In our ongoing series of positional pre-camp previews, we'll shift our focus to running backs today. ICYMI, you can catch gbruin's preview of the offensive line here, Patroclus's preview of the defensive backs here, IE Angel's preview of the linebackers here, bruinclassof10's preview of the wide receivers and tight ends here, and my wordy preview of the defensive line here.
UCLA will obviously have a difficult time replacing Jonathan Franklin's 1,734 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns last season. He carried the ball 282 times last year and had another 33 receptions. Those sort of numbers are hard to duplicate, and the coaching staff has made it abundantly clear that they do not expect someone to step up and have the season that Jet Ski had last year. Instead, the offense will rely on a number of backs to fill in, including Damien Thigpen, Jordan James, Paul Perkins, Steven Manfro, and Malcolm Jones. Rather than try to replace Franklin, the staff should try to exceed the team's 599 rushing attempts, 2,671 yards, and 29 rushing touchdowns that team tallied last year.
In my opinion, the biggest loss will not be Franklin's yards or touchdowns, but rather his leadership, determination, and reliability. Franklin was a bellcow last year carrying the ball over 20 times a game. He fought hard for key third downs, especially in the Nebraska, Arizona St., Southern Cal, and second Stanford games. In quarters 1-3, there isn't much doubt about whether the team can match Franklin's production. The question is in the fourth quarter, in the last drive, and in key possessions. Who is going to step up at the key moments? We'll see.
It wouldn't be appropriate to preview the UCLA running backs without recapping some of the offseason happenings. First, after signing 4* Craig Lee, he was initially unable to get through admissions, leaving the class without a running back. Thankfully, Lee worked his tail off and gained admission, and he'll be ready for Fall camp. Second, Rushel Shell announced that he would be transferring to UCLA from Pitt before apparently being unable to gain admission, and he's now planning to enroll at Pitt's arch rival, West Virginia. In between UCLA and West Virginia, he allegedly attempted to return to Pitt but was denied. Finally, Malcolm Jones has decided to walk back on to UCLA after quitting the team last Fall. Unfortunately, he played in two games last year and now has to petition the NCAA to regain his lost year of eligibility.
As it stands now, this is how I see the depth chart breaking down going into Fall camp:
Damien Thigpen (RS SR)
5-8 185 lbs.
Tre' Hale (RS JR)
6-2 261 lbs.
Jordon James (RS JR)
5-9 194 lbs.
Luke Gane (RS SO)
6-2 228 lbs.
Steven Manfro (RS SO)
5-9 189 lbs.
Phillip Ruhl (RS SO)
6-0 230 lbs.
Paul Perkins (RS FR)
5-10 196 lbs.
Malcolm Jones (SR)
6-0 224 lbs.
Craig Lee (FR)
6-0 188 lbs.
Melvin Emesibe (RS SO)
5-9 192 lbs.
Damien Thigpen is recovering from the torn knee ligament which he suffered during last season's Southern Cal game and did not participate in Spring camp. It's not clear at this point when Thigpen will resume team activities, and I think it is safe to say that Jordan James is technically at the top of the depth chart. That said, I do believe that a healthy Thigpen would be at the top and I list him at the top spot accordingly. Thigpen played in 10 games last year and was one of the more electric weapons on offense before his injury. He's a good runner and receiver, and he's perfectly suited for a carry splitting role given his small stature. Last year, he had 50 carries for 262 yards and 2 touchdowns, and added 18 receptions for 211 yards and 2 touchdowns. He could easily double those numbers even if he misses the early part of the season.
Jordan James looked a little better last year, and much better in the Spring. Despite being highly recruited out of high school, things simply haven't clicked for him at this level- yet. Last year as a redshirt Sophomore, James had 57 carries for 193 yards and 2 touchdowns and 25 receptions for 176 yards and 1 touchdown. Like Thigpen, James could easily double those numbers with more touches.
To be completely honest, I suspected that Paul Perkins would leap frog Jordan James in the Spring, but it didn't happen. James reportedly ran better than he ever has at UCLA, and Perkins did not impress the way he did last year on the scout team. It can be dangerous to project much from a year of practices and scout team play, but I still think he has a shot for significant carries this year.
Steven Manfro is back after a freshman season, which though not quite at the level that some scout team observers had hoped for, was pretty good. Particularly given the lack of expectations that folks had for him when he came to Westwood two years ago. He only had 8 carries for 70 yards, but he did score 2 touchdowns and added 28 receptions for 287 yards and another touchdown. If he falls down the depth chart, he may move to F full time, but he'll be given a shot to tote the rock.
Malcolm Jones and Craig Lee are the two backs that could vault up the depth chart and force Manfro to move to receiver. Jones is the biggest back on the roster, and should have an advantage over the rest of the backs in getting short yardage carries. He also reportedly ran better this Spring than he ever has at UCLA and looked to be in better physical shape.
Lee has the difficult journey of making the jump from high school to Division 1 football, but he has good size and is a very complete back. I would not be surprised if he works his way into the rotation and earns a solid market share of the carries by the end of the season.
Fullbacks are not traditionally a part of Noel Mazzone's offense, but he used fullbacks often in short yardage and goal line offense last year. In addition to three fullbacks on the roster, the team utilized defensive players in short yardage situations and there are already rumors that incoming freshman Myles Jack may have play a role in short yardages packages this year.
That concludes our look at the running backs for Fall camp. Fire away with any additional thoughts or comments.