UCLA’s brotherhood of tailbacks is about to face some potential sibling strife.
Soso Jamabo, Bolu Olorunfunmi and Nate Starks have all been in lockstep since training camp, receiving a similar number of carries. But two of the three might feel a little left out Saturday night at the Rose Bowl.
Bruins Coach Jim Mora said one tailback would get the bulk of the workload against Arizona in an effort to revive a running game that has been among the worst in the nation through the season’s opening month.
Neither Mora nor Olorunfunmi would identify that player Wednesday when they met with reporters, but Olorunfunmi said he was willing to fulfill his role whether it was churning up the field or cheering from the sideline.
“Whatever we gotta do to win and do better on the field, we gotta do it and I support the coaches and their choices,” Olorunfunmi said. “Whoever they choose, I know they’ll get the job done.”
Based on the way the Bruins handled their tailback rotation late in the game against Stanford last week, Olorunfunmi could get the nod. He made each of UCLA’s last seven carries in a taut fourth quarter, demonstrating UCLA’s faith in his ability to generate tough yardage.
But big gains have been scarce in the running game. The Bruins have averaged 117.8 yards a game, ranking 114th out of 128 major college teams. Jamabo, with 198 yards, has averaged a team-leading 4.8 yards per carry, followed by Olorunfunmi (134, 4.1) and Starks (63, 2.5).
Mora said the tailbacks left “probably a hundred” yards on the field against Stanford, something Olorunfunmi attributed to a variety of factors.
“It was just our eyes, knowing safety fits and linebacker fits and knowing how they play and everything,” Olorunfunmi said. “It’s just things that we have to get better on day by day, game by game.”
Part of that could be improved communication. Olorunfunmi said offensive coordinator Kennedy Polamalu apologized to the running backs for not talking to them on the sideline during the game as much as he did previously when he was solely the running backs coach.
“He’s promised to us that things will change on the sideline,” Olorunfunmi said, “and it’ll help us.”
If all goes well, the same could be said for the use of a featured tailback. Quarterback Josh Rosen said it would benefit the play calling, tailoring it to the specific style of whoever is getting the most carries.
Mora repeated that all three tailbacks would play and said he would explain his pick of the primary ballcarrier to the trio.
“They might not like it,” Mora said, “but you have to be honest with them and you have to let them know this is why we’re doing this, and I think if you do that, then once again they embrace it a little more quickly.”
Long before he tries to haul in his first catch each week, UCLA receiver Kenneth Walker III gets a bead on something else: what he’s going to put on his hair.
Walker sorts through a pile of beads he ordered from Amazon, searching for inspiration.
“I just look at the colors and whatever one I feel at that moment, I just put them in,” said Walker, who fits the beads over his braided hair.
The beads don’t rattle against his head when he’s running because he wears a headband underneath his helmet. He doesn’t like to repeat the same beads even after a good game, suiting someone in constant motion.
“I’ve got to keep changing,” Walker said.
Could a team that starts 2-2 still make the College Football Playoff? Rosen seemed to think it was still a possibility for the Bruins considering the quality of their losses. “Stanford’s a top-10 team and we think they will keep playing very well,” Rosen said. “Hopefully we’ll see them in the Pac-12 championship and we’ll see where it goes from there.” … Mora said defensive tackle Eli Ankou, who suffered an elbow injury against Stanford, was “working through it” and might be able to play against Arizona.