The running game has been a source of strength for UCLA the last three years despite the team’s overall poor record. They say the proof is in the numbers. They are there, for sure, with two years of Josh Kelley and a year of Demetric Felton. Now the numbers are different, as in a large number of UCLA running backs sharing the ball.
UCLA Running Backs
In 2018 and 2019, it was Kelley with back-to-back 1,000+ yard rushing seasons. In the shortened 2020 season, it was Felton’s turn. He converted from slot receiver/part time running back, to the starting back, carrying the ball. All he did was average 111 yards per game over six games, and five yards per carry. Kelley is now playing Sundays for the Chargers and Felton soon will be for Cleveland.
That trend gets us to 2021. Brittain Brown came into Spring camp as the incumbent of sorts. He shared the workload with Felton last year as a grad transfer from Duke. He picked up 543 yards in seven games, averaging more than six-and-a-half yards per carry. Like the other grad transfers on last year’s roster, Brown opted to take the NCAA up on its free year of eligibility and come back to UCLA for another season. Players like the UCLA quartet who do that are being dubbed Super Seniors across the country. Brown only played a little over two seasons at Duke. He redshirted in 2016, and then rushed for a combined 1,000+ yards in 2017 and 2018. A shoulder injury cut short his redshirt junior season after three games.
Sharing the load with Felton last year, Brown proved to be a bruising, straight ahead runner, often carrying tacklers on his back. He is not a cut-to-the-edge kind of running back, but does have deceptive speed running off tackle into open space. The job would be his going into camp. But coming out of camp is a different story. There is going to need to be a lot of carries to go around.
The Transfer From Michigan
Zach Charbonnet announced near the end of January that he would be leaving Michigan and entering the transfer portal. He barely had time to settle into the portal before he announced he would be coming back home to Los Angeles to play for UCLA. From that point, it was a quick turnaround to enroll for the Spring quarter and get ready for camp. To say his production at camp has been attention-getting would be a gross understatement.
In his first season in Ann Arbor, Charbonnet set the single season freshman rushing touchdown record with 11. He also rushed for 726 yards on 149 carries. Injuries and a crowded backfield caused his share of the carries to decrease last season. He rushed for 124 yards on just 19 touches over five games.
Then it was time to come home. Charbonnet is a product of Oaks Christian High School, where he was teammates with current UCLA linebacker Shea Pitts. He said being far away from home during the COVID outbreak influenced his decision to transfer to UCLA. “Especially in times like this, I just wanted to be close to my family,” Charbonnet said. Once he made the decision on UCLA, Charbonnet said the focus immediately turned to getting himself ready for the field. “One of the bigger things for me was just staying in shape before I got down here,” he said. “Then once I got down here, being able to go into those workouts and just do my best in those workouts. And then also just when I first got down here, to learn the playbook so being able to be on par with everyone else and their knowledge of the playbook.”
Results On The Field
The impact on the running game has been immediate in camp. His vision to see the hole in front of him is quick. And there is little wasted movement in the backfield. He is sudden in hitting the hole and just as expeditious coming out the other side of it. He does not shy away from contact, often delivering it himself before being knocked out of bounds.
Recruiting experts previously told us Charbonnet heavily considered UCLA coming out of high school, looking for the chance to play for running backs coach Deshaun Foster. Charbonnet said Tuesday, that he never really thought about UCLA much during recruiting, but he is enjoying working with Foster now. “He’s obviously a great coach. He helps a lot from his experience and stuff,” Charbonnet said. “He’s been a tremendous help in developing us running backs.
Earlier in camp, head coach Chip Kelly said Charbonnet was, “Everything you thought he was, coming out. He’s been a huge impact player for us right now.”
That leads one to wonder if there are enough carries to be had for two lead running backs, or if running back by committee is foreseeable. Kelly said this Spring that the depth is critical, knowing that injuries have caused him to be creative with lineups in the past. “It’s great to go in and say, ‘Hey we can do this,’ and then one of them gets hurt and now you’re down to one,” Kelly said. “Necessity is the mother of invention.”
The Numbers Grow
That necessity, and its mother, caused Ethan Fernea, the one-time walk-on receiver to move into the running back spot late last season. Statistically he had four carries for 47 yards and a touchdown. But what he did was prove he could play the position, including catching the ball out of the backfield. Fernea has been back at running back in Spring camp, showing large scale improvement in the backfield over last year. He has been working mostly, “with the twos,” as football media likes to dub the back-ups. But watching him work, it is entirely conceivable he sees a share of the carries with Brown and Charbonnet.
That is three running backs vying for carries and we have not even gotten to Kazmeir Allen yet. The speedster from Tulare, CA has only seen the field in 14 games over his three years in Westwood, due to injuries, COVID, and crowded backfields. He has been spending a lot of camp moving from the backfield into the slot position, looking like a smaller version of the transition Demetric Felton went through a couple of years ago.
There is a lot of pressure on starting quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson to lead the team to its first winning record in five years. It is likely to put his mind at ease, at least a little, to be able to turn around and see the likes of Brown, Charbonnet, and Fernea ready to take a handoff.