UCLA is still going through the process of finding a running back, or running backs, to fill the void left by Johnathan Franklin. That chore could be a bit easier a year from now.
Rushel Shell, who is leaving Pittsburgh and looking at other schools, attended the Bruins’ practice Saturday, getting the A-list treatment. That included a conversation with Franklin, who gained 1,700 yards last season and is awaiting the NFL draft.
“He was telling me about the program — how it’s about to take off,” said Shell, who gained 641 yards rushing as a freshman at Pittsburgh in 2012. “He said this is going to be big-time under [Coach Jim] Mora.”
Shell said Saturday that he would make his decision “maybe today, maybe tomorrow.” He is believed to be leaning toward UCLA.
The 6-foot, 215-pound Shell would have to sit out the 2013 season but would have three years of eligibility left. He entered spring practice atop the depth chart at Pittsburgh but pulled himself from practice after suffering a leg injury March 22.
Shell gained a Pennsylvania state record of 9,078 yards while at Aliquippa (Pa.) Hopewell High, Tony Dorsett’s alma mater. He was considered to be among the top five running backs in the nation as a senior there.
“I love it here in Los Angeles,” Shell said. “This whole environment is great.”
Landing Shell would help the Bruins in an area that is uncertain at the moment. Jordan James, Paul Perkins and Steven Manfro are vying to replace Franklin. UCLA coaches are hoping to have Damien Thigpen back from his knee injury this summer.
Perkins had a strong day Saturday, including a 55-yard touchdown run during a brief scrimmage.
“They all ran well,” Mora said. “We want to see progress, and today we saw progress.”
Cantankerous would be one way to describe UCLA’s practice Saturday. Confrontational would be another.
Wide receiver Shaquelle Evans got in defensive back Ishmael Adams’ face and admonished him for holding with colorful vocabulary. Offensive lineman Kevin McReynolds and defensive lineman Nate Iese were kicked out of practice for fighting. Offensive lineman Alexandru Cearchir followed them out the door moments later for another incident.
So defensive lineman Cassius Marsh — maybe the most intense player on the roster — offered up his diplomatic skills to cool the situation. Marsh approached offensive lineman Xavier Su’a-Filo and the two brokered a peace.
“We want to keep it low-key out here,” Marsh said later. “We want to focus on working and getting better. When we get to a point where that is not the focus, we want to bring it back in.”
Marsh as peacemaker drew a wide-eyed “Huh?” response from Mora. Marsh, after all, once as a freshman threw his helmet and shoulder pads to the ground and stormed off the practice field.
But Mora wasn’t altogether surprised.
“I have seen a much more mature man, who is very serious about being a great football player,” Mora said. As for his leadership, “that’s impressive to hear. He has made tremendous strides.”
Marsh said, “I still get mad.” But he said, “I can’t let that lead to doing the wrong things that take away from what we’re trying to do.”
Mora gave the same stump speech post-practice.
“You want intensity and you don’t want to throw a guy out of practice,” Mora said. “But you have to make sure there is discipline, and you don’t allow things that will hurt your team during the season. We talk about having a mutual respect, but we want a competitive environment.”
Which, Mora admitted, is “a fine line.”
Defensive lineman Kylie Fitts sat out practice and was wearing a walking boot due to a sprained ankle. … Linebacker Eric Kendricks, who suffered a sprained ankle last week, is unlikely to return to spring practice, Mora said.