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Spring Football: Thoughts On Our Running Game

<em>Big spring coming up for UCLA running backs (including Derrick Coleman (33)). Photo Credit: <a href="" target="new">Evan G (flickr)</a></em>
Big spring coming up for UCLA running backs (including Derrick Coleman (33)). Photo Credit: Evan G (flickr)

Let's continue our look through the depth by focusing on our running backs and full backs. This is one area Bruins will have pretty solid depth heading into this spring and upcoming summer. However, there are lots of questions in terms of which combination of guys will finally step us as consistent producers for Bruins running attack.

The state of running game when CRN took over at UCLA was a total disaster. We all know the sad state of Bruin offense in his first year resulting from quarterback injuries (as both of his senior starters went down during spring practice) and a completely gutted OL (which was depleted of legit Pac-10 talent due to years of mediocre to below average recruiting efforts). To make matters worse UCLA's most experience running back - Kahlil Bell - was essentially hobbled his entire senior season. No wonder the Bruins limped through CRN's first season with one of the worst running games in the country averaging 82.75 rushing yards game (ranking 116 out of 119 teams) in 2008.

Last year the OL took a step forward as they started to come together with infusion of talents such as XSF, Kai Maiava, Eddie Williams and Ryan Taylor, and seasoning of young players such as Jeff Baca and Mike Harris (we will get to those guys later). Also Kevin Prince got in the mix and along with Kevin Craft gave much better effort from the QB position than what UCLA got in CRN's first year in Westwood. The improvement reflected in the running game with as the Bruins' running game took a modest step forward averaging 114.62 yards per game (ranking 97 out of 120 teams) in 2009. Still the progress was extremely modest and ranked at near the bottom of the Pac-10 conference (9th). The goal IMHO for the Bruins will be to get our running game at a place where our guys can generate at least 150-170 yards per game.

So let's see the pieces coach Wayne Moses (our running backs coach) and Rick Neuheisel will have to with this spring and this coming season. Here is how the depth chart looks at this snap shot of time:

Johnathan Franklin (5-10, 200, So.**) (8) Tobi Umodu (5-11, 243, Sr.**)
Derrick Coleman (6-0, 231, Jr.) (1) Jayson Allmond (6-0, 256, Fr.**)
Damien Thigpen (5-8, 180, So.)
Milton Knox (5-8, 202, So.**)

** notes redshirt season
() number of games started

More on these guys after the jump.

The official site provided the following capsule on the guys (in order they are listed in the depth chart):

Redshirt sophomore Johnathan Franklin (5-10, 200) appeared in all 13 games last season, starting eight times. He led the Bruins in rushing (566 yards), including a pair of 100-yard games versus Kansas State (23 carries for 119) and California (11 carries for 101), and scored five touchdowns. His total of 566 yards rank as the sixth-best total ever by a Bruin freshman and his average of 43.54 rushing yards per game ranked 12th in the Pac-10.

True junior Derrick Coleman (6-0, 231), who offers a good speed and size combination, has been the team's second-leading rusher in each of the past two seasons (244 yards in 2009; 284 in 2008). He saw action in all 13 games and made one start (at Washington State).

Speedy true sophomore Damien Thigpen (5-8, 180) saw action in all 13 games last season. He carried 26 times for 62 net yards and caught seven passes for 41 yards. Thigpen also contributed on special teams, returning four kickoffs for an 18.0 average and doing a good job in coverage.

Redshirt sophomore Milton Knox (5-8, 202) is a tough, hard-nosed runner with a good burst who will also look to make an impact at the position. He appeared in seven games a year ago and carried 29 times for 134 yards to rank fifth on the team.

