PASADENA — So much for those backfield worries.
For weeks, the UCLA staff had insisted it would use as many as five backs in the rotation. Even after a depth chart was released, running backs coach Steve Broussard insisted starter Jordon James was only “penciled in” — and still may be in a two-way timeshare.
In front of 60,562 at the Rose Bowl, the 5-foot-9, 194-pound back set the tone Saturday night by rushing for a career-best 155 yards in a 58-20 romp over Nevada.
He’s no Johnathan Franklin, an All-American who set career and single-season rushing records at UCLA last season. But in his debut as a No. 1 back Saturday, James looked better than he ever has in blue and gold.
After averaging a paltry 3.3 yards per carry through his first two season, the junior tailback stamped himself as the team workhorse. His first two runs went for 11 and two yards, respectively. His third? An impressive weave for 27 yards and a first down.
“He’s our No. 1 back,” head coach Jim Mora said. “But you know how we play offense. We roll those guys through. To play at the tempo we play at, we need to play multiple backs.”
It was no fluke. After an off-season in which coaches hounded him to run downhill instead of dancing, James showed up with authority against the Wolf Pack defense. His pass protection, an ability that put him ahead of the competition in the first place, looked solid.
James may not be all-conference, let alone All-American, but he did more than anyone outside the program likely expect of him. His game total came by the end of the third quarter, those 155 yards coming on 21 carries. His 26-yard touchdown run with four minutes left in the quarter bumped the team’s lead to a comfortable 37-13.
“He’s become a better one-cut-and-downhill runner,” Mora said. “Then, once he gets to the second level, he uses his shake.”
The Corona native got plenty of rest after that. That only gave his teammates a chance to run loose.
Redshirt freshman Paul Perkins ripped off a 45-yard run, then followed it with a 3-yard score. Nominal backup Steve Manfro, who played mostly slot receiver last year, finished with five carries and 32 yards.
Even Malcolm Jones, subbed in during garbage time, did his part with his second and third career touchdowns. On the first, he turned a screen pass from Hundley up the field for 25 yards and into the end zone. Not long after, he punched in a rushing score. Not bad for a guy who didn’t have a scholarship two weeks ago, having surrendered his when he made a short-lived decision to transfer.
Most everyone credited the offensive line, from Mora to quarterback Brett Hundley to the tailbacks. Couple that improvement with Hundley’s superlative play — 274 yards and two touchdowns through the air, plus another 65 yards and two scores on the ground — and the offense looked as good as anyone could’ve imagined in the post-Franklin era.
There still are question marks on this promising UCLA squad. The defense bent early, even if it often held strong in the red zone. The Bruins, the nation’s worst in penalty yardage last season, totaled 12 for 93 lost yards.
If the first game was any indication, however, the tailbacks have answered their critics.