2016 UCLA Football Fall Camp started yesterday, and it is time to take a look at UCLA’s stable of running backs and fullbacks heading into a pivotal season of the Jim L. Mora era. For the running backs to be successful as a unit, there needs to be sufficient run blocking up front by the offensive line. Obviously, a necessary component to the running game is the strength and execution of the offensive line in run blocking. As explained by Joe in BN's preview of the offensive line, there are some very big questions marks with this season’s line, caused in part by the losses of center, Jake Brendel, and tackle, Caleb Benenoch, to the National Football League. Check out BN’s preview to get an idea of the status of the offensive line.
This preview will not attempt to determine how the 2016 offensive line will affect the running game, but will instead evaluate the running backs on their skill set and potential for the 2016 season. This preview assumes that the offensive line is not a complete disaster in the run blocking game and is capable of giving the backs enough up front to allow them to shine.
Paul Perkins is Gone
UCLA will miss Paul Perkins, plain and simple, who left UCLA with a year of eligibiltity remaining. The Perkinator (thanks Gus Johnson) did not have anything left to prove at the college level, racked up 2,918 yards in his sophomore and junior seasons as the featured back at UCLA. Perkins, who scored 23 touchdowns on the ground and sported a 5.98 yard per carry ("YPC") average, was also a threat to catch the ball out of the backfield. The game was much easier when Paul Perkins put UCLA at 2nd down and 4 to go.
The 2016 UCLA Roster of Running Backs and Fullbacks
Even with Perkins' departure, however, UCLA is deep at the running back position and several returning players received significant carries in important situations in the past two seasons. So the cupboard is far from bare.
Here are the running backs listed on the UCLA roster from the official site:
One of the big stories of the offseason was UCLA’s transition to a more "pro-style" offense—although Coach Mora claims that he does not know what that means. UCLA will feature a fullback and Josh Rosen will be under center more, rather than the one back spread offensive utilized by now-departed offensive coordinator, Noel Mazzone. As such, the UCLA roster has two players listed at the fullback position:
|35||Ainuu Taua||5-11||295||R So|
|40||Cameron Griffin||6-3||235||R So|
Let’s take a look at the running backs first. It stands to reason that the featured back for UCLA this season will be sophomore Soso Jamabo. Jamabo carried the ball 66 times for the Bruins at a freshman, racking up 403 yards, a 6.1 YPC average, and four rushing touchdowns. A tall back at 6-3, 210 lbs., who has a bit of an upright running style, Jamabo has been compared to all-time greats Eric Dickerson and Eddie George. The sky is the limit for Jamabo. 2016 could be a breakout season for him. If there is a chink in his armor, so to speak, it is that he is not so accomplished at catching the ball out of the backfield.
The other running back who figures to feature prominently in UCLA’s running game is junior Nate Starks. Starks is a different kind of back than Jamabo, known for his tough, bruising running style that invites contact and breaks through it. Starks is a nice contrast to Jamabo’s more smooth running style. In his two seasons as a Bruin, Starks has carried the ball 81 times for 461 yards, a 5.7 YPC average, and scored seven rushing touchdowns. Starks is more of a threat to catch the ball out of the backfield than Jamabo. I think that Jamabo and Starks could be a nice one-two punch for UCLA this season.
The third back returning for UCLA with experience is sophomore, Bolu Olorunfunmi. Despite being the 4th running back in the rotation as a true freshman in 2015, Olorunfunmi carried the ball 34 times for 200 yards, a 5.9 YPC. Bolu should get an increased workload this season, and will be important to UCLA’s depth at running back in the event of injury to Jamabo or Starks.
The remaining four running backs are either true freshman or redshirt freshman. Frankly, aside from Brendon Stephens and Jalen Starks, the latter of whom may play fullback although he is listed at running back, I do not expect the two remaining backs, Khalil Muhammed and Zachary Byrge, to get much if any playing time this season, barring injury. Stephens, the 6-2, 205 lb. freshman from Plano, Texas, could step into the role maintained by Olorunfunmi last season. Freshman, Jalen Starks is a big back at 6-1, 240 lbs., who ultimately may play fullback (the position at which he was recruited and his position in high school), but is currently listed as running back. The two redshirt freshmen, Muhammed and Byrge, are undersized and, barring significant injuries, do not figure to make it into the mix
UCLA has two fullbacks listed on the roster, Ainuu Taua and Cameron Griffin, both of whom are redshirt sophomores. I was a bit surprised to see Nate Iese listed as a tight end, as I thought he could be a prototypical fullback at 6-3, 250 lbs., with good hands.
Instead, we have Taua and Griffin, neither of whom have ever carried the ball or played offense for the Bruins. Taua was a reserve defensive lineman last season who saw action in eight games on defense and special teams. This is a very interesting transition and, if Taua is properly coached up, he could be a benefit for UCLA, especially in short yardage and goal line situations. Taua is huge, at 5-11, and 295 lbs. UCLA could have a dedicated full back for the "jumbo package," instead of having to use the likes of Eddie Vanderdoes or other indispensable defensive lineman on offense, as the Bruins have done in the past several years when Myles Jack played running back.
Griffin was recruited as a linebacker and did not play in 2014 or 2015. At 6-3, 235 lbs. he certainly has the size to play fullback. Griffin also carried the ball some in high school as well. Although I wish the kid all the luck in the world, it is a lot to ask Griffin to step into a new position with no experience at a major FBS school.
There is massive uncertainty concerning the fullback position. Because of that uncertainty, and because Taua seems too big for my liking to be an every down fullback, I predict Jalen Starks to start at fullback in the first game against Texas A&M, even though he is not presently listed as a fullback.
Whatever happens, remember that UCLA’s offensive coordinator, Kennedy Polamalu, played fullback at that school across town, As such, I trust in him to mold these student-athletes into productive fullbacks who will contribute to UCLA’s success in the running game.
Projected Three Deep
Based on everything discussed in this article, this is my projection for the three deep at running back and fullback:
|Soso Jamabo||Jalen Starks|
|Nate Starks||Ainuu Taua*|
|Bolu Olorunfunmi||Cameron Griffin|
The Bruins are loaded at running back, and have depth in the event of injury. Fullback is a big question mark, as the Bruins will be integrating this position back into the offensive and have two converted defensive players (or perhaps true freshman Jalen Starks) set to play the position. The UCLA running game, however, will only get the Bruins as far as the offensive line is able to open up holes for these talented student athletes. If the offensive line gels and can stay relatively healthy, it is not unreasonable to expect both Jamabo and Starks to approach and possibly each exceed the 1,000 yard mark, as well as maintain the 6.0 YPC average that those backs put up last season. The passing threat of Josh Rosen will also help by making teams think twice about stacking the box against the run.
That is it for Bruins Nation’s 2016 Fall Football Preview of the Bruin running backs and fullbacks. Do you see things differently? Maybe Nate Starks starts over Jamabo? Or Jalen Starks moves to fullback and plays over Taua and Griffin. What, a Starks and Starks backfield? Could it happen? Let us know your thoughts in the comment section.
Just twenty-five days away . . . Go Bruins!!!