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UCLA assistant Kennedy Polamalu gets Bruins backs up and running

SportsUCLAFootballUCLA BruinsUSC TrojansMarqise Lee

The scene was part Bolshoi Ballet, part Marx Brothers.

Four UCLA running backs lined up yards apart, forming a square. On a signal, they burst forward, dodging each other at the last second. Then another group stepped up and repeated the bit.

What looked like an elaborate game of chicken was actually part of a Running Back 101 course led by first-year assistant coach Kennedy Polamalu.

"We're trying to get the mental part down," Polamalu said. "… We're on them pretty good."

Last season, the Bruins' top rusher was quarterback Brett Hundley, who had 748 yards. That hadn't happened at UCLA — a quarterback's leading the team in rushing — since long before Hundley was born. Larry Zeno did it in 1964, running for 325 yards.

The statistic makes for a nice highlight on Hundley's bio, but UCLA's running-backs group has a fair share of pride and is looking to unseat him.

"Yeah, we definitely need to have the leading rusher be a running back," said Jordon James, who was leading the Bruins with 424 yards rushing through three games last season before he sustained a severe ankle injury.

James, who appears to be back in form, will be a redshirt senior in the fall. The rest of the cast is also familiar.

Paul Perkins, who will be a redshirt sophomore, led UCLA running backs with 573 yards last season. Steven Manfro, a redshirt junior, rushed for 107 yards and led the Bruins in kickoff return yardage.

There is also Craig Lee, who has had a strong spring after redshirting as a freshman last season, and, of course, Myles Jack, who ran for seven touchdowns and 7.0 yards per carry when he wasn't starring on defense at linebacker.

These are the instruments. Polamalu is the conductor.

"Every time you get a new coach, they bring their own style," said Jim Mora, UCLA's head coach. "I think our running backs are playing with a certain degree of violence right now that I really enjoy watching."

Polamalu has six seasons as an NFL assistant on his resume and a college background that includes two stints at USC. He doesn't believe a running back should be the piñata for defensive celebrations.

His unit lines up after practice and, one by one, pushes a two-man blocking sled with its shoulders while cradling a football. Pass-protection drills begin on their knees, with players launching shoulder-first into bags.

"It's demanding, but I can feel my leg drive is improving," Manfro said.

The four-man drill, in which players nearly crash into each other, looks chaotic, but the purpose is clear: "We are working on striking a match," Manfro said. "We get as close to the other person as we can before cutting. It helps teach us to get up into the holes."

Polamalu is also considered a top-shelf recruiter. Among the players he helped land at USC were star receiver Marqise Lee and Su'a Cravens, a freshman starter at safety.

Polamalu played at USC, where his nephew, Troy, was an All-American. He was offensive coordinator and running backs coach for the Trojans from 2010-12, but was among four coaches fired after USC slipped to a 7-6 record after a preseason No. 1 national ranking. He was let go two days after signing day in 2013.

Polamalu spent the 2013 season as an assistant at Los Angeles Loyola High, where his son, Tre, was the quarterback.

Polamalu was hired by UCLA after running backs coach Steve Broussard was let go in December.

"You start with his reputation and the guys he has coached," Mora said. "I knew he was one hell of a coach. His focus on fundamentals and attention to detail are fantastic. He puts them in the position they will find themselves in during games."

Hundley will always be a threat to run, and he might even again lead UCLA in rushing. "If it gets victories," Polamalu said, that will be acceptable.

But it also seems that the Bruins are intent about gaining rushing yardage a little more traditionally, with the running backs delivering blows instead of just taking them along the way.

"Those guys are becoming more explosive with the ball in their hands instead of dancing around," offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone said. "They're getting a little attitude. That comes from K.P."

chris.foster@latimes.com

Twitter: @cfosterlatimes

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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