Here are my notes on these guys heading into camp:

  • The biggest question for me concerning Jet Ski is his mindset. I think he has the tools of emerging as solid running back and perhaps one of our more dependable backs since Skip Hicks (I put MJD in a separate FREAK category). I think the Jet Ski can emerge as one of those dependable backs who can at least get us 700-1000 yard per season if and only if he can get over his fumble issues. This all goes back to his mindset. It's really a matter of confidence on his part. I am hoping he got physically stronger this off-season along with his other team-mates. If he can get his mindset in order, he has the potential to be one of the more solid backs in recent Bruin history.
  • I have already mentioned I ideally like to see DC as a FB. However, for that t happen DC will also need to develop the rough and tough attitude of a FB. Frankly I haven't seen that from him because I am still amazed that guy with his size and athletic frame always fall backwards whenever he gets hit around the LOS. Would love to hear from spring football observes how DC looks in terms of physicality at Spaulding Field. We have heard coaches wanting to use him like they used the Chane Train last season has a hybrid FB/RB. For that to happen, DC also will have to show better ability to catch the ball. In his two years he has had 9 receptions for 39 yards.
  • Damien Thigpen/Milton Knox competition is going to be very interesting this spring to say the least. Thigpen has the advantage in speed but Knox at least on paper seems to have the better overall package. The word on Knox is that it has been challenging for him to master Chow's playbook. Chow has tried to get around that by trying to his athletic abilities in wildcat packages. I would really like to see Knox make a jump this spring.

As for the guys coming in here are the notes from the official site:

Incoming recruits Jordan James (5-10, 190), a highly regarded speedster from Corona, CA HS; Malcolm Jones (6-1, 220), who was named the Gatorade National Player of the Year after a big season at Oaks Christian HS in Westlake Village, CA; as well as, athlete Anthony Barr (6-4, 225) from Loyola HS, will join the team in August. Each earned numerous prep-All-America honors a year ago.

Well I guess everyone is going to be looking at Jones. However, it is going to be interesting to see what James and Barr can bring to the table. James I hear has the explosive ability UCLA has lacked from its TB position since the days of MJD. The question around him has been the issue of durability. Barr has the tools that can make him a contributor at number of positions, while Jones seem to have the package to become one of the regulars in rotation. It will all come down to who can separate themselves during completion. We will find that out in summer.

Going back to current the FB position is wide open right now. Redshirt senior Tobi Umodu (5-11, 243), who made the move from linebacker in the Spring of 2008 is listed at the top.  He didn't see any game action last season. Lot of folks should be keeping an eye on redshirt freshman Jayson Allmond (6-0, 256). The kid is a bruiser and can emerge as a dependable blocker if he shows that he is now well adjusted to the college page (at least during practices). As mentioned above DC could become a factor at this position as a hybrid FB/RB like Chane Moline was this past season. Also, per the official site walkon redshirt freshmen Demetrius Papadakis (6-2, 213) and Robert Franco (6-0, 233) will each look to add depth at fullback.

CRN had the following to say about his RBs heading into this spring:

"We have a lot of talent and experienced depth in the backfield and we will watch them continue to push each other each day at practice in the battle for playing time," Neuheisel said. "We need this group to become consistently productive and more efficient. Johnathan showed he has the ability to be a prime time player for us, but must eliminate mistakes that can undo the good he can provide. Derrick has played well for us at times and can be a big plus. Damien has speed to burn and we must get him in position to utilize it. Milton goes to work each day with a blue-collar attitude. Christian is a gifted athlete who needs to put it all together to get on the field. It will be interesting to evaluate this group on a daily basis leading up to the season. At fullback, Tobi and Jayson give us a nice combination to work with."

Well the quote is somewhat out dated now since Ramirez has moved over to the defensive backfield. I think it will be interesting to see how the depth chart shapes up at the end of this spring and especially in mid to late August. 

We have a lot of talented kids in vying for reps in two spots. I am guessing UCLA will still be using a running game by committee unless someone emerges as a dominant option early on. Even so the number of reps will be limited. So it will be imperative for these guys to go at it with everything they have during these limited practices. I am sure it is never easy for the coaches to make these decisions but the problem they have right now is a good one to have. This is how it should be at major D-1 program. Hopefully they will be able to channel the positive energy on practice field to another step forward for our offense in 2010.