UCLA's Nate Starks has a good chance to get in running back rotation

UCLA's Nate Starks has a good chance to get in running back rotation
UCLA running back Nate Starks gets past Arizona linebacker Scooby Wright III on a carry in the first half of the Bruins' 17-7 win over the Wildcats on Nov. 1. (Gus Ruelas / Associated Press)

This could be Nate Starks' moment. The UCLA running back appears to have shown up for spring practice ready for it.

Starks, a freshman last season, has the opportunity to embed himself in running back rotation. The Bruins return Paul Perkins, who gained 1,575 yards last season, the second-best single season in UCLA history. After that, there are openings.


Steven Manfro is returning from a knee injury. Craig Lee, who has yet to play in a game, is still gaining traction. So Starks is the attractive option.

"I just have to show my maturity and show I am going to step up my game," Starks said.

Starks looks trimmer, having redistributed his 205 pounds around a 6-foot-1 frame. He and Lee need to make a strong case. There is significant incoming competition.

Bolu Olorunfunmi, who comes in a battering-ram 5-foot-10, 215-pound body, gained 5,235 yards and scored 59 touchdowns during his career at Clovis (Calif.) North High. Sotonye Jamabo gained 2,279 yards and scored 44 touchdowns for Plano (Texas) West High last season.

Starks has had an eye-catching start to spring practice. On Saturday, he showed his power, running through the arms of defensive end Eddie Vanderdoes. He also exhibited elusiveness, snatching a swing pass and weaving his way through the secondary.

"It's good that people see I got faster and more explosive," Starks said. "It was definitely a big step from high school [last fall]. When I came in, I didn't expect to contribute much in my first year. We had some injuries, and that changed my position."

Starks gained 139 yards in 39 carries and scored two touchdowns in limited work. Things began to click in his eighth game.

"The Arizona game was the first one where I felt, 'OK I'm starting to get the feel for this,' " Starks said.

Starks set out to absorb more of the offense.

"I needed to know what everyone else is doing to slow down the game for myself," Starks said. "Once the game slows down, I'll be able to see the hole before it happens."

Lee has improved as well, Coach Jim Mora said.

"The lights are coming on," Mora said. "He is so fast and explosive, once he understands what to do, he can play with certainty, and his natural abilities will show. It's important to find a role for him because he has true speed."

Wadood impresses

On a day when UCLA receivers mostly had their way, safety Jaleel Wadood stood out.


Wadood, whether it was individual drills or team drills, kept popping up to be the fly in the ointment. He intercepted two passes, gave a little extra pop when possible and generally made life miserable around the ball.

"He was all over the place, hitting guys, making plays on the ball, playing with energy," Mora said. "He sees it and goes."

This was the player Mora saw at Bellflower St. John Bosco High two years ago. The catalyst to his development was experience.

Wadood saw his playing time increased as a freshman last fall after safety Randall Goforth was lost for the season to a shoulder injury. He played in 12 games, starting seven, and finished fifth on the team in tackles.

"Practice is one thing, but playing in a game is such a different atmosphere," Mora said. "It accelerates your learning curve. You see that out here now."

There's a catch

UCLA receivers Jordan Payton, Devin Fuller and Thomas Duarte are known commodities, but Alex Van Dyke and Jordan Lasley showed marked improvement Saturday.

Lasley has become adept at creating space at the last moment. It allowed him to haul in a touchdown pass from Josh Rosen on a fade pattern for a touchdown. Van Dyke had a couple of drops, but he also made eye-opening catches, including a 30-yard touchdown reception from Jerry Neuheisel.

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