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UCLA's Jordon James isn't Johnathan Franklin, but he's not bad

UCLA BruinsSportsFootball

There is one thing UCLA running back Jordon James won't accomplish this season.

He won't become Johnathan Franklin.

Franklin has yet to be placed entirely into the Bruins' history book. His presence is still felt in the program. Coach Jim Mora still fields questions about Franklin, who holds UCLA's season and career rushing records, and gives glowing endorsements as answers.

"Johnathan had such great hands . . ."

"Johnathan was so good inside the five . . ."

"Johnathan did a great job taking care of the football . . ."

Johnathan, Johnathan, Johnathan — it has that "Brady Bunch"-like cadence.

James, though, lacks any middle-child angst. He rarely says much, but he makes one thing very clear.

"I'm just trying to be myself and help the team," he said.

Mora and the Bruins couldn't ask for anything more.

Franklin, who rushed for a school-record 1,734 yards last season and averaged 6.1 per carry, is now a Green Bay Packer. Damien Thigpen, who was supposed to be next in line, is recovering from a knee injury. That leaves James quietly going about his business as the chairman of what Mora says will be a running-back committee.

What does James think about following in Franklin's fleet footsteps? Get a crowbar and try to pry it out of him.

"I'm trying to do things my way," James said.

There are mimes who say more.

James, a junior, is an admitted introvert, but he exudes a quiet self-confidence.

There's nothing low-key about him with a football in his hands, though. James' serpentine, catch-me-if-you-can running style earned him the nickname "Joystick."

"The guy is shifty," defensive end Keenan Graham said.

Sometimes to a fault. In the past, UCLA coaches thought he sometimes gave up too much ground trying to break long runs.

James has been working to break that bad habit, and during training camp has continually squirted through small holes for yardage.

"He's done a good job getting the ball north and south for us, which was one of the pet peeves with him before," offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone said. "He has worked hard to be that downhill guy, getting his foot in the ground and always falling forward."

Once clear of the line, though, "he still has that ability to make people miss," Mora said.

James gained 215 yards rushing last season, and also caught 28 passes for 204 yards. His skills as a receiver and his blocking in pass protection — he owns a black belt in taekwondo — have pushed him into a lead role among a group of running backs.

Steven Manfro, Paul Perkins and Malcolm Jones will also play at running back, Mora said, and Thigpen is expected to be back before the season reaches its midway point.

"I consider myself a selfless person," James said. "I want us all to do well. It's a fun group."

None in the group appears capable of producing what Franklin did last season, but Mazzone joked that he would accept "600 [yards] from James, 600 from Manfro and 600 from Perkins."

Mora dabbles in philosophy, not math. "Johnathan Franklins don't come along too often," he said. "Is there a Johnathan Franklin in this group? No. But maybe there is a future Johnathan Franklin."

James seems to thrive on competition — he picked UCLA even though Jones, the Gatorade national high school player of the year, had committed to the Bruins a month earlier.

"He's always been confident," Tonia James said of her son. "It has always been, 'I can do that.'"

So can he replace Franklin?

In some ways, probably not. In other ways, yes, he's certain.

"I loved Johnathan's work ethic and leadership," James said. "I want to copy-cat that."

chris.foster@latimes.com

Twitter: @cfosterlatimes

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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