Deshaun Foster has seen a lot as he enters his fifth year as running backs coach at UCLA. What is familiar is that he has a room full of viable options in what is annually becoming the evolution of UCLA running backs.
The Evolution of UCLA Running Backs
Foster took Joshua Kelley from walk-on transfer to an elite level running back who is now spending his Sundays with the Los Angeles Chargers. In Kelly’s final year at UCLA, Foster also had Demetric Felton at his disposal. Felton was a hybrid slot receiver/H-back/running back that could work out wide or out of the backfield.
The New Backfield
When Kelley was gone, it was Felton’s time to return to full time running back, this time sharing the workload with Duke grad transfer Brittain Brown. The two combined for 1,211 yards in seven games. Now Felton is with the Cleveland Browns, back as a hybrid receiver. The backfield, for 2021, belongs to Brown, who came back for his sixth year, and Michigan transfer Zach Charbonnet. Foster, and offensive coordinator Justin Frye, have options aplenty once again.
Brown was responsible for 543 of those rushing yards last year on 82 carries for six-and-a-half yards per carry and four touchdowns in the seven games. He was used primarily in third down situations but was the primary back in the last game of the season against Stanford when Felton could not play.
Charbonnet is the gift left on the front doorstep. According to multiple recruiting experts we talked to in the Spring, Charbonnet, who attended Oaks Christian High School in Thousand Oaks, had wanted to go to UCLA to play for Foster. But the Bruins got out recruited by Michigan. In Ann Arbor his freshman season, he led the team in scoring. He played in all 13 games and finished with 726 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns.
As a sophomore, he got banged up and buried in a deep running back rotation. He got only 19 carries in five games.
The two have only slightly different running styles, but it gives UCLA plenty to work with. “I promote competition in the room,” Foster said. “We’re always going to have competition and they embrace it. I’m just excited that I have two guys that embrace it. They work well with each other.”
They both carry size with them and can handle a lot of carries in a game. “Brittain is more of a slasher,” Foster said. “He gets there and kind of hits things and tries to get out there. I am just excited to see what Zach is going to do. He’s a bruiser, but he has feet. He is pretty fast.”
Spring camp made it clear that Charbonnet does not waste a lot of energy. He is quick to see the hole in front of him, and is just as quick to be on the other side of the line of scrimmage. A study of his game films at Michigan shows he also has a tendency to lower his pads and deliver the contact, rather than absorb the tackle. “It was a good get for us. I’m only going to thank Michigan. I’m happy that he was able to come back home,” Foster said.
More In The Room
Foster also has Ethan Fernea, Keegan Jones, and Kazmeir Allen at his disposal. Fernea, a former walk-on in his sixth year, is a converted receiver who played in the backfield at the very end of last season. Foster said he knew he would be a fit because of his toughness. Foster said Jones possesses the speed needed in the backfield. Allen is a running back converted to slot receiver much in the way Felton was prior to his senior season. Allen is the speedster who was the state 100-meter champion in high school. Foster said he is a guy that you have to find a way to get on the field. “He’s an offensive weapon so you’ve got to use him,” Foster said. Allen is in the film room with the receivers and then getting one on one running back tutoring time from Foster.
“Locked in,” is the way Foster described the current group of players under his tutelage. He said they are not big talkers. In fact, you have to look really hard to find their social media activity. That is pretty unusual in college athletes these days. “They’re just kind of throwback kids,” Foster said. “They’re just a little different. No tattoos. No social media.”
All In The Family
Whatever happens with each one from here on out, they can expect to hear from Foster in their post-UCLA career. In an exclusive profile we published about Foster in the Spring, Kelley told us the two still talk every week or two, even as he is playing in the NFL. Kelley joked at the time that it is because Foster wants to play Madden with him all the time. Foster responded Tuesday that he beats all the younger guys, and thus they keep coming back for more. Kelley though gave Foster a lot of credit for instilling the work ethic in him that helped get him to the NFL.
The same was true with Felton when we spoke with him in the Spring about his college running backs coach. Just as he had converted from slot receiver to running back at UCLA, the pro scouts at the Senior Bowl wanted to see him back at slot receiver. Felton told us about Foster, “He was still helping me out with drills to work on my running back play, so I didn’t lose that part of the game at all.” With versatility being key to Felton being drafted he again gave thanks to Foster. “He has been a huge help, whether it was mentally or physically on the field, he has always been giving knowledge to me.”
Foster said Tuesday that keeping in touch with the players after they leave is a definitive part of his coaching style. “This is more of a lifetime thing,” Foster said. “Me being a Bruin, it’s just me giving back to the school. I’m never going to throw anybody away, or it’s over when you leave. We’re always going to stay in contact. Because I’m going to need them to pass the wisdom down to the younger guys when that time comes.”
There is a lot of wisdom and experience to go around in the running back room for this season if the Bruins can take advantage of it.