Before he became the tailback by default at UCLA, junior James Primus was third-string and his season was threatening to unravel.
He was a runner in waiting, third in line behind teammates Gaston Green and Eric Ball, who were joined at the hip and laced together with publicity.
For a while, Primus saw a great deal of Green and Ball, first during practice and then at newsstands on the covers of football magazines. They aren’t seeing as much of each other these days. At least they weren’t Saturday night when the UCLA backfield suddenly became uncrowded and James Primus ruined his reputation as the Bruins’ best kept secret.
“It looks like that’s all over now,” said Primus, who rushed for 160 yards in a 41-23 victory over Cal State Long Beach at the Rose Bowl.
Primus did not play because he is the best UCLA tailback. He played because he was the only one able. Green was scratched when he warmed up before the game because his left big toe was sore, and Ball departed in the first quarter when he injured a hamstring for the third time in two weeks.
That left Primus, who made the most of the situation. Even Ball was impressed with what Primus accomplished as the No. 1 tailback.
“The way things turned out, maybe he did have something to prove,” Ball said. “What’s happened to him at UCLA hasn’t really been anything he could control.”
Despite the success Primus enjoyed in his last game, he is probably going to take a back seat to Green next Saturday when the Bruins open their Pacific 10 Conference season against Arizona State in the Rose Bowl. Green is supposed to be healthy again, which means that Primus will revert to his familiar position of backfield backup.
Is this any way to treat a tailback? Primus isn’t sure.
“It has the same aspects as life,” Primus said. “I try to relate football to life. It would be the same situation out there if you were looking for a job. The other guy may have the same qualifications as you, but he may know the person who is hiring and so he may have the edge.
“Football is the same as life,” he said. “There are a lot of politics in life, stuff that’s out of my control. I’ve learned not to get angry or upset.
“I don’t know why I was rated the No. 3 tailback,” Primus said. “I don’t know why the press put Eric Ball and Gaston Green on the covers of magazines. And, really, I don’t have any business to question that because I’m just a player.”
It would be hard to find fault with the Bruins for putting Green and Ball ahead of Primus at tailback, since both have proven themselves many times. But Primus is not lacking in confidence, only playing time. He wishes he would be given the same opportunity to play that Green and Ball have had.
“I can’t say I’d have the same amount of statistics,” Primus said. “But the probability of a guy making yards is greater if a guy carries the ball more.”
The Long Beach game wasn’t the first time that Primus bailed out the Bruins. When Green was injured early last season, Primus rushed for 75 yards against San Diego State and 69 yards at Washington when he was a starter. He came off the bench and gained 83 yards against Arizona State, then rushed for 129 yards and 2 touchdowns against Stanford.
“We would not have won that game without James,” Coach Terry Donahue said.
Of course, the Bruins have won many games since then without him. As long as the first two tailbacks stay reasonably healthy, Primus’ status isn’t going to change much. He may play some fullback until Marcus Greenwood gets healthy, but that’s not his most important role on the team.
“I have to accept it, don’t I?” Primus said.
In the meantime, guess what UCLA tailback is the only one to have played in all three games? He is also the same person who leads the team in rushing.
It’s Primus, of course. It took a third stringer to tie the running game together.
“That’s kind of funny isn’t it?” Ball said. “They thought that position would be the strength of our team and it’s instead been probably our most inconsistent. We’re just lucky to be three-deep.”
Bruin Notes Tailback Eric Ball will miss at least three weeks and possibly four with his pulled hamstring. “It’s not a strain, it’s a definite pull,” Terry Donahue said. “He said he felt something pop in the game Saturday night.” At first, Donahue said that the tendon might have been torn, then amended that statement. Said Ball: “As far as I know, it’s just a pull. It’s still swollen and there’s a lot of pain in there. It’s been keeping me up at night, and I’ve been having spasms.” Ball did not play at Oklahoma because of a sore knee and was forced to leave both the San Diego State and Long Beach games because of the hamstring. “I’m starting out rough this season,” Ball said. “I’m quite disappointed. I don’t know why everything’s going so bad. There’s not a whole lot I can do right now. My thinking is not to rush it. I don’t want to start any history of hamstring pulls.” . . . Freshman Brian Brown, who played briefly Saturday night, is getting more work at tailback during practice this week. . . . Offensive tackle Russ Warnick is questionable for Saturday’s Pac-10 opener with Arizona State after jamming a toe in the Long Beach game. . . . Flanker Karl Dorrell and safety Jeff Damron, who both sprained knee ligaments against Oklahoma, could be ready to play against Arizona State.