UCLA is not a team accustomed to using true freshmen in the backfield.
Last year, linebacker Myles Jack pulled double duty and rushed for 267 yards and seven touchdowns in just four games. But before that, the last Bruin tailback to play without needing redshirt year was Malcolm Jones in 2010.
This fall, UCLA has deployed another newbie in Nathan Starks, who has touched the ball 21 times for 104 yards and a pair of touchdowns. It isn’t much, but as the only full-time back on the roster listed above 200 pounds — 5-foot-11, 205 — the Colorado native gives position coach Kennedy Polamalu a different type of prospect to mold.
That process has involved a guiding hand from redshirt sophomore Paul Perkins, who recently became the 13th Bruin to rush for 1,000 yards in a season.
“Paul is actually one of the first running backs I got close and talked to when I got here,” Starks said. “He’s a great leader and a great mentor to the game. I listen to everything he tells me. He teaches me how to read defenses. He’s like my Coach P away from Coach P.”
Perhaps not coincidentally, Starks has seen his effectiveness gradually increase. In UCLA’s 17-7 win against Arizona last Saturday, he ran for a career-high 41 yards on just five carries.
“What I’ve noticed is, he’s got good collision balance,” said offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone. “There are times when the collision happens, and he comes out of the pile running instead of getting knocked down, knocked over or knocked off stride. Every week, I’m really happy with his progress.”
Perkins has proven himself to be the workhorse of the offense, and may very well block Starks from the top of the depth chart for another two seasons. But if the latter continues developing, it could give UCLA a two-back tandem next season to help ease the transition into life without quarterback Brett Hundley.
“I know I’m not going to get every snap in every game,” Starks said. “But it’s a great learning tool just to get a few reps, and hopefully prepare me to be an every down back in the future.”