- Kevin Gemmell, ESPN Staff Writer
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SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. -- UCLA’s running back corps is coming to terms with the fact that it is just that: a corps, a contingent, a cadre, a posse.
There’s no Doak Walker finalist to carry the ball 282 times, average 6.1 yards per carry and plow into the end zone 13 times as Johnathan Franklin did in 2012. There’s no veteran presence in the backfield to carry the load and take the pressure off of quarterback Brett Hundley. Franklin’s time has come and gone, and he left a slew of school records and steadfast leadership in his wake.
“It’s trust,” said Hundley. “It all comes down to me trusting the guy I’m going to be handing the ball to. If I check down, I trust he's going to be in the right spot. If he’s got my blindside, I trust that he’s going to do his job. Just as they all trust me to do my job.”
The trust with Franklin was instant -- it had to be for the first-year starting quarterback. Hundley often points to his relationship with Franklin -- the veteran back's consistency, steadiness and reliability -- as a key reason why he was so successful starting as a redshirt freshman. And the trust with Jordon James, or Paul Perkins, or Malcolm Jones, or Steven Manfro, or Damien Thigpen (still recovering from a torn ACL last November) is coming along.
“We’re going to use five running backs,” said UCLA coach Jim Mora. "And we feel like all five can contribute.”
You’d think that at least one of those backs will take the lead -- and right now it appears to be James sitting atop the pecking order. Whether that means five carries, 10 carries or 15 carries per game remains to be seen.
“We’re a group that prides itself on competition,” James said. “We’re pushing each other every day and it’s been a lot of fun.”
And yet, ultimately, they’re trying to steal carries from one another. Right?
“It’s not like that,” Perkins said. “We all want to get better and we want to help everyone else get better too because that’s what’s going to make us a better team. That’s the only way this will work is if we have that mindset. If J.J. gets 30 carries and I get five, I better make the most out of my five and he better make the most out of his 30.”
Last year the Bruins ranked 37th in the country and fourth in the Pac-12 with an average of 190.8 yards on the ground per game. They were third in the league with 29 rushing touchdowns. And once they reached the red zone, they were the only team in the league that was perfectly balanced with 20 touchdowns on the ground and 20 in the air. It’s that kind of consistency that the coaching staff hopes to get from this group.
“So far, I’ve been pleasantly pleased,” said offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone. “They are all doing what we’ve asked of them. We’ll know more when we get them into games.”
Even that might not be completely telling. The Bruins' first three games are against three of the worst rushing defenses in the country from last season: Nevada (110th), Nebraska (90th) and New Mexico State (113th) -- though give Nebraska a little more credit since that game will be in Lincoln and will be a hostile environment.
It might be a case of each back trying to find their niche within the offense. Yet outside of Jones (6-feet, 224 pounds), all of the other backs have comparable size -- between 5-8 and 5-10 and between 185-195 pounds.
“We can all play any time, it doesn't matter,” James said. “We could all be a third-down back. We could all be a goal-line back. We could all be a primary back. We have our own different styles, but we’re that good and versatile of a group.”
And if it is James -- as many predict -- who will get the first carry of the 2013 season, he’ll have a cheering section among his fellow backs.
“We’ve embraced it,” Perkins said. “We want to see each other succeed and do well. The competition has made us better players and it has molded us into better friends. As a group, we’re better for it.”
1dChantel Jennings and Kevin Gemmell