Damien Thigpen (25), Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
It just wouldn’t be UCLA football without controversy at some critical position in spring practice, and as we all know, a QB battle is out of the question.
This year the focus will turn to a plethora of backs pining to line up next to Brett Hundley—but only one can nab the starting position. Between Damien Thigpen, Malcolm Jones, Jordan James and Paul Perkins, there should be no issue at running back, but how will the snaps be distributed?
First, we have to understand that it would take a miracle for one of these backs to bring anything close to what the Bruins lose with Johnathan Franklin graduating and going pro. That’s not meant to be an insult though, as preforming half as well as Franklin did would be an accomplishment, and one of them is bound to step up and do so. As for who, that will depend on how the offense evolves and grows to better suit one of them. Breaking down each player’s talents and flaws should help identify the different paths UCLA can take, but expect it to be running back by committee this year.
The solid, familiar face returns to the Bruins as a walk-on this season, and his senior experience should bring a lot to the table. Listed at 6’0″, 220 pounds, Jones’ low center of gravity could make him a great 3rd down and short-yardage back. When Derrick Coleman graduated two years ago, the Bruins lost a go-to guy on 3rd down. Now, without Coleman or Franklin, UCLA could find a replacement in Jones. The most important thing for Jones to do is improve his leg strength and keep his feet moving. With the amount of speed coach Mora can line up in the backfield, it’s not likely Jones will be pressured to produce breakaway runs. But if he can be counted on for forward progress, Jones will see the field next year.
Another great asset for the Bruins this season is redshirt junior Jordan James. His agility, with an explosive first step, sets him apart from others. Playing under offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone and his spread offense is perfect for James. His hands are great for a back, and his elusiveness and vision make him that much more of a threat. Screens and dump passes will most likely be his best chances to explode—if he can make the first move. Most importantly, because of James’ versatile talents, Brett Hundley will be able to loosen up and let his unmatched football IQ go to work.
As yet another back for UCLA with explosive abilities, Damien Thigpen is a true threat to opposing defenses when he’s healthy. He has soft hands with a great personality that will keep his ego, along with his teammates’, in check. Last season, Thigpen hurt his knee early on, and returned against USC only to tear his ACL in the first quarter. His talent was raw since he missed out on playing during the 2011-12 season due to, of course, a knee injury. Hopefully, Thigpen will make a full and painless recovery this time, and can keep himself sharp while sidelined during spring practice. He’s my projected starter, but this year the spotlight will be shared.
Capping off the list of backs this year is Paul Perkins, but despite coming up last, his versatility is uncontainable. With Perkins in the backfield, defenses will have to think on their feet and play it safe. As mainly a cornerback in high school, the redshirt freshman’s instincts and tendencies are that of a defender, so having him in allows UCLA to read and adapt well to defensive formations. Standing at 5’10” and 198 pounds, he has to rely on his agility to get by guys—and he will. Training this spring will be the first time coaches really see Paul play, so don’t expect a ton of playing time for him. But look for his name to pop up now and then next year.
Overall, the Bruins will be down at RB as they lost UCLA’s all-time leading rusher in Franklin. Nonetheless, they have a wonderful group of talented young men ready to step up and continue executing like Bruins. We’ll learn a lot as spring training progresses, so don’t fret. It’ll all be cleared up soon.