Do Bruins Have A Bigtime Runner?
Of all the questions already forwarded on the eve of Rick Neuheisel’s third season at UCLA, it seems to me the most important one hasn’t been asked.
Have the Bruins found a bigtime running back yet?
Among the many things separating the guys in Westwood from their more powerful friends at USC has been a lack of a quality tailback. If anything, during much of the Pete Carroll era, the Trojans had too many good running backs. That hasn’t been the problem at UCLA.
The Bruins haven’t had a real impact player at the position since Maurice Jones-Drew left to prove he actually is a better every-down NFL runner than his old rival Reggie Bush.
Neuheisel and offensive coordinator Norm Chow are touting their new “pistol” offense as a cure for their anemic ground game of the past few years. Well, even a pistol needs the proper ammunition to be effective, and it remains to be seen if a true feature runner has shown up in Westwood.
Certainly, none of the incumbent tailbacks generate much excitement. Johnathan Franklin had his moments a year ago, but he has neither the speed nor power to carry the offense. Junior Derrick Coleman has been around longer, but if he’d been anything special, he wouldn’t have been beaten out by Franklin.
The hope could be incoming freshman Malcolm Jones, a big, between-the-tackles type runner who was the National Prep Player of the Year in one poll. He is out of Oaks Christian High School, the same respected institution that produced former Notre Dame quarterback Jimmy Clausen, and at 6-0, 223 pounds, he could be the one.
But he is a freshman, remember, and college coaches are reluctant to throw too much at kids who are just getting their cleats wet. Chow should know. Even Reggie Bush wasn’t starting for the Trojans as a freshman.
The suspicion is Jones and perhaps another freshman, the smaller, but quicker Jordan James, will be slowly worked into the rotation. And if they’re good enough, maybe they can take over the position by the halfway point of the season.
The question is, will that be soon enough?
In his third year back at his alma mater, Neuheisel has made steady, but unspectacular progress. A 4-8 2008 season was followed by last fall’s 7-6 finish that, at least, included a come-from-behind victory over dreaded Temple in the EagleBank Bowl.
Neuheisel seems to have improved the recruiting, and the talent level definitely is on the upgrade. But then, in the competitive Pac-10, that’s no guarantee for success.
The conference media certainly hasn’t been impressed. In their annual preseason poll, they picked UCLA to finish eighth in the conference.
My sense is that the Bruins, with preseason All American candidates Rahim Moore and Akeem Ayers on defense and the best amateur kicker on the planet in Kai Forbath, are better than that.
How much better might depend on who winds up pulling the trigger at tailback in that new pistol offense.
— STEVE BISHEFF