Jet Ski leads a very potent stable of Bruin running backs (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
Aaah, this is one of my favorite times of the year. While the football season is not here yet, you can just feel it. In the old days we'd be going to our local book stores to pick up the hard copies of SI, Street & Smith, Sporting News where both Bruins and Trojans would be on the regional covers. Well those were the days when the UCLA football mattered before it was ruined by Chianti Dan.
Well, the good news is that UCLA football is not totally dead yet. It has a shot if Coach Jim Mora plays it right and comes up with a big first season. The better news is these days we don't have to feel the vibes of upcoming football season by depending on the traditional medial. Thanks to a forward thinking commissioner in our conference the Pac-12 Media day is hyping us up earlier than ever. Plus, you can just feel the arrival of the pre-fall camp as we have been deep diving into our pre-season positional previews.
In the sixth part of our pre-fall camp positional previews (defensive line preview here, linebackers preview here, defensive backs preview here, OL preview here, WRs and TE preview here) we are going to be looking at perhaps one of the more stable positions in our team - the running backs.
Bellerophon's weekend post on DeShaun Foster was a jarring reminder of the lack of game breaker at our RB spot in last years. We had three great years of MJD few years ago but we have not had a great all conference back coming out of our program in years. Perhaps this is the year we will come out of that funk as we have a pretty good combination of talent and experience at this position that could turn out to be one of the real strengths in this program.
So not much really has changed at our running back depth chart since AHMB wrote up our spring preview back in late March, and Patroclus blogged an early depth chart projection back in May. That said there are few storylines that are worth refreshing in our minds before we get ready to following pre-season practices. Let's get to them after the jump.
Before we get to the main themes around this position let's take a look at a tentative depth chart projections:
|"Johnathan Franklin (Sr*. 5'10"", 205)"||"David Allen(Sr*, 6'2"", 224)"|
|"Malcolm Jones (Jr. 6'0"", 227)"||"Alek Cusick (Jr*. 6'1"", 235)"|
|"Steven Manfro (Fr*. 5'11"", 195)"||"Luke Gane (So*. 6'1"", 247)"|
|"Damien Thigpen (Jr*. 5'9, 185)"||"Phillip Ruhl (So*. 6'1"", 235)"|
|"Paul Perkins (Fr. 5'11"", 192)"|
|"Melvin Emesibe (Fr*. 5'11"", 200)"|
As you can see, the only thing I have changed from P's post spring early projection - I updated the weight and height according to new roster (not much has changed) and inserted true frosh Paul Perkins (way down the depth chart, right above walk-on Melvin Emisebe). With that in mind, let's get to the main storylines.
Backs in Mazzone's offense: Bruins actually had a pretty decent rushing offense last season as we were ranked 37th in the country (3rd in the conference), rushing for about 178.36 yards per game. Arizona State in comparison was ranked 85th in the nation (8th in the conference) rushing for 129.08 yards per game. But the catch here is that ASU had the overall better offense (thanks to arm of Brock Osweiller) compared to UCLA. Bruins definitely have the parts to have an explosive running attack. The question is how Mazzone will optimize that talent.
In Mazzone's offense backs get to catch the ball out of the back field and then do their thing in open space. This is something we have been begging from our offensive coaching staff from last 10+ years as we have seen our running game stall weekend after weekend thanks to the boring, vanilla and conservative Donahuesue mindset of our coaching staff.
The hope here is that Mazzone will get to use the speed and athleticism available in our RB depth chart from guys like Jet Ski, Manfro, Jordon James (more on him later even though he is not in this depth chart) and get the Bruin offense finally opened up and have our opponents off-balance. Mazzone is going to get help from new RB coach Steve Broussard, who had a pretty good career as RB for Washington State and played for Mora in the NFL in Atlanta.
Eye on the Jet Ski: Johnathan "Jet Ski" Franklin is one of the unquestioned leaders of our current football team. I love this kid and what he means to our program. He came into this program with Rahim Moore and I think has been an instrumental part in re-establishing much needed connection with UCLA football program and our inner city. His production was slightly down last year from 214 times for 1127 yards and 8 touchdowns in 214 carries to for 976 yards and 5 touchdowns in 166 carries. However, his decreased production in yards and TD meant, UCLA overall had better production on the ground as backup Derrick Coleman rushed 152 times for 765 yards and 11 touchdowns
Many folks are expecting a big season from him this year. He is already on the pre-season "Doak watch." But, for Franklin to leave UCLA in a blaze of glory, he will have to rein in his fumbling issues that have plagued him last three years. We are all rooting for him to put all that stuff behind him and finish with a big senior season in Westwood.
