UCLA spring camp position review: Running backs

UCLA running back Nate Starks during football practice at UCLA on April 20, 2015. (Hans Gutknecht/Staff)

UCLA running back Nate Starks during football practice at UCLA on April 20, 2015. (Hans Gutknecht/Staff)

UCLA found backfield stability last season in the form of Paul Perkins, who broke out and became the first Bruin to lead the conference in rushing since 2001. As long as he’s healthy, the running game should churn along smoothly.

But what will make UCLA’s next quarterback even happier is the depth behind Perkins. One of the intriguing performances this spring camp came from Nate Starks, who had a promising albeit limited role as a true freshman last season. Starks only had 31 carries for 141 yards and two touchdowns, but those stats don’t accurately show how impressive some of those runs were. He also had his best game when UCLA needed him most, in a 17-7 win over Arizona. Against the Wildcats, Starks had five carries for 41 yards, including a 21-yarder on 3rd-and-11 deep in UCLA territory. He was also the primary back on the Bruins’ first fourth-quarter drive.

Last month, UCLA leaned a little harder on him. Perkins is the clear No. 1 on the roster, but Starks got a healthy share of first-team reps through camp too — and for the most part, proved he deserved them. While he’s not the shiftiest runner around, he identifies holes, runs with conviction, and isn’t easy to bring down on first contact. The Bruins have yet to deploy an effective two-back tandem since Jim Mora arrived, but that wasn’t necessary when Brett Hundley also presented a running threat at quarterback. Starks should give the team a very viable second option, and arguably the best one-two punch in the conference.

The rest of the depth chart is much more unsettled. Former four-star recruit Craig Lee might beat the rest of the field in NFL Combine-styled drills, but if he can’t firmly grasp the playbook and the nuances of pass-blocking, it will be difficult for him to carve out a significant role. Five-star recruit Soso Jamabo remains under investigation for evading police an hour outside of Dallas, and the Kaufman County district attorney’s office has yet to set a court date. Senior Steve Manfro is recovering from a torn ACL, and has been used more as a pass-catcher than a traditional runner for most of his career.

I would not bet on any of those three players beating out Starks for the backup spot at any point in the season, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be valuable parts of the offense. In the three seasons that Noel Mazzone has run his swing pass-heavy scheme at UCLA, backs have accounted for 22 percent of the Bruins’ receptions.

Projected depth chart
Paul Perkins, RJr., 5-11, 198
Nate Starks, So., 5-11, 205
Soso Jamabo, Fr., 6-2, 201 (assuming availability)
Steve Manfro, RSr., 5-9, 190
Craig Lee, RSo., 5-11, 185

Previous position recaps
Offensive line