UCLA running backs all healthy for the first time

At long last, UCLA will have a full stable of backs. Head coach Jim Mora said starter Jordon James, Paul Perkins, Damien Thigpen, Malcolm Jones and Steve Manfro should be 100 percent healthy heading into the Sun Bowl next Tuesday.

“They all looked really sharp out here today,” Mora said. “It’s probably been since training camp that we can say that. … It’s probably the first game that they’ve all been ready to go. So we’ll have to find a way to get them all reps.” Continue reading

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Injury report: Three running backs battling ankle injuries

Here’s the rundown, per UCLA head coach Jim Mora: starter Jordon James is “fine”; senior Damien Thigpen is a game-time decision; reserve back Steve Manfro is out.

All three are battling ankle injuries, and both James and Thigpen entered Wednesday’s no-pads practice with their right ankles wrapped. The Bruins also have Paul Perkins and Malcolm Jones available, though the latter did not carry the ball against Arizona last Saturday.

Of breakout two-way star Myles Jack, Mora said simply: “He’s a linebacker.”

Backup left tackle Conor McDermott has also undergone shoulder surgery, the Los Angeles Times reported. Continue reading

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Noel Mazzone on Damien Thigpen’s expanding role

Offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone talked about running back Damien Thigpen’s potential to stretch out opposing defenses — with the ability to turn a 4-yard run into 20 yards.

Also used as a slot receiver and returner while Johnathan Franklin became UCLA’s all-time leading rusher, Thigpen has a chance now to become more of a featured back.

“(Last year), we sneaked Thiggy around the field to get the ball to him,” Mazzone said. “Now, he’s a guy who can step in and be more of a focal point in the running game.

“Instead of the side dish, he can maybe be the true entree.”

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Jim Mora talks about Utah’s offense and Dennis Erickson

Due to the short week of prep leading up to Thursday’s game at Utah, UCLA treated Sunday as it would a usual Tuesday practice. The Bruins had Friday and Saturday off after practicing last week, and moved into game prep for the Utes today.

Jim Mora spoke a bit after Sunday’s session:

– On early impressions of Utah: “They’re tough. They’re physical. They’re disciplined. They play hard all the time. Just like last year. They’re going to play good defense. They’re going to run the ball.”

– The addition of co-offensive coordinator Dennis Erickson has made Utah’s offense much more dynamic. In 2012, when former Ute quarterback Brian Johnson had sole schematic reins, the team finished with 19 pass plays of at least 25 yards and nine runs of at least 20 yards. Continue reading

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Running back Damien Thigpen to return against Utah

Next week, Damien Thigpen will take his first game snaps since tearing his ACL last November.

The senior shed his no-contact red jersey early this month, and had long pegged the Oct. 3 game as a potential comeback date. Last year, the speedy running back finished third on the team with 849 all-purpose yards despite sitting out the final three games of the season.

His return crowds a backfield that has performed surprisingly well so far this season, but he could also be used as a slot receiver in certain packages.

“It would be great to get him a few carries,” head coach Jim Mora said. “It’s not that you want to get your running backs hit, but when you’re coming off an injury like that, it’s important that you take some shots. You build confidence when you do. We’re going to give him a couple of carries at least.”

Mora added that Thigpen isn’t ready to work as a kick returner yet — he took back 14 for 376 yards in 2012 — but could see special team snaps in another role. The coach has also seen enough that he no longer cringes when the senior takes a hit.

“I was three weeks ago. Now I’m not,” Mora said. “I’m not just because of his body language. He’s very confident and he looks like he’s going full-speed through his cuts. He’s not tiptoeing through the holes. He’s hitting it.”

– UCLA has what Mora said amounts to 2.5 bye weeks this year: the one that prefaced the Nebraska game, this week, and the extra days following next Thursday’s game. If he only had one, however, he choose it use it now to help his players adjust to the first day of classes. Continue reading

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Owamagbe Odighizuwa working ‘cobwebs’ out in first post-surgery action

This past Saturday, Owamagbe Odighizuwa sat in the Rose Bowl stands, high above his teammates. Sidelined after undergoing two offseason hip surgeries, the defensive end watched UCLA pummel Nevada, 58-20 — the first time since 2009 that he watched the Bruins in person from somewhere other than the field.

“It was awkward to be honest,” he said. “For three years, I’ve been playing. To be sitting in the stands, I felt almost like a recruit.”

This time, however, he knew the schemes and playcalls. Through his 38 games at UCLA, he was always locked into his own assignment. Sitting with his brother and his friends, he could look down and see how each piece fit within the defense, watch each play as it unfolded: “It was a little bit weird.”

He’s still itching to go back. After making 44 tackles as a junior, Odighizuwa needed surgery to repair fraying in his right hip. Just before spring practices started, he felt pain in his left hip and went through a second surgery — one that is forcing him to redshirt the 2013 season. Continue reading

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Damien Thigpen won’t set timetable for return from torn ACL

Running back Damien Thigpen, who tore his ACL last November, said his knee feels good but couldn’t set a timetable for his return. The senior was third on the team with 849 all-purpose yards last season and one of the team’s most dynamic weapons.

Though being sidelined has kept him from potentially moving up the backfield depth chart — led tenuously by junior Jordon James — he hasn’t dwelled on the what-ifs.

“It’s easy for me to just think there and think, ‘I should be there, I should be this,’” Thigpen said. “But the coaches, they know once I’m back, they’ll allow me to step in and produce. I’m not really worried about, ‘Oh, I need to get out there as fast as I can so I can compete.’”

Mora said Thigpen will likely be ready toward the earlier part of the season rather than the middle.

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Cornerback Priest Willis academically cleared by NCAA

Cornerback Priest Willis has received academic clearance from the NCAA, solidifying UCLA’s inexperienced secondary.

The Bruins heard the news at around 2 p.m., just a few hours before Thursday’s afternoon practice in San Bernardino. Arguably the most highly regarded of UCLA’s four freshman defensive backs, Willis has played well early on and should be a crucial piece of a secondary that returns no starters.

“He stands out,” head coach Jim Mora said. “He absolutely, positively can play corner at this level. He has the quickness. He has the burst. He’s got the length.”

– Safety Dietrich Riley is still working with the team as an undergraduate assistant. The junior had missed all of last season recovering from neck surgery, and took a medical retirement last month.

“I just think it’s important that we offer him that opportunity to see what he wants to do with his life,” Mora said. “For him to be out here with Tahaan (Goodman), with Tyler Foreman and some of those other (freshmen), it’s pretty selfless to me.

“He had big plans in terms of what his football career was gonna look like. It didn’t work out the way he wanted it. Rather than mourn, he’s just OK.” Continue reading

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Fall camp preview: Running backs

After watching Johnathan Franklin smash multiple school records last season, UCLA will need multiple bodies to fill the void at running back. No single set of feet can hope to match what Franklin did as an All-American and Doak Walker runner-up, rushing for 1,734 yards and 13 touchdowns.

The Bruins’ coaching staff has long said that the team will rely on a committee approach; if Franklin was “The Mayor,” then 2013 will be led by a city council. The test in San Bernardino will be to see if anyone has the potential to eventually emerge as a true No. 1 back.

Key returners: As a backup last season, Jordon James carried the ball 61 times for 215 yards — good for a pedestrian average of 3.5 yards per carry. Contrast that with Franklin’s 6.1 ypc, and his chances of becoming a star seem unlikely. The 5-foot-9, 193-pound junior flashes impressive runs in practice, but still hasn’t found a way to translate that into games. Continue reading

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