If there was one unit we were really excited to see this spring, it was the running backs and the “F“- not because of any personnel, necessarily, but just because of what Noel Mazzone did with them at Arizona State. After going a few years where it seemed like running backs would get electrocuted if they ventured off tackle, we were excited to see an offense geared toward getting those fast, shifty type guys in space, either running the ball or catching it. While we can’t go into everything the offense entailed, we can say this: we were certainly not disappointed with the variety of ways the backs were used.
Personnel-wise, we thought we had a pretty good handle on things. Johnathan Franklin, the starter the last few years, would start again at tailback. Malcolm Jones would take over as the bruising, short yardage Derrick Coleman type. Some combination of Jordon James and Damien Thigpen would flit between the F and running back.
As the saying goes, we make plans, and Steven Manfro laughs.
Manfro was the biggest surprise of spring football, and the next (Jerry Johnson being the best receiver? Damien Holmes losing 20 pounds? Lou Spanos being an entirely different person on the field?) isn’t even close. He looked wildly better than he did last fall, and it’s not even the case that he was really good for just a couple of practices; he made some sort of “wow” play in nearly every practice. He’s definitely simplified his running style, making one cut and then driving up field, but his quickness and shiftiness are such that he made experienced, talented linebackers, like Eric Kendricks, look silly at times with his change of direction. His top end speed isn’t elite, so he can be tracked down by safeties, but his ability to shake his way into the second level on seemingly every run was unmatched in spring ball.
Actually, let’s roll with a second paragraph. He also has surprising power. He’s not much more than 5’8, but he’s got a strong lower body, and even when he’s wrapped, he can sometimes churn his legs for another couple of yards. He also has pretty good hands out of the back field. Seriously, the word gets bandied about a bunch, but Manfro was a revelation in spring. Where he slots in by the time fall comes around is anyone’s guess, but we’d venture to guess that the coaching staff will try to get him at least 5 to 10 touches per game, whether at the F or running back.
Franklin was his usual self: electric most of the time, with a couple of fumbles mixed in. He didn’t look totally natural catching out of the back field, probably because he hasn’t been asked to do it in so long, but that’ll probably get ironed out by the fall. He seemed to get more comfortable with it as the spring went along. After two years with the pistol, adjusting to the new scheme seemed to keep him from really exploding during the spring, but he came on more toward the end of spring. There’s nothing really to worry about with Franklin, and at this point you know what you’re getting: a handful of fumbles during the season, 100 or so yards per game, and some really bright moments. If he can finally start to turn some of his 30 and 40 yard runs into touchdowns, he could have a really exceptional season.
Jones was an intriguing guy to watch during the spring. To start the spring, through the first few practices, he was running with virtually no power. There was no explosion off the snap, and he’d be stopped cold by linebackers. When Franklin got a little dinged up during the second week, Jones took over the first team reps, and looked like a completely different person, running with power, strength, and effort. Then, Franklin came back, and Jones more or less slid back into the first week style. It really was kind of puzzling, but Jones might just be one of those guys who needs a lot of snaps to be effective.
The coaching staff had him work at fullback for a couple of practices as well, but we expect him to stay primarily at tailback. With Manfro’s play this spring, you have to wonder how much the coaching staff will value having a bruiser over having, arguably, a more talented guy.
Throw Jordon James and the pile of receivers from yesterday in the “What were the old coaches thinking?” category. He’s such a talent, with his speed and quickness, that it’s simply amazing that the previous coaches thought he’d best be used on two or three sweeps per game. James is one of those guys, like Manfro, who needs to touch the ball at least 5 to 10 times per game, simply because he has the potential to turn any mundane play into a touchdown. He moved around a lot during the spring, playing some F, some running back, and it even looked like they had him doing a little wide receiver at times. He has good hands, after working last year primarily with the receivers, but where he really impressed me was at tailback. During the last half of the spring, he and Manfro were consistently the ones raking consistent ten to 15 yard gains. Our guess is that he’ll be the starting F come the fall.
It’s a shame that safety depth is what it is, because Dalton Hilliard actually looked very good on offense. He’s another guy who has some versatility, able to catch the ball as well as run it. While it’s largely academic at this point, as we’d anticipate him sticking with safety permanently, it’s nice to know there’s an emergency option that’s pretty good.
Damien Thigpen was dinged up with a hamstring injury, so we didn’t see a lot of him, but he looked about how we remembered: extremely fast. Roosevelt Davis, who we saw a lot of, actually looks a little similar to Thigpen. They’re both small, and very very fast. Davis might have a future in the return game, as he looked like he had pretty good vision in his few reps at kick returner.
Walk on Sam Handler played some F at times, and has good hands, but doesn’t have the size or athleticism to be much of an option there.
At fullback, David Allen was really the only guy healthy in the spring, but he really impressed the coaching staff with his effort throughout spring ball. He played linebacker last year, made an impact on special teams, and then moved to fullback this offseason. Coach Yarber, in particular, seemed impressed with his catching ability out of the back field, and Coach Broussard seemed to like what he brought to the table blocking-wise. Heading into spring, we didn’t know how much fullback play there’d be in this offense, but Allen looked good enough that you have to figure the coaching staff is comfortable having him out there.
Between the receivers and running backs, the skill position talent that UCLA has on offense is actually pretty impressive. Between Franklin, James, Manfro, and Thigpen, there is a lot of speed and quickness, and given what we saw of Mazzone’s offense this spring, you can bet that each of those guys is going to get some work in space.
Now, we just have to figure out who’s going to give them the ball.