An interesting philosophical difference among coaches in the Pac-12 exists in their use of the running back. Is a team best served leaving the rushing attack in the hands of a clear top back, with others used supplementary? Or do multifaceted approaches bear greater results?
Opinions — and results — vary.
UCLA running back Soso Jamabo’s performance Week 2 against UNLV could be best described as quality over quantity.
The Bruins’ 220-pound feature back reached the end zone on more than one-quarter of his total carries, rushing for three touchdowns on 11 carries in a 42-21 win. Teammate Brandon Stevens didn’t score three times, and he fell short of Jamabo’s 8.2-yard per carry output.
But on 11 carries of his own, Stevens managed an impressive enough 71 yards. Jalen Starks and Bolu Olorunfunmi saw seven carries each. All told, the trio combined for 189 yards, an output slightly higher than the Bruins’ 2015 average of around 177 rushing yards per game.
Saturday marked a situation in which UCLA head coach Jim Mora felt comfortable sharing the workload.
“Every game’s a little bit different,” Mora said. “It was great this week we were able to get Jalen and Brandon Stevens some work…Whatever works that week.”
UCLA’s running back approach isn’t just week-to-week; it has varied from season-to-season in Mora’s tenure there.
In 2012, Johnathan Franklin toted the rock 282 times, 225 more than the next-most active running back on the roster. Paul Perkins emerged as the clear No. 1 in 2014, ending that campaign with 1,575 yards to lead the Pac-12, and almost 200 more carries than UCLA’s second-most active back.
But in 2013, with a bevy of injuries, then-offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone spread 235 carries among Perkins and Jordon James, but quarterback Brett Hundley rushed the most times of any single Bruin, and linebacker Myles Jack produced the most production per touch.
Perkins remained the focal point of the run game in 2015, but Jamabo’s arrival and the increased role of Nate Starks saw UCLA with a more balanced running attack. The Bruins’ overall rushing output dipped by 32 yards per game, but the overall production from the running back position actually increased, as UCLA lost nearly 50 yards per game from dual-threat Brett Hundley handing the reins to the more traditional pocket quarterback, Josh Rosen.
True to Mora’s word that every game presents different circumstances, Jamabo rushed 23 times Week 1 against Texas A&M. Olorunfunmi was the only other Bruin running back to see the ball, suggesting a much more feature back-predicated philosophy out of coordinator Kennedy Polamalu.
Jamabo’s prolific output against UNLV paled in comparison to conference counterpart Kalen Ballage, the Arizona State junior who tied an NCAA single-game record with eight scores.
An oddity of Ballage’s big night: Despite scoring seven touchdowns via the rush, he saw 17 fewer carries than fellow running back Demario Richard. At least, that’s an oddity for those unfamiliar with the Sun Devils’ depth chart the last couple seasons.
Arizona State head coach Todd Graham referred to Ballage and Richard as both being No. 1s, but the Sun Devil rushing attack each of the previous three seasons showcased a primary running back who garnered the bulk of carries, whether it was Richard, D.J. Foster or Marion Grice.
The lone exception was 2012, Graham’s first season in Tempe. Cameron Marshall, Grice and Foster each surpassed the 100-carry threshold on the year, with none having far more touches than any of their teammates. Arizona State’s rushing total that season exceeded any of its seasons with a clear feature back by more than 30 yards per game.
This season, with Richard and Ballage on a very early pace to run roughly 240 and 150 times, respectively, the Sun Devils are producing a whopping 289 yards per game on the ground. All those figures are sure to drop, but the distribution of carries seems likely to continue at a more even pace than the Sun Devil offense has seen in a few years.
For Arizona State and UCLA, a spread-out attack depends on situation. At USC, head coach Clay Helton distributes carries by design.
He named Justin Davis USC’s clear No. 1, featured running back ahead of the season. And, two games in 2016, Davis is again the most active ball-carrier, as he was in 2015. But the Trojans spread carries around, particularly Week 2 against Utah State, giving Aca’Cedric Ware a number of looks, and throwing the “fastball” of Dominic Davis into the mix, as well.
With talented sophomore Ronald Jones II also in the mix once he returns from a minor injury, Helton has four running backs among whom he can distribute carries.
Helton said such an approach prevents a No. 1 from getting over-worked, while forcing defenses to adjust to a different approach from each ball-carrier.
A multifaceted approach isn’t necessarily indicative of a productive run game, though. Utah is one example in the Pac-12 of a more singular style producing results.
“I’d rather have that a primary ball-carrier that is your guy, and supplement his rushes with another guy or two,” Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said. Guys get into a rhythm. If you’re by-committee, and spreading the carries around equally, nobody ever gets into a rhythm. Part of being a running back is getting into that rhythm…It allows guys to get into the flow of the game, and if you spread the carries too thin, really nobody gets into the flow.”
For Utah, a clear No. 1 in Devontae Booker set the pace for one of the conference’s better ground attacks. Booker carries 268 times in 2015, and 292 in 2014, and the Utes had one of the nation’s more effective rushing offenses in those seasons.
Finding the right No. 1 has been a priority for the Utes early into this first season without Booker since 2013, and freshman Zack Moss made strides to that end with a few key runs on his 10 touches.
Moss and veterans Troy McCormick and Joe Williams will vie for the bulk of Utah’s carries, with the eventual standout likely getting the lion’s share moving forward.