2011 UCLA Football - Previewing the Backs: QB, RB and F-Back

Over the past several days, we have written a series of overviews generally concerning the Bruins offense, defense and special teams, as well as more detailed positional breakdowns. With today's opening of fall practices and the first 'real' steps into the 2011 season, we wrap up our positional previews with the offensive backs - the quarterbacks, running backs and F-backs. Starting with the pre-fall depth chart, details and figures from the 2011 UCLA football media guide:

QB RB F-Back

Kevin Prince (6-2, 230, Jr*) or

Richard Brehaut (6-2,225, Jr)

 

Johnathan Franklin (5-10, 198, Jr*)

 

Anthony Barr (6-5, 238, So)

Brett Hundley (6-4, 225, Fr)

Derrick Coleman (6-0, 233, Sr)

Damien Thigpen (5-8, 183, Jr)
Nick Crissman (6-3, 226, Jr*)

Malcolm Jones (6-0, 227, So)

Darius Bell (6-0, 230, Jr)
Jordon James (5-11, 193, Fr*)

 

* denotes redshirt; Italics: incoming freshmen.

Starting off with the key decision that must be made during the next couple weeks of camp, the identity of the Bruins starting quarterback. The depth chart lists Kevin Prince or Richard Brehaut as the starter, though as Coach Neuheisel stated during media day, Kevin will be the first to take snaps with the first team, and earlier in the offseason was thought to be the presumptive starter, assuming that his knee is healthy and that he is physically able to fulfill that role. Kevin has started all 16 games that he has played in over the past two years and entered both seasons as the starter, a status which bodes well for his taking the starting spot again this year, but which also leads to the issue of the 9 games that he has missed due to injury during that time - as well as the 3 games that he left due to injury.

Ryan wrote on Brehaut's decision to play baseball over the summer, while continuing to put in his 'unofficial' work with the team. While Richard did work with the receivers throughout the summer and never showed any wavering in his commitment to Football and desire to fight for the starting QB slot, it remains to be seen what - if any - effect his splitting time between sports will have on his grasp of Mike Johnson's implementation of the Pistol offense, and his ability to compete with Kevin through the next two weeks. While Coach Neuheisel was on board with Richard joining the UCLA baseball team last spring, and continuing through participation in summer league, during the recent Pac-12 Media Day, he did stress the particular demands of the quarterback position when discussing Brehaut's two-sport status in the scope of the Bruins situation at QB.

Brehaut had the spring practices all to himself to show his ability to lead the offense, but his performance was not enough for him to break through to lead the depth chart by himself. There are certainly unanswered questions that must be settled, and weeks of performances to come before the coaches settle upon the starter heading into the Fall. My guess is that it will come down to Kevin Prince's health. If he is recovered from the knee injury that cut short his 2010 season and is not showing ill effects from the resulting microfracture surgery, he will be the starter - though with his injury history, Brehaut ought to keep his helmet handy at all times.

And with the two hopeful starters comes the obligatory Brett Hundley talk. As you might have come across, Brett will miss at least the first part of fall practices while recovering and rehabbing from knee surgery. Without trying to put too much onto his shoulders (recall SPJ), he does look to be the near-future of UCLA football, and while it would be great to see his talent on display inside the Rose Bowl this fall, the hope is that the two guys ahead of him can perform well enough (and stay healthy, a tough task to ask of a UCLA QB of late) to allow Hundley to take 2011 as a redshirt year and enter next year's camps ready to battle Kevin and Richard for the starting spot.

Given that even the luckiest teams see their prime QB's get banged up within games, the hope of allowing Brett to sit this year out may depend on Nick Crissman being able to step into the huddle and . Nick came to Westwood four falls ago as a highly regarded QB in his own right, but shoulder injuries have derailed his career to the point that as a redshirt junior, he has been under center for 10 snaps. As Achilies noted during the spring, if Nick is healthy and competent enough to serve as an in-game insurance policy - not to start 1+ games, but to step in for a quarter or a half and manage the offense if needed - Neu and Mike Johnson will hopefully resist the urge to throw Hundley into temporary action. Darius Bell rounds off the QB section of the depth chart, and saw action off the bench in UCLA's loss in Seattle last fall. Most of us that watched that game are not itching to see him in a game again anytime soon. Given that during the spring game, Bell did not attempt a pass, even as a walk-on like Max Schuh got 8 throws off, I don't think the coaches disagree with that sentiment. If injuries see the QB'ing duties fall to Bell within a game and the outcome is at all in doubt, I would expect Hundley's redshirt to get burned before seeing Bell enter the game.

Now that we are through the quarterback position and the multiple plot-lines present there, we come to the position that may be the most settled on this year's Bruin team: running back. After breaking through with 8 touchdowns and over 1100 yards rushing in 2010, Johnathan Franklin enters his junior season as one of the highly regarded players in the Pac-12 and with his inclusion on the pre-season Walker and Maxwell award watch lists, one of the leading running backs in the nation. As Bellerophon noted in his offensive overview last week, there is a lot of talent behind him in what is arguably the deepest position on this team. Derrick Coleman will be continuing on as the prime reserve back, and the powerful thunder counterpart to JetSki's lightning.

Behind Jetski and Derrick, we have a pair of runners who should soon become familiar to Bruins, and to the Pac-12 as a whole over the next couple of seasons as they make their way up the depth chart once those two guys graduate and hopefully find their way into the pros. After being named Gatorade's national high school athlete of the year and a Parade All-American in 2009, Malcolm Jones played in all but one of UCLA's games last fall, running for 200 yards on 55 carries in a season that didn't quite measure up to that level of hype. To be fair, the transition from high school to competing as a true freshman is a tough one, and he will have the opportunity to start putting that behind him in the next couple of weeks. Pushing Malcolm for playing time behind Johnathan and Derrick will be Jordon James, who impressed coaches and observers while playing on the scout team last fall while redshirting his first season in Westwood - having been named Outstanding Scout Team Player on Offense - and in spring practices. His time on the practice field has already spawned comparisons to Maurice Jones-Drew, and while he has much to learn as far as harnessing his talents in an efficient manner, he has the ability to be a factor in this offense right now.

The addition of former Nevada assistant coach Jim Mastro to Coach Neuheisel's staff bodes well for the F-backs, a position that last year's squad and coaching staff never got the hang of properly deploying, despite the wealth of talent allotted to the position. The two players listed at the position on the depth chart happen to be two of the more talented, and intriguing players on this UCLA team, Anthony Barr and Damien Thigpen. Barr is a 6 foot-5 beast of an athlete who has likely outgrown his prep role as a running back (although earlier in the offseason, Neu did raise the possibility of using Barr as part of a 2-back set at times), and whose size and skill could just as easily see him as a standout tight end or outside linebacker. The hybrid position that is the F-back could be just the ticket for Anthony, with his speed, receiving skill and power running ability giving the prospect of plenty of excitement.

With Morrell Presley having transferred out of the program, Damien Thigpen is left as the remaining F-back, and at first glance about as much of a polar opposite as one could imagine of Anthony Barr. Coming to Westwood in 2009 out of suburban Virginia as one of the nation's fastest high school athletes, the 5 foot-8 Thigpen has outstanding ability in the open field, and by all means should be in the mix to return kicks this season in addition to his role in the backfield. He got caught up in the whole 'don't use the F-back' trend in 2010, with only 2 offensive touches (for 31 yards) before a shoulder injury ended his season at the end of October, after carrying the ball 26 times while appearing in every game in his 2009 true freshman season. Both of these guys have the ability to break a game open; hopefully Coach Mastro is able to take advantage.

Go Bruins

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