One of the biggest question marks for UCLA football heading into 2013 is the battle at running back. That's really nothing new to anyone who follows the Bruins, as the transcendent senior year of Johnathan Franklin was destined to end eventually.
Through eight spring practices, there isn't much in the way of a front-runner to replace UCLA's all-time leading rusher, but there are a few viable candidates who'll be competing for starting snaps next season. Upperclassmen Jordan James and Damien Thigpen could have the slight edge because of experience, though Thigpen is rehabbing from an ACL tear.
But as Jim Mora's style dictates, an open position battle goes to the best performer on the field, so don't count out a young gun like Paul Perkins or even a good old-fashioned redemption story in Malcolm Jones to shake things up. And while this competition is likely to play out for weeks or months before complete resolution, the Bruins faithful are itching for an answer.
Who's going to be the No. 1 running back next year? It's far too early to guess, but it's worth taking a look to see which players have the inside track on playing time.
UCLA's foremost hope is that Damien Thigpen fully recovers from his injury and can pick up where he left off in 2012. Before going down in the USC game, Thigpen had amassed 445 yards of total offense and four touchdowns. He posted a healthy 5.2 yards-per-carry average on 50 touches while also tallying 18 receptions with an average of 10.2 yards per.
Thigpen was actually quite adept at leaking out of the backfield as a receiver, which is obviously a massive component of offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone's spread attack. In addition to the usual dump-offs and screens, Thigpen showed his versatility downfield with some well-timed wheel routes. To see some of Thigpen's highlights, check out the two-minute and 3:45 marks of the embedded video. Spoiler alert: This kid has wheels.
To be frank, I don't think the Bruins have another back with the kind of home run potential that Thigpen possesses. His ability to play next season could be a major determinant in the Bruins' success as a whole.
The only other returning player with production comparable to Thigpen is Jordan James, who managed 419 yards of total offense and three touchdowns through 14 games. If Thigpen ends up being ineffective post-injury, James seems the next option in the line of succession.
The rising redshirt junior has shown some shake-and-bake skills so far in his career, but he hasn't developed the consistency of a lead option just yet. In fact, he only mustered 3.5 YPC on 61 attempts last season, which obviously won't cut it for a starter.
With that said, James was a solid target in the passing game last year, gaining 204 yards on 28 catches. If he can continue to develop as a reliable runner, his capabilities as a receiver should make him a valuable asset. Whether or not Thigpen is a go, James will be a large component of the Bruins offense and should see the field plenty. In case you aren't convinced, consider this tweet from Edward Lewis of Rivals' Bruin Sports Report:
#UCLA head coach Jim Mora said Jordon James will be his starting running back to begin spring ball next week.— Edward Lewis (@EdwardLewisBSR) March 26, 2013
After Thigpen and James, the pickings get slimmer, especially in terms of experience. Rising senior Malcolm Jones, despite entering his final season of college football, has yet to establish a name for himself in Westwood. After notching 10 yards on three carries in the opener at Rice, Jones elected to leave the team in pursuit of a transfer. However, after essentially wasting a season of eligibility, the former Gatorade National HS Player of the Year decided to stick with the Bruins as a walk-on.
It's tough to tell if Jones has much left to show off, but he wasn't a 4-star prospect for nothing back in 2010. Should Jones find himself and emerge a serious contender, it would be a huge boon to the UCLA offense. He's definitely an X-factor to watch on the roster this year, but he'll need to prove himself to the team and coaching staff he almost abandoned.
After those three upperclassmen, there are a couple younger players who are trying to get involved in the discussion. Redshirt freshman Paul Perkins has been the trendy pick thrown around recently, mostly because everyone is holding out hope that this kid is the real deal.
Perkins measures in at 5'10" and 198 pounds, which is larger than both Thigpen and James (though Jones is an imposing 6'0", 220 lbs). So where questions of durability surround the smaller backs, Perkins has the advantage of being a bruiser. His contribution may be mostly short-yardage situations, but that's nothing to scoff at for a freshman.
Redshirt sophomore Steven Manfro is also a possibility, albeit an inconsistent one. The once-fan favorite quickly became an easy scapegoat when he fell victim to the dreaded fumble-itis. Most of his bobbles came on punt-catching miscues, but that still doesn't inspire confidence and warrant more touches.
However, when he did hold on to the ball, Manfro was one of the most electric runners on the roster. He has an impressive 8.8 YPC average, and while it was on only eight attempts, it's still something to work with. Toss in his 287 yards receiving for good measure, and it's clear Manfro can be a legitimate option for UCLA. If he secures his handle on the rock, there's no reason he couldn't jump into the rotation as well.
As you can see, there are a lot of Bruins chomping at the bit to get in on the action in the backfield. Based solely on experience and proven productivity, Thigpen and James figure to get the first look, but Jones, Perkins and even Manfro could play a role. The opportunity is there for everyone this spring. Whoever elevates his game and stands out from the pack will earn the starting nod, while the rest jockey for position in the playing-time pyramid.