If it wasn't for a twist of fate—or rather the twist of an ankle—UCLA's two-way star Myles Jack would probably still be just a linebacker.
The UCLA offense was on a tear early in the year behind starting running back Jordon James, leaving no need to move a freshman linebacker to the offensive side of the ball.
But then James went down with an ankle injury in early October, which proved to be crippling to the Bruin ground game, and thus, the offense as a whole.
After several games of decreased offensive output, head coach Jim Mora called on Jack, a true freshman linebacker who starred at running back in high school, to take a few carries in a close but crucial game against Arizona.
He responded by taking 19 carries for 179 yards and five touchdowns in the next two games.
But now, the UCLA offense might have to re-shape its identity once again, as James is expected to make a return this week for a must-win game against Arizona State.
Chris Foster of the Los Angeles Times reported that James looks ready to return, quoting Mora saying that the limp is gone from his running back's gait:
Last week when he was going to his left trying to catch a screen pass, he couldn’t put his right foot in the ground and burst off it. This week, I haven’t seen him limp or favor it at all.
James suffered the injury on Oct. 3 in a 34-27 win over Utah.
He missed the next three games while the UCLA offense went stagnant before briefly returning against Colorado. But in that return, James took eight total touches for just 10 yards.
As Mora mentioned, he clearly wasn't back at full health against the Buffaloes.
After that, he was removed from the lineup once again. He missed the next two games and watched as Jack became a star.
Jack's performance in his first game against Arizona earned him Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Week honors, after which he insisted that he'd still rather play linebacker, as tweeted by Associated Press writer Greg Beacham.
The Bellevue, Wash., native certainly has reason to love the linebacker position. He has been perhaps the best freshman linebacker in the nation this season, tallying 67 tackles, five tackles for a loss, an interception, 11 pass deflections, a fumble recovery and a blocked kick.
However, after his second monster game against Washington, his tone changed just a bit. As written by Foster, Jack is beginning to accept his role at running back:
Besides, Jack said, all he is doing is following orders.
"I really have just one play," Jack said. "You see me go into the game, I ask Brett [Hundley] where I go and Brett says, 'Myles, go right' and I go, 'OK.' I look over to the marker and see that it is third and one and focus on getting that yard."
With the coming return of James, it looks like that will be Jack's role going forward: the third-down and goal-line back.
Last week against Washington, Jack took 13 carries but turned them into four short touchdowns in UCLA's 41-31 win.
This role seems to be the perfect scenario for both parties. Jack can still play linebacker without draining his energy by taking 15-plus carries, and the UCLA offense still has its backfield boost.
With Jack, James, Paul Perkins and others, the Bruins will be able to distribute the carries evenly or just lean on whichever running back has the hot hand. As Mora told Foster, that is the best-case scenario for his backfield:
Even if a guy is hot and is running the ball well, you got to be able to give him a break. That's running backs today. It's not like defense where you're going in as the hitter. You're the hittee and there are 11 guys trying to hit you. That takes a toll on your body.
Against the explosive Arizona State offense, the Bruins will need that entire committee of backs to be available. So even if Jack totes the rock a little bit less than he did against Washington, his presence will still be necessary.
However, this situation puts the most pressure on Mora.
UCLA and ASU will square off in the Rose Bowl this weekend with the winner taking control of the Pac-12 South race—a loss and the Bruins' BCS hopes are finished.
Every move Mora makes, particularly with his now-crowded backfield, will be scrutinized after this game. If he uses Jack too little and the UCLA offense falters, he'll be lambasted.
On the other side, if he uses Jack too much and renders him ineffective on defense in a Bruin loss, he'll be equally criticized.
In the end, Mora's best hope is to just win.
Tune in to Fox at 7 p.m. ET to see what the Bruins do with James, Jack and the rest of their backs.
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