The running back position is inextricably linked to the offensive line, so it should have stood to reason that if the offensive line was going to be bad (as we expected it might entering the season last year), the running backs were going to underperform.
Even still, we were stunned by just how bad the running game at various points last year. It wasn't simply that the offensive line was bad, of course, but that the offensive scheme was just such a poorly designed mess, with pro-style design but a collection of players recruited for a spread. Coupled with that, the running backs themselves seemed to lose confidence as the year went on and the hits in the backfield kept on coming.
The end result was that UCLA ended up with its worst rushing attack since Rick Neuheisel's first couple of years at UCLA. The inability to generate anything on the ground was probably the biggest factor in UCLA making so many offensive changes this past offseason -- after all, if the running game had been average, the team would have been better, and it's harder to make wholesale changes when you're 7-5 versus 4-8.
While obviously there are some things to fix in the passing game, finding a way to recreate an effective rushing attack has to be priority one for Jedd Fisch in his first spring on the job. There are certainly some tools to work with, but, as was reinforced last year, scheme trumps talent, and if the scheme is bad, no amount of talent will fix it.
A Look at Spring
We're still of the opinion, however much it might be growing in unpopularity, that UCLA has a good amount of talent at the running back position. What's more, we haven't heard, as of yet, that any of the running backs in the program will be transferring. As far as we know, everyone currently on the roster will be there in the spring, which should make for a fun and interesting competition for new offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch.
Sotonye Jamabo remains the most interesting back on the roster. Since we saw him in high school, we have been vacillating between thinking he's more of a running back or a receiver. At UCLA, he's played running back entirely, and the coaching staff has been committed to playing him there. If anything, it seemed like he got a leg up in the competition heading into the year last year, and watching all of the backs in practice, it really didn't look like he consistently outperformed the other two main contenders. Now, with a new offensive staff in place, it's going to be very interesting to see how this competition goes. From what we've heard, he's already rebuilt a very good relationship with Deshaun Foster, the new running backs coach.
Bolu Olorunfunmi is much more of a stout, traditional back, and we've liked most of what we've seen from him over the last two years. Last year, no one was really good, and he didn't finish the year great, but a new look and feel to the offense could do wonders for him (and the other backs, for that matter). Nate Starks had a poor year in 2016, running much more tentatively than he ever has at UCLA. He carried the ball the most of the backs, which was due to a combination of minor injuries and what seemed like a capricious approach to the running back rotation. He averaged a full .6 yards less than either Olorunfunmi or Jamabo per carry. If he can regain his form this year as a senior, that would really help shore this group up.
On the bright spot front, Brandon Stephens, at least on a per-carry basis, was UCLA's best back last year, averaging 5 yards per carry. And that really held up on the eye test as well -- it wasn't like he was generating a bunch of empty yards based on excellent blocking or some such. He has that vision and cutting ability that UCLA's best backs in recent memory -- Johnathan Franklin and Paul Perkins -- both had in spades. He has now had a year in the program to get bigger and stronger, so it's going to be very fun to see what he looks like entering spring. With a new offensive staff, we wouldn't be stunned to see a wide open competition, which could bode well for Stephens. We've also heard there's a chance that Demetric Felton plays some running back, but for now, he's still a slot receiver.
Now, the fullback position will be interesting as well. We've heard that, in some form or facet, UCLA will use a fullback this year at times. As of now, we've heard that Jalen Starks is slated to play that position, but it's still a bit of an unknown exactly how big of a role that position is going to play. Last year, it looked like it might be a significant part of the offense heading into the year, but by about the 7th game, UCLA really wasn't playing fullbacks much at all. Cameron Griffin and Ainuu Taua both moved back to defense last fall, but in theory, they could also factor into the fullback position if it ends up being a significant part of the offense.
Much still depends on what kind of offense this will look like. The running back competition could give us insight to what sort of decisions this new offensive staff will make -- will they prioritize experience, or will they prioritize talent? And whether the fullback is prioritized in spring could give us an idea just how traditional this offense will look come September.
Projected Depth Chart
RB: Jamabo, Olorunfunmi, N. Starks, Stephens
FB: J. Starks