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UCLA Football 2014 Pre-Season Preview: The Running Backs

As part of Bruins Nation's ongoing Fall Camp preview series, it’s time to take a look UCLA's diverse and improved group of running backs.

Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

Balance.  When asked at media day if UCLA would be looking for a more balanced offensive attack he answered that he wants to be able to win passing when necessary and running when necessary.  This is what balance means to him.  Today we look at the running part of that equation.  First and foremost, the depth, talent, and experience of the offensive line is greatly improved.  A good offensive line is, of course, the necessary but not sufficient part of a great running attack.  The men running the ball is the second.

The bruins, ran well last year averaging almost 200 yards/game.  This year they should be greatly improved.  Last year, Jordan James got off to a great start averaging 5.32 yards per carry and then was hurt.  UCLA didn't seem to have the depth to replace all that James could do (although some of us thought that Malcolm Jones could have gotten more of that done), and Myles Jack was brought in to help propel the running attack.  This year, however, with James back and with the exceptional talent Craig Lee may turn out to be, depth should not be an issue.  The Bruins also have four star rb Nathan Starks, who will probably redshirt, if needed.

Last year's leading rusher was Brett Hundley with 748 yards.  Many of those yards were  the result of having nowhere to go with the ball.  Again, with an improved o-line and improvement with the receiving crew, scrambling should account for fewer yards for Brett.  On the other hand, Brett will clearly be a running offensive weapon on planned plays.

So let's take a look at the running game, excluding Brett and Myles (who Coach Polamalu has been told to stay away from).  Below is a projected depth chart followed by a UCLA Spring Ball week 2 video recap from UCLA Football.  In it you can see some of the rb's in action.

Running Backs Full Backs Not a Back (Really)
#6 Jordan James  (RS So) #32 Nate Iese (RS So) # 30 Myles Jack  (So)
#24 Paul Perkins (RS So) #48 Tre Hale  (RS So)
#21 Craig Lee  (RS Fr)
#33 Steven Manfro (RS Jr)
#22 Roosevelt Davis (RS Jr)

Nathan Starks (Fr)*

*Projected to redshirt.

There really is no way to tell what the depth chart will be and probably as the season goes on, it will change.  We have a new coach who will not feel tied to the past.  I like that he will see things through new eyes, and very qualified eyes, to put the best talent on the field at the right time.  As Coach Polamalu says in the interview below, he is adding  things that are new to all of them and he will see how they all learn the system.

Jordan James once again could likely start.  Last year Jordan ran for 534 yards, averaging 5.3 yards per carry and had 10 receptions for 55 yards. James looked good breaking tackles in spring and is a good blocker.  Jordan also had some great short pass catches for lots of yards last year.  He knows the offense well and hopefully can return at full speed this year.

Paul Perkins was key last year, getting needed yardage in key situations and keeping the ball moving forward.  Some have projected he will be the #1.  Perkins averaged 5.3 yards per carry for 573 yards and averaged 12.3 yards per catch.  As you can tell, he is especially good at receiving the swing pass and making yardage afterwards.  He can break a tackle or two as well.  Perkins is not the fastest of the bunch, but has a way of finding running room or making it to keep driving the ball forward.

Steven Manfro, "The White Mamba" also returns.  Manfro has had some spectacular moments, especially in spring practice.  He has however, been a bit inconsistent in game situations and will probably see less time this year with the return of James and the emergence of Lee.  Last year Manfro averaged 4.5 yards per carry and 12.6 yards per reception for a total of 107 yards and 113 yards.  He had a couple of fumbles in spring practice, but adds excitement whenever he is on the field.

Another player returning to the running back position this year is Roosevelt Davis.  Davis had some really good plays in practice.  He is small but very quick and was able to make good catches and get through the line before anyone could find him.  Last year he only had four plays, but did well, catching once for 25 yards and rushing 3 times for 31 yards.  I would not be surprised to see him getting some time out there this year.

New to the equation this year will be redshirt freshman Craig Lee.  Lee looked amazing in spring ball, repeatedly breaking tackles and/or finding holes and finishing with lots of yards.  Lee has the eye-popping speed that we haven't seen for a while from our running attack.  Lee worked a lot with DeShaun Foster and Kennedy Polamalu on his blocking and technique in spring and we will see in fall camp how that has paid off.  If he can really learn the offense and improve his blocking, I am hoping he will be on the field a lot.  At spring practice, he had the crowd oohing and aahing and I expect more of the same this season.

Four star back Nathan Starks will also be joining the team this year.  Barring injury, most believe he will redshirt since we seem to have good depth.  Starks has good size (5'11", 200 lbs) and is very strong.  He can break tackles and has good hands.  I do think that when Starks does get on the field he will be an impact player.  You can see some of his highlights here.

This year the full back position will probably become an important weapon, primarily because of the talent, strength, and power of Nate Iese.  In the video above you can hear Coach Polamalu gushing over the talent and strength he brings, saying he's seen others like Iese ... in he pros.  Nate was a beast in spring and worked exclusively with the running backs. He is a man, 6'3", 240, and solid as a rock.  He is fast, has really good hands, and is going to be difficult to bring down.   He might line up some times at the traditional fb position, although in spring he was mostly lining up at the Y spot. Behind him will be Tre Hale who can help with blocking.

Did I forget to mention the coaches?  Of course the key to the improvement will also be the improvement in coaching .  As  AHMB wrote, the addition of running back's Coach Kennedy Polamalu should really help our talent improve.  The drills in practice were much more challenging than in the past and required fast decision making and coordination.  One drill had four players in a square facing each other.  They had to quickly maneuver through each other in very close quarters.  Another, had them catching very quick, poorly placed balls just as they turned around.  My favorite was when Polamalu would line up in front of them, with them not knowing which way he would go.  They had to quickly decide and then just go.  I liked this drill because he kept telling them to stop going side to side and just head down field with the first step, not the second, or third.  In the past, I am sure we have all yelled from our seats to stop dancing and just go.  The players, really got it over time and seemed to take quickly to all of his direction.

Back to balance.  You can hear in the video above that Coach Polamalu is really happy with the quality and improvement he is seeing with the RB's.  The question is will one player really emerge as the primary ball carrier this year or will we run by committee.  Who is the #1 back? "They're all number one backs", Polamalu replies, and expects them all to be contributing.

I am really looking forward to seeing our improved running game, our talent, and the speed and power our running game brings this year.  What do you expect to see?

Go Bruins.