We kicked this spring football preview off with a look through the defensive front, followed by excellent breakdowns of the linebacker corps, the defensive secondary, the special teams, the offensive line, the receiving corps, and now we get to the guys who provide the running attack: the tailbacks and F-backs.
When it comes to the guys lining up behind the offensive line, it's really a tale of two total opposites and one large question mark: a quarterback corps with no real clear-cut leader or starter (which will be broken down in more depth tomorrow) versus a running back corps with a definitive starter and a cast of solid supporting players, coupled with a F-back position that has a ton of potential if utilized properly.
Obviously, no position has generated more interest or keystrokes on the interwebs than the signal-caller. With Prince returning from injury, Brehaut having started half the past season, and super-freshman Brett Hundley enrolling early, the battle to be the starting quarterback is a legitimate three-man race. But we'll get to that tomorrow. Let's start with the easy part of the offensive backfield: the running backs.
|Malcolm Jones (6-0, 227, SO)
Jordon James (5-11, 193, RS FR)
|Steven Manfro (5-10, 176, FR)
Jet Ski is the far-and-away leader to be the starting Bruin tailback come this fall. He's the Bruins' leading rusher, is coming off a 1127 yard season (on 214 attempts), and aside from Derrick Coleman, is the only experienced Bruin rusher in the unit. As evident from last year, he's also got an extra explosiveness that gives him big-play potential (see around the 1:05 mark). He'll get the bulk of the carries this season (barring injury), but there are three other guys who should get plenty of looks.
Derrick Coleman (487 yards, 82 attempts), beside being just a great human being (more examples here and here) and amazing story (more information here), is also a beast of a running back at 233 pounds. He's also the most dependable Bruin tailback and the one least-likely to cough up the pigskin (Franklin, Jones). When Coleman gets rolling, he's hard to bring down, and while he lacks Jet Ski's speed and explosiveness, he's an excellent complimentary back and provides a fresh dimension to running attack when paired with Jet Ski. Just ask Mack Brown and the Longhorns how the Jet Ski and Coleman combination works. Expect Neuheisel to follow last year's formula with Jet Ski the lead back and Coleman rotating in on a regular basis.
In addition to Coleman, the Bruins have another big tailback in sophomore Malcolm Jones. Jones, the high school Gatorade POY in 2009, didn't get to make a big splash in 2010, being limited to 200 yards on 55 attempts. Jones has big-play ability, is faster than Coleman, and the more explosive runner. He has elite-level size and ability, but Neuheisel has yet to find a way to harness it in an effective manner for the Bruins' offense. If anything, the quick hook following a few fumbles against Houston seemed to have really hurt the young kid's confidence. The optimist in me hopes that CRN will find touches for Jones, who is simply too talented not to be getting regular action, but the pessimist in me worries that Jones will languish on the sideline for another wasted year of eligibility. On the plus side, with Jet Ski and Coleman in the twilight of their UCLA careers, Jones is poised to play a significantly larger role in the offense by 2012 at the minimum.
Lost among the other running backs is redshirt freshman Jordon James, who might be the most explosive, home-run play type tailback UCLA has had since the days of MJD. The problem for James, like with Jones, is finding ways to get the ball in his hands. James was highly-touted coming out of Corona and reportedly tore it up on the scout team last season. With Jet Ski in the role that most fits James, expect the freshman to see minimal time (absent injury), but don't be surprised if he's pushing hard to be the starting tailback in 2012, leapfrogging Jones.
Finally, Steven Manfro, a smaller speed-type tailback from Valencia will certainly redshirt.
Now, let's move on to the enigma of the UCLA backfield: the F-back position. Last year, despite having tremendous athletes at the position (Anthony Barr, Damien Thigpen, Morrell Presley), the Bruins' under-utilized the F-back. Actually, under-utilized would be generous: as the Orange County Register noted:
Give this position a mulligan for last year. The Pistol offense went beyond Norm Chow's comfort zone and the F-back might have been the biggest casualty. Look no further than Barr, the full-time starter, for proof. He led all UCLA F-backs with 6 carries and 9 receptions for a total of 95 yards. Thigpen, one of the Bruins’ most dynamic players on the roster, had just two touches for 31 yards.
That should change with former Nevada assistant Jim Mastro joining UCLA's staff as the tight ends/F-back coach:
"Jim has a wealth of knowledge and experience with the Pistol and will be a great asset as we incorporate many of its run-game principles into our offense," said Neuheisel. "He has enjoyed great success in the running game and I feel he will work well alongside Mike Johnson (offensive coordinator, wide receivers), Wayne Moses (running backs) and Bob Palcic (offensive line) to give us a very cohesive offensive staff."
Hopefully, Mastro's familiarity with the pistol offense used by Nevada will give the Bruins a more potent offensive set to use, rather than the sometimes tepid and predictable offense ran by UCLA last season. In fact, Neuheisel is leaving the role undefined, trying to fit it into multiple personnel packages:
The F-back, like I said, there will be multiple personnel groupings. The F is always part of the offense. Is it Barr? Is it John Young, a new tight end? Damien Thigpen? There's a number of people. Is it Marvray, Embree? The F position will still be a part of the offense, it's just who's playing in it.
While I doubt John Young, Marvray, or Embree will see any legitimate time as an F-Back (especially since Embree has no explosive ability, as evident by his punt and kick returns last season, and Young is more of a blocking tight end), it's encouraging that Neuheisel recognizes he needs to get the ball into Damien Thigpen's hands more. That said, here is how the position shakes out for this upcoming season:
|Damien Thigpen (5-8, 183, JR)
Anthony Barr is a flat-out stud. He's got speed, size, and great hands. He's an exciting playmaker. The problem has been that UCLA has failed to find a way to get the ball in his hands. That should change with Mastro. In fact, CRN is trying anything to get Barr on the field as often as possible:
"They'll be times we'll be in two-backs. You know, Anthony Barr. We want to find out more about Anthony as a running back. We certainly saw the makings of a very talented guy, and want to give him more chances with the ball in his arm."
This sounds promising. Barr is a big man who can create excitement in the open field. If this was baseball, we'd call him a five-tool guy. He's got good speed, the ability to get the ball out of multiple looks, run with power, and make plays as a receiver, either lined up as an F-Back or receiving the ball purely out of the backfield.
Behind him is former five-star recruit Morrell Presley, who has yet to live up to the hype that surrounded him out of high school. He has the size and speed to be a match-up problem and if Mike Johnson and Mastro can find ways to get him out into space, matched up with linebackers, he should be a real weapon for the Bruins' passing game. If anything, Presley is the epitome of frustration with UCLA's inept passing attack the past few seasons: there is elite talent in the program but it's been either under-utilized or under-performing. You almost get the feeling that if guys like Barr or Presley were lining up for another program, they'd be making headlines.
Finally, small-but-super-quick playmaker Damien Thigpen lines up in the backfield as a F-Back. Like with Barr and Presley, Thigpen has a lot of talent and the speed to make things happen, but has barely touched the ball during his time at UCLA. Simply put, Neuheisel has to find ways to get the ball into his hands, be it at the F-Back, returning kicks, or returning punts.
The Bruin backfield, without much help from the F-Back spot, was able to generate 175.6 yards per game (#33 in the nation), with opposing defenses keyed in (since the Bruin passing game was anemic at best). Moreover, this unit returns everyone from last season, and with Mastro in the fold, the backfield should be much more explosive and versatile. Anything short of 2000-2500 yards total rushing on the ground would be a major step backward for this unit (2107 total rushing yards last season).
Hopefully this season our running backs will look a lot like this.