polamalu really can't go too far wrong in making the choice.
Starks, as we've said a few times, has the set of skills that probably most closely matches that of the departed Perkins. He is maybe a little more explosive, but a little less quick and shifty; otherwise, they're fairly similar backs. Starks definitely learned to be a more patient runner studying behind Perkins, and you can certainly see that in his running style, where he shows that understanding of not only where the holes are, but where they will be. He also runs with good power, and can be counted on to put his head down and grind out yards when need be.
Olorunfunmi, as we said, was our favorite back this spring. He has gotten more explosive, but he also looked quicker and more aware this spring, and he combined that with improved hands. In basically every facet of the game, he was an improved player this spring. We liked him a lot last year, when he was probably our biggest surprise of the early season, since we legitimately didn't expect much from him. He runs with the most power of the trio competing to start, and as we've speculated before, that could prove to be a more important trait as the season wears on. If the offensive line starts to get hit by injury, we wouldn't be shocked if Olorunfunmi gets his name called quite a bit more, because he has the best chance of pushing a pile of any of the running backs.
It would probably take an injury for Stephens to see any significant amount of playing time. This staff has always shown an aversion to redshirting guys, so we're not necessarily anticipating that he'll redshirt, but we'd be pretty surprised if, barring injury, he carried the ball more than a dozen times this year. We'll see how he looks in camp, though.
At fullback, UCLA has what looked like a quality backup in Taua. It's hard to get an accurate gauge on his weight because he's so squat, but it's hard to imagine he'll play at anything less than 270 pounds this year. He's a surprisingly good athlete for his dimensions, but what will give him some value this year is his ability to act as a lead blocker in goal-line and short-yardage situations. He is so bulky and short that he can win leverage battles with defensive linemen and open up some ground for running backs behind him. He definitely has a role on offense, after he looked like he was close to getting buried on the defensive line.
And, again, Starks could have a role as well. We're skeptical he'll be able to unseat both Griffin and Taua, but if we go by the buzz on him since June -- that he's going to be too good to keep off the field -- there's a chance. He's a talented player with some versatility.