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

  • ProbationU

    Coach Polamalu has done a wonderful job with our backs. Perkins has improved greatly and it appears that Starks is improving as well. Hopefully the light will switch on for Lee. You can never have too much depth at that position.

  • Laker Rod

    Highly doubtful Soso will be 3rd string. He hasn’t proven he can do anything at this point except run from the police. If you were a teammate of his…wouldn’t you question his maturity. Can you even trust him?

    There will be situations where Nate Iese will be the lone RB in the backfield. So he could be considered 3rd string. Coaches seem to like Ahmad Harris at times as a receiver.

    Mora has also mentioned Craig Lee’s speed and also catches the ball well out of the backfield.

  • ProbationU

    Given Soso’s situation, it may benefit him to get acclimated to college for a year before he plays a game. I don’t know how much he would play in year one, but given his lapse in judgment, a redshirt year to grow up a little might be the best thing for him as both a football player and a person.

    • Intimidator Bruin

      I think his decisions were definitely bad, But lets not forget these are 18 yrs and they are going to make mistakes. I definitely don’t think he should sit out a year to have a chance to make more mistakes. He needs to learn to deal with the mass amounts of media and responsibility that has been piled on him by playing. Myles, Ish and Devin all had things they did in the media(not on the same level as SoSo definitely) that were perceived as not being “Bruin like”. But the support of the upperclass and coaches while playing help them to align themselves with the correct behavior and values of UCLA football.

      • ProbationU

        We don’t know how good Soso is yet. From reports he is a very good receiver out of the backfield. Both Perkins and Starks are fine runners and blockers and Perkins is still highly underrated even after last year. I wouldn’t want UCLA to burn Soso’s redshirt unless he had a REAL opportunity to contribute and had his house in order.

        • Laker Rod

          You’re darn right Perkins is underrated. And why is this? To me it’s because he was only rated as a 3 star recruit.

          Guys like Tracy Pierson and the majority of other Bruin recruiting websites are the biggest contributors for UCLA having an uneducated fan base.

          Think about it. What is their main job? They are trying to attract followers. They want the UCLA fan base to get hyped up about incoming recruits so you can go to their websites and read more about them.

          The websites make outlandish predictions in how this incoming recruit will win a starting job or be 3rd string, etc. with no true basis whatsoever.

          Last year these same sights and many fans predicted Nate Starks would be the starting tailback. I said it would be Jordan James/Perkins combo.

          The year before this in 2013, Craig Lee was the proclaimed starter by these sites and fans. I said no way. Jordan James.

          In 2012, many were hyping up Steven Manfro the White Mamba or true frosh Paul Perkins. I said no way. It’s Jonathan Franklin.

          In 2011, Jordan James was being hyped up as a redshirt frosh. Basically the pattern of UCLA fans is that they always try to go with the guy who has to even see the field because certainly they were not impressed with the existing guys. These same stupid fans made claims like Derrick Coleman is too slow or Franklin fumbles too much.

          In 2010, all the fans and sites were totally hyping Malcolm Jones 5 star Gatorade Player of the Year. I was not convinced. I still had Franklin and Coleman has my top two backs.

          Do you not see the pattern here? I can do this for pretty much every single position for UCLA.

          Where i am vindicated is who the coaches ended up playing and how they eventually did.

          Idiot Rick Neuheisel tried to elevate Malcom Jones to the top as a true frosh. He then started to have fumble problems himself and the team didn’t start winning in 2010. In 2011, RN also tried Jordan James as a redshirt frosh. It didn’t work. The only thing these guys did was show some flashes and potential which is what most freshman do in the combination of making mistakes.

          Now with Jim Mora. He makes the right choice in going with Franklin. What does he do? 1,700 yards rushing? Career leader in rushing but yet idiot Bruin fans wanted Steven Manfro the White Mamba to start? That’s all people were hyping about in spring practice 2012.

          So circling back to Soso. He’s not 3rd string as a true frosh. No way. Wait until he arrives on campus and let’s see some stuff he can do. He has to be quite impressive to surpass the ever improving Craig Lee.

          • ProbationU

            As I said, unless Soso is worth of a lot of touches in the offense, I think he should redshirt. With the guys we have returning, I think that is unlikely. No need to burn his redshirt year for 3 to 4 touches a game, IMO.

            Also, Tracy Pierson does a fine job and has been praising Craig Lee all Spring. Jordon James was never more than a situational back and Polamalu has done a great job with Perkins. Star rating measures where they are in high school but does not necessarily project into the future. Randall Goforth was a 3 star that became a starting safety as a RS Fr. and 5 star CB Priest Willis is struggling. There are many examples of this too long to mention, including 3 star QB Marcus Mariota.

            And by the way, Malcolm Jones had 55 carries in 2010 compared to Johnathan Franklin’s 217 and Coleman’s 82, so I don’t know that Neuheisel was guilty of promoting him. I do think that with only 55 carries, it would have been better to redshirt him and Neuheisel also burned Brehaut’s redshirt for very little playing time.

            So, a judicious approach regarding true Freshman I would agree with. However, if a truly outstanding player can make major contributions, then he should be on the field. It is a case by case situation and as far as RB is concerned and the OL (finally), we have enough depth to be able to redshirt more players than we did in Mora’s first two years.

