UCLA post-spring position outlook: Running backs

Spring football is done, and over three months still stand between us and the start of UCLA’s third season under Jim Mora — one that comes with national title aspirations and accompanying media glare. Over the next week, this blog will cover each of the Bruins’ position groups. Next up …

Running backs

Last season was the first since 2009 that every UCLA running back finished with fewer than 600 yards. That year, the Bruins finished 7-6 overall and eighth in the Pac-10.

The situations aren’t all that similar, of course. Quarterback Brett Hundley and linebacker Myles Jack both helped buoy the running game through the final five games, combining for 584 of the team’s 1,007 yards and 12 of its 16 touchdowns. The Bruins have options on the ground, even disregarding its stable of running backs.

But those backs. Assuming injuries won’t concentrate on this unit as much as it did in 2013, there are enough bodies for at least a three- or four-man rotation through fall. As important as that is, the group finished the season without a convincing, all-conference-caliber back. Four weeks of spring practices did little to change that.

Pencil in Jordon James as the leader of what is once again a very crowded group. James stunned many to start his junior year, churning out 424 yards in three games and briefly ranking among the top five rushers in the country. An ankle injury essentially erased the rest of his season, so there’s a chance that those stats offered a peek at his true abilities. Most promising were his 5.29 yards per carry, by far the top mark among Bruins who carried the ball at least 50 times.

Nevertheless, he still needs to prove that hot start is sustainable: his stats were skewed by rushing defenses that finished 54th (Nebraska), 124th (Nevada) and 125th (New Mexico State) in the country.

The gap between James and the rest of the crew isn’t huge. Paul Perkins hits the hole a little harder, but was more serviceable than spectacular on his way to 573 yards and six touchdowns. Steve Manfro, who chipped in 107 yards, is versatile but more effective a receiver out of the backfield than as a weapon between the tackles.

Craig Lee is the X-factor. Head coach Jim Mora is fond of talking about his players’ “burst,” but Lee is among those most deserving of praise in that area. After redshirting his first season, the Redlands native generated the most “oooohs” per run in his first spring camp. Pass protection is still a question.

Maybe four-star signee Nathan Starks turns out to be an instant phenom. More likely, he’ll also need some time to get comfortable with how to pass block in UCLA’s offense — something coordinator Noel Mazzone said usually takes tailbacks a year or so to learn.

Level of concern: 6/10

*With 10 being the highest cause for concern this upcoming season, the scale is based mainly on the unit’s top talent as well as its depth. The latter might be weighed more or less depending on the position group; it would be more important to have multiple running backs than multiple quarterbacks, for example.

Previously …
May 1 — Quarterbacks