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UCLA Football: Breaking Down the Depth at Running Back

Jason FrayCorrespondent ISeptember 3, 2016

UCLA Football: Breaking Down the Depth at Running Back

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    One of the deepest and most talented units on the UCLA Bruins' football team this upcoming season is the running backs corps. Not only that, but the unit ranks as one of the top in the Pac-12 conference as well.

    Buoyed by senior Johnathan Franklin, the team has a collective mix of experience, size, speed and explosiveness. In addition, there's a unique blend of scat backs to go along with bigger, more powerful options.

    Let's take a look at the stable of backs that the Bruins have to their disposal.

Johnathan Franklin

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    There's no question that the aforementioned senior will be the "bell cow" back for the offense. Franklin not only represents the most experienced member of the offense, but also the most proven over the course of his collegiate career.

    The Dorsey High School product rushed for a team-high 976 yards last season—and 2,669 yards for the duration of his time in Westwood. That total currently places him ninth all-time on the UCLA rushing list.

    One aspect of Franklin's game that has to improve is his propensity to fumble the football. On more than one occasion, Franklin coughed up the rock on drives where UCLA's offense had considerable momentum. 

    The offense will rely on Franklin for stability and leadership out of the backfield. He's unquestionably the veteran of the group, and has to be a consistent force for the Bruins to have a solid season.

Malcolm Jones

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    Malcolm Jones has been a disappointment thus far in his UCLA career.

    The big back from famed Oaks Christian High School was a former Gatorade High School National Player of the Year. In this first two seasons in Westwood, he's rushed for 303 yards on 80 carries. He's admittedly not played much, but he should be producing more—especially with the hype and promise coming out of high school.

    With Derrick Coleman graduating, Jones now assumes the role of the bigger back. At 6'0", 220 pounds, he'll be the primary backup to Franklin.

    Playing with consistency will be big for Jones. He'll have to move the pile and showcase power and physicality when he runs. Surely, he'll be the focal point on short yardage situations and goal line attempts.

    If he can realize his immense potential, Jones will gift UCLA with another weapon that will be utilized.

Jordon James/Damien Thigpen

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    The implementation of the spread offense by new offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone will offer the the Bruins both inventiveness and flexibility when it comes to their personnel.

    Often times, a tailback might be lined up in the slot as a receiver or at the natural position in the backfield. The goal of the spread is to create one-on-one matchups, where the respective team's athletes can be out in space and utilize their speed and quickness.

    With the no-huddle being an integral element of the spread, a myriad of wideouts and tailbacks will be employed. Swing passes will be a vital part of the Bruins' offense this upcoming year, as will screens and routes out of the backfield. 

    With that in mind, both Jordon James and Damien Thigpen represent the ideal tailback/slot receiver hybrid needed to execute the spread.

    James is stockier than Thigpen, but he's incredibly quick and agile. There's a reason that James has the nickname "joystick," and that's due to his arsenal of jukes and ways of making defenders miss in space. 

    Thigpen has been injured throughout his career. Now as a junior, he's hoping to break out and show the sub-4.4 speed that he had in high school.

    He's had a very good fall camp and looks like he possesses the most pure speed out of any member on the roster. At only 5'8", 178 pounds, expect Thigpen to be showcased on bubble screens and on slants across the center of the field. 

    Both James and Thigpen are essentially versatile, interchangeable parts. With the speed and quickness of both, it would behoove the staff to get the ball in their hands as often as possible. 

Paul Perkins

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    True freshman Paul Perkins has been a pleasant surprise during the fall camp. 

    Albeit being early, the 5'11", 192 pound running back has demonstrated the ability to run between the tackles with some effectiveness. He also has run with great balance—often squaring up his pads and making it difficult for himself to be tackled.

    One adjective to describe Perkins' running style is smooth. He almost glides out on the field, and is fully capable of exploding out of the backfield for long runs.

    It's not certain whether the Queen Creek, Ariz. prospect will redshirt. Regardless, he has all the makings of a future every-down back.

    *Interestingly enough, he's a former high school teammate of current starting quarterback Brett Hundley. That sense of familiarity could be a beneficial aspect heading forward.  

Steven Manfro

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    Steven Manfro was a revelation during spring camp. Not only did he turn heads during camp play, but he cemented himself as a viable playmaking option this season.  

    His story has been well documented. Manfro had only one other Division 1 scholarship offer, and that was from Wyoming.

    At 5'9", 192 pounds, he's a strong athlete with a low centre of gravity. He's displayed surprising power in practice and can also use his impressive agility to evade oncoming defenders.

    Out of the entire stable of running backs, Manfro might have the best set of hands. Much of his production could come on swing passes and screens out of the backfield.

    At this point, he'll be used at both running back and as a slot receiver. In terms of his game play, he looks like an eerily similar combination of both Danny Woodhead and Wes Welker. Look for Manfro to be featured prominently on both kick and punt returns as well.  

Expected Roles

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    Expect Franklin to get a lion's share of the carries this season. That's not due to UCLA having a lack of options, but rather due to Franklin being the best option.

    As previously mentioned, Jones will be often utilized on short yardage plays and goal-line situations. He'll also be a prime target in wearing out the opposing defenses—primarily due to his size. As the probable second back, it'd be a boon for the Bruins if Jones can complement Franklin effectively. 

    Manfro's value will come on returns and on plays designed to get him out in space. His agility makes him potentially special—as does his overall enthusiasm on the field.

    Both Thigpen and James will be showcasing their speed quite often. It would not be a stretch to surmise that the duo will be making plays from the slot and from out of the backfield. 

    It's quite conceivable that Perkins will redshirt, but with his strong performance throughout camp, he could factor into the rotation. He gives the Bruins perhaps the best mix of speed and power.

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