The UCLA football program is entering the 2013 season with a lot of uncertainty throughout its depth chart. One of the biggest questions for the Bruins coaches as spring practice kicks into full gear is: Who is going to replace Johnathan Franklin at the running back position?
In 2012, running back was one of the few positions that head coach Jim Mora and his staff had absolute certainty about. Franklin was entering his senior season as a third-year starter with high expectations. He did not disappoint, being crowned the school's all-time leading rusher, but now Franklin is testing the waters of the NFL, and the Bruins have massive shoes to fill.
Fortunately for Mora, his core of running backs is full of talented players. The Bruins have five backs with a chance at the starting job. Paul Perkins and Steven Manfro are exciting young runners with plenty of room to grow, while Malcolm Jones is back in Westwood after deciding not to transfer from the program.
Realistically, however, the battle for the starting job will come down to the two most experienced backs in the program: Jordan James and Damien Thigpen.
James and Thigpen are equally worthy candidates for UCLA's starting running back job. Both are very skilled players with plenty of in-game experience. James has 81 career rushes for 302 yards, while Thigpen has carried the ball 77 times for 384 yards. They are also similarly sized, scat-style backs; James is 5'9", 193 pounds, and Thigpen is 5'8", 180 pounds. So, with little on paper to separate the two, who should get the nod from the coaching staff?
The answer is Damien Thigpen.
Before tearing his ACL in Week 12 of last season, Thigpen was one of the most effective weapons for the Bruins offense. Thigpen was third on the team in rushing, averaging 26.2 yards per game despite missing the final three games of the season. He was very adept at catching the ball out of the backfield, making 18 catches for 211 yards and two touchdowns, and was also the team's leading kick returner, averaging 26.9 yards a return.
Stats aside, Thigpen displays many of the attributes of a starting running back. Thigpen is a strong north-south runner with extremely fast feet. He hits the line with decisiveness and displays great vision, identifying holes as they are just opening up. If you want to take a look at what I'm talking about, watch this video of Thigpen carrying the ball.
This decisiveness and vision is where Thigpen has the clear advantage over James.
James has all the talent in the world and immediately passes the eye test for what a college running back should look like. He is very solidly built, has elite speed and displays a shifty elusiveness that would make any running backs coach salivate.
However, when watching James, it seems that he spends far too much time running east-west and often misses open holes. In 60 attempts in 2012, James averaged 3.5 yards per carry and had 17 runs that went for a loss or no gain. Thigpen, on the other hand, averaged 5.2 yards per carry on 51 attempts and only had nine runs that went for negative or no yards.
If James can learn to find the holes and hit them with speed, he may develop into one of the top running backs in the country. Until then, Thigpen should get the nod as the more experienced, decisive runner.
According to Jack Wang of Inside UCLA, James is entering the spring at the top spot on the depth chart and Thigpen will not participate in the camp as he recoveries from knee surgery. When Thigpen returns for summer practice, the starting job should immediately be back in question.
If Mora and his coaching staff want to get the most out of their running back position in 2013, they should tab Thigpen as their man.