With our looks at the quarterbacks and wide receivers/tight ends in the books, it's time to turn our attention to the running backs and fullbacks. Always a heavily leaned upon position in any Norm Chow offense, with UCLA's unaccomplished offensive line, the running backs and fullbacks are forced to add outstanding pass protector to their resume or be left on the bench.
Consider the nature of the running back. It is his job to run straight ahead, while the defense, who outnumbers the offense because the running back and quarterback aren't blocking, are running at you from every direction imaginable, hitting you from every angle imaginable in every place imaginable. Not so much fun is it. Because of the beating running backs take, you better have two, three, four or even six ready to go if it's UCLA circa 2007. If 2009 is a repeat of 2007 when UCLA went six running backs deep then the Bruins are in trouble, but what team wouldn't be at that point. Plus, Craig Sheppard did a good job as the fifth string running back in 2007 and he's back in that role this year so we can go five deep, right?
So the nature of the running back has already bitten the Bruins once as former first choice back Christian Ramirez suffered an ankle sprain that will keep him out an undetermined time, but certainly for a few weeks at a minimum. It's always bad to lose your first string at any position, but I'm not so concerned with Ramirez out because I saw at least three backs better than him all camp long.
Topping the depth chart now is redshirt freshman Jonathan Franklin. Franklin can absolutely fly, as evidenced by his long touchdown run at the scrimmage or the handful of other times he left defenders grasping at air as he ran 50 yard in practice. The question for Franklin and every other back in the UCLA rotation is whether or not he can block. Blocking technique is easy enough and from watching drills, I can tell you that they all do it well in drills. Reading the defense and it's blitzed then getting into proper position is another story though and will be a test for Franklin as he adjusts to the schemes and speed of the college game. With the ball in his hands though he is dynamite, although he does need to make sure he clear the hole before popping up and hitting his stride or risk exposing the ball in traffic and losing it.
With Ramirez out, Derrick Coleman takes the mantle as experienced back who knows what's coming at him. Too bad Coleman is just a sophomore. Coleman showed few ill effects of inexperience in his freshman year though and he miraculously managed about five yards a carry behind an offensive line that was...well my words to describe that line are not suitable for children under the age of 13 so lets move on. Coleman is a big strong back and despite coming in with none of the fanfare that three other freshman backs had, he was the only one to earn meaningful snaps. He read defenses expertly and was a force in the passing game as both a receiver and blocker. He also was able to punish defenders looking to bring him down similar to Manuel White did for the Bruins when the coaches knew he was on the team.
Milton Knox will get his share of carries too and should be show an ability to block, will jump to the top of the depth chart in my opinion. Knox is 5'8'' only in Tom Cruise's shoes, but tops 200 pounds and has a leg drive similar to our last little back. That guy goes by the name of Maurice Jones-Drew and I think he was a decent enough player for us. Like Franklin, Knox's playing time will depend on his ability to pick up the blitz and it will be all mental with him as he reads defenses because I saw time and time again in practice his willingness to block. The guy threw himself at blitzing linebackers without abandon. The challenge for him will be to find those blitzers at full speed.
The question mark is Damien Thigpen, the speedster who thrilled crowds in the open field, but is still learning the playbook and how to harness his speed. He often hits holes so quickly that he doesn't let his hole develop and his blockers don't have time to get to the second level. With his speed and small size that let's him disappear behind blockers, should he learn to be patient he will be truly scary. Regardless of whether or not he contributes in the running game, he will be able to make an impact as a return man. All of this is dependent on the coaches choosing not to redshirt him, which it looks like they will decide against doing.
The fullback position is in a good place with the return of Trevor Theriot, who Norm Chow is a big fan of. Theriot is an excellent blocker, not just in the running game, but also in the passing game. His ability to block in the passing game should free up the running backs to be active coming out of the back field. Theriot can be a threat himself out of the backfield, where he was featured with regularity prior to his injury last year. Jayson Allmond will need to work on his pass blocking, but he showed a good nose for contact as the lead blocker in the running game and soft hands out of the backfield, although he needs to refine his route running. Chane Moline will be used exclusively as a fullback this year, but may get short yardage carries. He showed some promise as the lead blocker in the running game and provides a ball carrying threat, but he needs to improve in the receiving game. With Norm Chow calling the plays, three good fullbacks is a necessity and all will be asked to do a variety of things.
Grade: B+ The position is stacked with explosiveness. Franklin has breakneck speed and Knox can bust a long one too. Coleman doesn't have the same big play ability, but I doubt many DB's will be happy to see him bearing down on them. While the inexperience can be unsettling, Ramirez should be back this year to give the Bruins a redshirt junior with...well little experience yet again. Fear not though, should all else fail, there's still Craig Shappard who my dad still believes can be "dynamite." Chalk it up to another case of the guy who doesn't quite fit the mold, but plays his tail off and endears himself to a fan.