Pac-10 Position Breakdown: Running Back – UCLA Bruins
Last season, the UCLA running game ranked 116th nationally (out of 120 teams). While these numbers still have head coach Rick Neuheisel scratching his head, blame for the pitiful production must be split equally among the backs and the offensive line. Still, there is hope in Westwood for 2009. Offensive coordinator Norm Chow has a solid stable of backs to work with despite losing a few from last year.
The off-season started with some tough losses for the Bruins running game. Last year’s leading rusher Kahlil Bell is gone. Bell finished his four-year Bruin career with over 1,700 yards and 17 touchdowns.
Next, talented sophomore Aundre Dean announced that he was transferring to TCU. Not long afterwards, Raymond Carter, another highly regarded runner, announced that he was headed to Colorado State. Both Dean and Carter were four-star talents that coach Neuheisel expected to use as feature backs one day. Losing both of them was a big blow for a unit desperate for explosive talent.
Now, it’s up to a group of relatively unproven tailbacks to revive the UCLA ground game.
If there is a headliner to be found in this group, then redshirt junior Christian Ramirez is probably it. The 6-2 220 pound athlete missed the 2008 season due to academic ineligibility. Ramirez began his career as a safety before switching to tailback in 2007. He debuted as a running back against Stanford and wasted no time impressing the coaches, rushing for 55 yards on 5 carries, including a 24-yard scramble. For his career, Ramirez has run for 104 yards on 19 carries and has one career touchdown.
The El Centro California native might not have much experience, but his upside is exciting. While at Imperial High School (CA), Ramirez set a single-season school rushing record with 1,558 yards and 23 touchdowns. That season, he had a game in which he rushed for 304 yards and five touchdowns, another school record.
Ramirez runs with a slashing style and possesses a nice combination of size and speed. Norm Chow’s 1-back set should allow for Ramirez to flourish, but only if the offensive line can open up some running lanes. Unfortunately, Ramirez missed most of spring with a hamstring problem. If he can return to full speed this fall, UCLA may have their feature back.
The most experienced back on the roster is senior Chane Moline. The 6-1, 244 pound veteran is a versatile hybrid-back who could spend time at both running back and fullback this season. Moline’s natural position is fullback, which is where he will start the year for UCLA.
The San Juan Capistrano, CA native is a sure-handed receiver and will allow Norm Chow to exploit mismatches out of the backfield. Moline is also valuable in goal line situations, where he can create his own push even when the Bruins offensive line cannot. Moline has carried the ball 118 times for 446 yards and 6 TD’s. He also has 20 career receptions for 158 yards and one TD.
The leading rusher among backs returning to Westwood this fall is sophomore Derrick Coleman. As a freshman last season, Coleman ran for a respectable 291 yards and two TD’s on only 53 carries (5.4 yards per carry).
At 6-0 231 pounds, Coleman has tremendous size and strength, while displaying deceptive speed. Like Moline, he is great in short yardage situations and figures to see a lot of carries on 3rd down. Coleman flashed his potential against Fresno State last year, running for a team-high 86 yards on 10 carries. Coleman will start the 2009 season right behind Ramirez on the RB depth chart.
The speed element of UCLA’s running attack could be provided by redshirt freshman Jonathan Franklin. The 5-10 200 pound sprinter is also a track star and will give Norm Chow a potential home-run threat. Franklin impressed coaches during his redshirt year, earning co-MVP honors on the scout team.
He is a skilled receiver out of the backfield as well, giving the UCLA offense another mismatch capability. Rivals.com rated him as the 16th best athlete of the 2008 class, and gave him four-stars. The Dorsey High (Los Angeles, CA) standout is a strong pass-blocker as well.
The sleeper of the unit is 5-8 200-pound redshirt freshman Milton Knox. Knox’s size and running style remind some around Westwood of former Bruin Maurice Jones-Drew. He is a compact athlete, and possesses incredible lower-body strength. He shared the co-MVP scout team honor with Franklin.
Knox was rated as the 12th running back nationally and given four-stars by Rivals.com. He ran for 2,210 yards and 39 TD’s as a senior at Birmingham High School (CA). The Pacoima, CA native could be the X-factor for the Bruins running attack if he continues to progress.
Other backs that could see time in 2009 include: redshirt senior RB Craig Sheppard, redshirt senior fullback Trevor Theriot, true freshman Damien Thigpen, and true freshman Dalton Hilliard.
There is talent in this group, but it may not surface because of the offensive line’s woes. If the line proves to be servicable, UCLA could be the surprise rushing team of the conference this season. Ramirez is still a bit of an enigma, so I think it will take a few games to really see what he can do.
I love Franklin and Knox for the future, and I think they are good enough to make up for the losses of Dean and Carter. Moline is a very versatile talent that could be all-conference now that he’s back at fullback. The bottom line; this unit has what it takes, but the o-line has to do it’s part. An improvement in the passing game that keeps defenses honest wouldn’t hurt, either.