          • Laker Rod

            You don’t have to explain to me about the star rating. I’m well aware of how off they can be. In addition, Randall Goforth did not redshirt his first year.

            Soso perhaps can return kick offs but I don’t see the point of this. If he didn’t have the off field issue I would be more receptive to him possibly playing this year. If Perkins or Starks gets injured then I can see Soso playing also. I hope all the RB’s stay healthy though.

            And what you need to understand about Rick N. and 2010 is that RN gave Malcolm Jones every chance in the world to take over the starting job. The problem is Jones failed. He started to fumble which you could easily see was a problem in the way he carried the ball. It was happening in practice also. You’d be better off admitting this.

            Do you not remember how RN tried to get the ball to Morrell Pressley his first two years. He failed miserably also. RN then tried to give the ball to Anthony Barr as a true frosh. He didn’t do well either.

            What RN then realized is that his older more experienced players were the more consistent and better players. This is why he finally started to redshirt everybody in 2011 including Brett Hundley.

            And I don’t totally agree from the standpoint we can “NOW” redshirt more players. We could have done so in the past also. Jayon Brown and Cameron Judge and Kenny Orjioke all didn’t need to play as true frosh. Heck…even Deon Hollins didn’t need to play as a true frosh. Kylie Fitts didn’t need to play. Zach Whitley didn’t need to play. Ian Taubler didn’t need to play. Alex Van Dyke didn’t need to play. Same with Darren Andrews and J. Ortiz.

  • Intimidator Bruin

    Jack, I have really been interested in the whole Craig Lee situation.
    The times I have seen him in Spring practice he has looked really good. Do you think he looks bad enough to be last on the depth chart with Manfro coming off injury and SoSo yet to learn the system?

    • MPPBruin

      My uneducated guess is that it’s not just who is the featured back and who lines up behind him, but who gets the most touches and how do they design packages for each guy.

  • TYtrueBRUIN300

    CRAIG LEE WILL BE ON THE FIELD this year! i bet if he was at Oregon he would be!

  • Intimidator Bruin

    To me Lee looks like the most gifted back on the team but if he can’t pass block and pick up blitzes then he isn’t going to see any playing time in the offense.

  • Laker Rod

    99% of Bruin fans didn’t think Malcom Jones peaked in high school. Give me a break. Most had him starting over Johnathan Franklin and Derrick Coleman. You going to try and deny this? This is what I hate about Bruin fans like yourself. You never admit the truth.

    And don’t give me this nonsense of Morrell Pressley and off field problems. I repeat…again…99% of Bruin fans were happy to see Pressley out there as a true frosh and were all hyped up about this 5 star recruit. You again trying to deny this? Pressley started to have issues after he got benched in favor of Barr who really didn’t do much better as a true frosh.

    When Barr came to UCLA as a true frosh…there were those touting him for the starting RB position also!

    And you’re wrong. I don’t live in the past. I try to tell you idiots right now who should play and who shouldn’t. Most true freshman should NOT play. The past is brought up to remind most of you idiots what you once proclaimed a few years back….but yet you guys don’t learn your lesson….constantly promoting new true frosh.

    It’s happening again. Most want Josh Rosen to start and some think Chris Clark will be in the two deep and some think Kesian Lucier South will win an OLB spot and some think Soso Jamabo will be 3rd string RB.

    What is so stupid is that the true frosh that are now being hyped to start…are leapfrogging guys from past years where the same idiots claimed would start. Example…Craig Lee. Idiots said he would start as a true frosh.

    Now do you see where I am coming from?

    • ProbationU

      Yes, you like to call people that disagree with you “idiots”. That’s where you are coming from.

      And I agree that “most” true freshman should redshirt. That implies that “some” should play. And that is the call of the coaching staff, not a professed expert at Monday Morning quarterbacking. You have no idea what I thought about Malcolm Jones, but if you care to read what I wrote above, that sums it up.

      • Laker Rod

        But yet you seem to try to argue for Josh Rosen to start. Sorry but you don’t make any sense. You are just full of contradictions.

        If you agree that “most” true frosh should redshirt…what is your reasoning behind this. It has to be due to the fact it’s because they are usually not physically and/or mentally ready to play or take on a heavy responsibility. Correct? And how do we know this? It’s all based on past history. Duh.

        So who falls into the category of “some” should play? So far I’m not disagreeing with you at all up to this point.

        As for me…those “some” that should or can play are often either tailbacks, wide receivers, defensive backs or linebackers. These often have the most success.

        In addition of all these positions….those true frosh who do play at these spots often have ideal size for their respective position. RB is 6’0 205 or bigger. LB is 6’1 225 like Myles Jack was as a true frosh. Or Jamir Miller size at 6’4 225 back in the 90’s.

        A 6’4 205 QB in this day and age doesn’t cut the mustard. You keep avoiding this point of Rosen’s size.

        So there. There is solid logical reasoning as to my position. I don’t rely on blind wishful thinking like 90% of what Bruin fans do.

        • ProbationU

          Point out where I argued for Josh Rosen to start. I suggest you work on your reading comprehension.

          • Laker Rod

            Please explain why we have been having this back and forth discussion then. Are you suddenly backing off from your original position. Wouldn’t have been alot easier for you to say that you hope Woulard wins the starting spot because historically true frosh don’t do very well. This is what about 10% of Bruin fans have said.