The UCLA Bruins will be with all their available running backs for the Hyundai Sun Bowl. Finally, right? I think we can assume the collective Bruin fanbase is saying, “THANK YOU!” A long, injury-plagued season had Offensive Coordinator Noel Mazzone picking at the Bruin defense for much needed help during the last part of the season. Surprisingly, it helped. But now that he has all his guys back, what is a coach to do?
Running Back By Committee
Remember that phrase? Well it is back and there are a lot of options to choose from. So who are these classy guys in blue and gold and how will their running game work in the Sun Bowl? By committee, of course!
Who knows what kind of a beast he could have been if he did not get injured in the Utah game. In each of his previous three games, he ran for over 100 yards. He tried to come back against Colorado, but unfortunately ended his regular season sitting out the next two games. He ended the regular season with 525 yards, with 5.5 yards per carry and 5 touchdowns. A healthy James is a scary James and if he leads the rushing attack with UCLA’s late season running game, the Bruins will be very dangerous.
This kid is solid and is only a redshirt freshmen. He got his first start against Cal, one game after James went down, and contributed some much needed running power. One of his highlights was running for 93 yards against Oregon, the offense may have been out of breathe for that game, but he kept pushing forward. He finished the season second in rushing, only behind Brett Hundley, with 570 yards and 5 TDs.
Jones’ career at UCLA probably did not go as he planned. Before the season started, he was denied by the NCAA to have an extra year of eligibility, but on the plus side, he earned a scholarship on to the team. Unfortunately, he was sparingly used throughout the season. He finished with 270 yards and 3 TDs. As a senior, this will be his last game, so good luck to him and hope to see him on the field in El Paso.
Thigpen also had a season that did not go so well. He started the season injured and then got hurt again, late in the year, missing the last three games. He played in a total of six games and gained 71 yards and added a touchdown to his season stats. Good luck to him as well, for the redshirt senior will also be playing his last game as a Bruin.
The sophomore cult favorite, MANFRO, is back. To be honest, he will only get a few snaps at running back, especially with James, Perkins and Jones healthy. He only had 70 yards with a TD this season, but every time time he held the ball, he was cheered with much ferocity. Still, his return actually benefits another part of UCLA Football, the kick return team.
Manfro had 18 kick returns throughout the year (more than double the next on the list) and totaled 446 yards to average 24.8 yards per return. With the way cornerback Ishmael Adams has been doing with kick returns late in the season, averaging 39.4 yards per return, Virginia Tech should aim for the back of the end zone on every kick off, because they have no chance if Adams or Manfro get their hands on the ball.
How can you not talk about the guy that is being talked about by everybody? Myles Jack only played the last four games of the season as a running back, but his performance in those games was enough to earn him the Pac-12 Freshman Offensive Player of the Year. He ran his way into your heart with 160 yards in his first offensive game against Arizona and then topped that with a 4 TD performance against Washington. And how about that midriff? Hey, did you know Jack was actually a linebacker? Your mind is officially blown.
The Running Game Vs. Virginia Tech
Since it has worked well for the running game, the Bruins should stick with the game plan they developed late in the season. The first and second down backs should be, in order, James, Perkins and Jones. It will interesting if the use of Hundley in the running game will allow this group of players more chances for a few extra yards here and there. Even though Va Tech has a good defensive line, it is always hard to account for a quarterback that runs as much as Hundley, which give the Bruin backs a big advantage.
The short yard, 2nd and 3rd down plays should only go to one guy, you know…Jack. When there are two yards to be had or a goal line push with that Diamond/Inverted Wishbone formation, expect the Jack attack. No matter how hard they plan for him, the Hokies have no idea what is coming their way in Jack.
This should be a really fun game to watch.