Franklin carried the ball 166 times, which is slightly less than in 2010, when he carried the ball. The decrease in carries actually led to higher production, both in his part and for the running game overall. Back-up Derrick Coleman last season, and his production and short yardage ability will have to be replaced.
Malcolm in the middle: Malcolm Jones is perhaps one of the poster boys of what went wrong at UCLA last four years. He came into Westwood as one of the most celebrated athlete in recent memory. We were all fired up for the former Gatorade Player of the Year to make his mark in Westwood. Well things haven't really worked out as we hoped. Lot of that has to do with the confusing personnel and game management decision of the previous staff. Some of that may also be due to issue of whether Malcolm has had the requisite drive and ambition to become the kind of college running back we hoped he'd become.
Whatever has held Malcolm back, everyone is hoping for him to have sort of a breakthrough year. He is going to get his chances now that Coleman has moved on. Jet Ski is not going to carry the load all the time. So the coaches are going to be looking for another option. It will be interesting to see if Jones can emerge this year, finding himself sandwiched between the JetSki and Steve Manfro. He seems like a fantastic kid - the kind of kid we want repping our program. Let's hope he finally puts it together this season.
Unleashing Jordon James: Even though Jordon is not in the RB depth chart and has been moved to the WR spot, I wanted to bring up his name. Similar to Malcom, many of us were uber excited about JJ's arrival to Westwood. He seemed to be the kind of game breaker, Bruins have lacked since MJD
escaped Karl Dorrell left for the NFL. During the few chances he got last year, JJ flashed a little bit of that athleticism but then got bogged down because of predictable play calling. It was not that difficult to predict those fly sweeps whenever Neuheisel and Mike Johnson sent in James last season.
James is one of those players who could benefit from Mazzone's desire to get players in wide open space. Getting him in open space from multiple positions could present potential mismatches against other teams. Officially he (along with Thingpen) is penciled as a slot receiver ("F"). Looking forward to seeing what Mazzone does with this talent next year.
Manfro mania: Seriously, do I really have to write much on Steven Manfro? Spring football was all about Manfro mania and he played up the hype during our spring game. Now comes the hard part. I am sure Mora and co. will not let Manfro sit on his spring practice laurels and make him earn it all over during Fall camp. What Manfro may be going for him (and I use the word maybe because most of us haven't seen him in action) is that he seems to be pretty good with catching the ball out of the backfield. This falls right into the scheme of Mazzone scheme and could become very handy for the new Bruin offense in 2012.
Leveraging Thigpen's speed: Damien Thigpen is returning from a redshirt year. He is coming back from an injury as well. His UCLA career has been inconsistent due to lot of the same reasons discussed above. Coaches never figured out how to use his speed. He has also been tried out in the defensive backfield as well. As mentioned above, he is current listed as an "F" receiver along with Jordon.
But, I think he could also serve well as a skat-back in this offense. Given his speed, it could be fun to see him go up in wheel routes, which we haven't seen consistently since the days of Skip Hicks, Deshaun Foster and MJD. I think the last time I saw a UCLA RB break free on a wheel route was MJD against Oregon State. You'd think the previous coaching staff would have figured out how to get the ball to guys James and Thigpen?
Odds and ends: As AHMB mentioned during his spring preview it's unclear how fullbacks are going to factor in every down situation in Mazzone's offense. I imagine they will be needed in short yardage and goal line situations. But I really am unclear how the guys listed above will perform when they are called out. Also, I am assuming freshmen such as Paul Perkins is going to be ticketed for a red-shirt season, given the depth at this position. That's a good sign in terms of the sign of talent in this program.
Overall though this is a pretty loaded backfield IMO. If Jet Ski has his fumble issues under control as a senior, he can emerge as an elite back. Guys like Jones and James came into UCLA as elite recruited talents. The previous coaching staff didn't get it done in terms of developing their talent and getting them synced up in the college level. If the new coaching staff of Mazzone and Broussard live up the hype of their own resume and experience, we should finally see a dynamic running game from the UCLA backfield.