UCLA experiments with running backs as eligible receivers

UCLA running back Dalton Hilliard swung out of the backfield, caught a short pass and turned it into a quality gain during practice Saturday.

The idea of running backs as eligible receivers is essential to offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone’s philosophy. But in recent seasons, the thought was treated at UCLA as if it might bring NCAA sanctions.

“This is definitely different than our old offense,” running back Johnathan Franklin said. “This is going to be a great opportunity to get the ball in space. You can show off your skills.”

Franklin led all UCLA running backs with nine receptions last season. Bruins running backs caught a combined 21 passes last season. That number should jump significantly under Mazzone, who was coordinator at Arizona State in 2011.

Sun Devils running back Cameron Marshall had 24 receptions last season.

“It is a way for us to expand the offense and stretch the defense,” Mazzone said. “We can get them out on the perimeter quicker.”

That may provide more opportunities for Hilliard, who asked to move from safety to running back in January.

“We want to get those one-on-one matchups,” Hilliard said.

And what can Hilliard do one on one?

“Break the guy’s ankles turning him around,” he said. “Run over him. Do whatever I can to get yards.”

Hilliard seems a perfect fit for such duties. As a senior at Honolulu Punahou High, he gained 599 yards rushing and caught 63 passes for 725 yards.

Hilliard had a slick seven-yard touchdown run Saturday. He also fumbled on the next play. Still, he has impressed Mazzone.

“The last couple of days, I have liked him,” Mazzone said. “He is showing toughness, running with the pads low, and he has good outside speed. I feel we have a good group of running backs. That is one area where I’m really excited about the talent pool.”

Abbott surgery

Safety Andrew Abbott had surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his knee Thursday. He is expected to be out two to three weeks.

The injury leaves the Bruins thin at safety for spring practice. Alex Mascarenas is out with a concussion and Dietrich Riley is out with a neck injury. Riley is deciding whether to have neck surgery, which probably will require him to redshirt in the fall.

Yandall back

Guard Wade Yandall, who missed the last month of last season with a concussion, practiced for the first time since the injury on Saturday.

He underwent a series of tests last week and was cleared Friday.

“When I got the news, I was both excited and nervous,” Yandall said.

Yandall has had four concussions in two years. The last one was the most severe, as doctors said he had to remain in the house for a period of time.

Yandall said his first test Saturday was on a “Tampa play.”

“I hit [nose tackle] Donovan Carter,” he said. “That was good.”

Quick hits

Wide receiver Jerry Johnson made two spectacular touchdown catches during Saturday’s practice, one when he climbed over cornerback Sheldon Price and snagged the ball with one hand. … Guard Jeff Baca was given a little work at center.