As electrifying as UCLA’s running game was last season with Maurice Drew carrying the football, the Bruins underachieved in some ways. While there were plenty of long runs, there were also stretches when UCLA’s rushing attack was completely stymied.
So, for consistency’s sake, the Bruins are hoping their current combination of four -- Chris Markey and Kahlil Bell getting most of the carries with big backs Michael Pitre and Chane Moline also at the ready -- is an upgrade.
“We know that we have some backs who can do some great things, but over the long haul a back has to be consistent,” said Dino Babers, UCLA’s first-year running backs coach. “That Reggie Bush thing is few and far between ... most good backs are the guys who can go three and four yards and then pop a big run.”
Markey, a junior who is 5 feet 11, 204 pounds, has the most experience, having backed up Drew since his freshman season. He rushed for 561 yards and three touchdowns last season and averaged 101.9 all-purpose yards a game.
“He knows when to go wide and when to cut it short,” junior guard Shannon Tevaga said about Markey. “He understands what we’re trying to do.”
Markey was a productive reserve. As a freshman, he played most of the second half against Arizona State and rushed for 80 yards in five carries. And in his only start of the year, he rushed for 131 yards and had 84 more in five receptions at Oregon.
In last year’s Sun Bowl victory over Northwestern, Markey came off the bench when Drew was hurt and rushed for a game-high 161 yards.
“This offense suits him in terms of the run game,” UCLA Coach Karl Dorrell said about Markey. “He’s the leader of that area.”
Bell appeared in 10 games last season as a freshman and ended with his best game, rushing for 136 yards and two touchdowns to share MVP honors with Markey in the Sun Bowl. Bell, 6 feet, 205 pounds, has added muscle and strength, which has not gone unnoticed. UCLA will do more straight-ahead running -- dives and trap plays -- with him in the lineup.
“Chris has really good vision and Bell has really good vision, but they have two distinct styles, which is needed in this offense,” Dorrell said.
Bell averaged 6.0 yards a carry last season with a long gain of 27, but he is more comfortable in this year’s system. “I’m at my best when my shoulder pads are square and I’m able to see the whole field,” he said.
Although UCLA’s starting line is not as experienced as last season’s, it is more athletic. And going up against first-year defensive coordinator DeWayne Walker’s aggressive defense in training camp has only helped. Each practice, Walker’s defense has used different attack packages, which became a learning experience for the line.
“There were a lot of the blitzes and different looks that our defense has thrown at us,” freshman lineman Aleksey Lanis said. “But we’re going to see them this season, starting with Utah, so we have to get used to them. We want to be ready for those teams that like to bring blitzes every play.”
Another new twist for UCLA will be the use of Pitre and Moline, two versatile power backs. Pitre, a junior 244-pound fullback, will be involved in the offense as more than a blocker. The Bruins have several plays featuring him as a runner and as a receiver.
“I’m excited about being more involved this year,” said Pitre, a three-year starter who rushed for 69 yards and caught 10 passes for 128 yards last season.
Moline, a 6-1, 238-pound freshman, has deceiving quickness and can play both fullback and tailback. He’ll get his work when the Bruins are looking for tough yards.
“We’re ready to let the horses out the gate,” Bell said. “We feel that it really doesn’t matter what the other team does, we’re going to be able to run the ball.”
Saturday vs. Utah
at Rose Bowl
4 p.m., FSNW