Depth chart review: Running backs

August, 6, 2011
8/06/11
1:05
PM PT
With UCLA preparing to open fall camp on August 8, we will break down the depth charts at each position in order to look at how the Bruins stack up heading into this season. We've previously looked at quarterbacks, the defensive line and the offensive line. Now we look at the running backs.

Current depth chart:

RUNNING BACK

Johnathan Franklin (Jr., 5-10, 193)

Derrick Coleman (Sr. 5-11, 240)

Malcolm Jones (So., 6-0, 227)

Jordon James (Fr., 5-9, 192)

F-BACK

Anthony Barr (So., 6-4, 237)

Damien Thigpen (Jr., 5-8, 182)



After two years of a miserable running attack, Rick Neuheisel instituted the Pistol offense last season and it helped revamp UCLA's running attack. The Bruins finished last season a respectable No. 32 in the nation in rushing offense, averaging 175.58 yards per game and topping 200 yards in all four of their victories.

The good news is that every running back who had a rushing attempt last season is back, giving hope that the running game will be an even bigger weapon this season, especially if the passing attack can improve and keep defenses honest.

Unlike last season when it was unclear who the lead back would be, Johnathan Franklin enters this season as the clear-cut No. 1 ball carrier. He's coming off a breakout 2010 season during which he rushed for 1,127 yards to rank fifth in the Pac-10 and 27th in the nation. He also led the team with eight touchdowns and his 214 carries were more than all the other running backs combined.

A second-team all Pac-10 selection, he was the only UCLA offensive player on the first or second teams so Franklin will be the main target for opposing defenses this season. Shutting him down last season meant stopping the Bruins. In UCLA's four victories, he averaged 148 yards; in their eight losses he averaged 66.9. As the season wore on, teams began to key on Franklin and he averaged only 71 yards per game over the last seven. UCLA was 1-6 in those games.

He's a patient runner who will wait for a play to develop and hit the hole with excellent breakaway speed. He has had fumble problems with 14 over the last two season, but is a tireless worker who is embracing his role as the leader of the team and enters the season as the team's biggest star.

Behind Franklin is Derrick Coleman, a wide-bodied punishing bruiser. He actually began last season as the starter, but suffered a concussion in Week 2 against Stanford and missed the Houston game. Franklin ran for 158 yards and three touchdowns in that game and started the rest of the way.

Still, Coleman is a threat. He had 94 yards against Texas and 185 against Washington State and ran for many tough yards throughout the season. He showed good toughness in running--something that had been missing from his game in seasons past--and makes an excellent compliment to Franklin, especially in short-yardage situations.

Malcolm Jones was a highly-touted recruit after earning Gatorade national high school player of the year honors, but didn't have the immediate impact Bruins fans hoped he would. He suffered a bruised thigh early in the season and tried to play through it, but it clearly had an impact as he finished with 215 yards in 55 carries for the season.

A return to full health should help Jones get more playing time this season, which would only enhance the running game. He's a versatile back who could spell either Franklin or Coleman and keeping everybody fresh will only make the Bruins running attack more potent.

Entering the mix this season will be Jordon James, who sat out last season as a redshirt, but who impressed as a scout team back and opened even more eyes in spring practice. He's an incredibly shifty runner who can cut on a dime and has big-play ability with his ability to make tacklers miss. If he continues to emerge, the battle for playing time at running back will be intense and that will only serve to make everyone better.

The F-back is a hybrid position combining running back, receiver and tight end that adds a wrinkle of confusion to defenses when used properly in the Pistol offense. Neuheisel acknowledges it was underused last season and that is part of the reason he brought in Pistol expert Jim Mastro to coach the position.

Anthony Barr is the perfect fit for such a position. He was a standout running back at Loyola High, but at 6-4, 237, seems a tad too big to play running back at the Division I level. He's an excellent blocker, a tough runner and his size makes him a matchup problem as a receiver. He is the very definition of a hybrid and the Bruins will look to get him more touches this season after he served primarily as a blocker last season.

Damien Thigpen brings an entirely different look to the position with sprinter speed and scat-back quickness. He sat out the latter portion of last season with an injury, but showed a glimpse of his ability on a 22-yard run against Houston. He won't scare many people as a blocker because of his size, but with Mastro on board adding wrinkles to the UCLA offense, Thigpen's breakaway speed should be better utilized this year than it has been in the past.

Peter Yoon

ESPNLosAngeles.com

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