UCLA’s keys to success: No. 4, Jordon James
Johnathan Franklin is gone. There is no looking back.
There is also no heir apparent at the running back position. Instead, head coach Jim Mora and offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone have maintained that they will use a “running back by committee” approach, with Jordon James, Malcolm Jones, Stephen Manfro and Paul Perkins all getting downs. Damien Thigpen will also be in that mix when he returns from a knee injury.
“We know what they’re going to do, they’re all five going to play,” Mora said. “You’re not going to have Johnathan Franklin but you have a cluster of guys who can get it done at this level.”
But within that group, it’s been redshirt Jordon James that has recently risen to the top.
James has the ability to make a big play and break off for a big run. Where Franklin was always the always reliable and steady runner, James might be the more exciting runner.
When it came to his own skills, James looked to Franklin to see what he should improve on and how he should work. The first improvement he made was pass blocking and it’s something the coaches have noticed, as he has been the primary first-team runner throughout training camp.
“That’s a part of being a running back, protecting the quarterback,” James said. “If you can’t do that then you most likely won’t play in the game.”
The coaching staff feels that he has been the top pass-blocking running back in camp, but James himself downplays it and lauds the abilities of the collective group of running backs.
“I’m still getting better at it, I still need to work on it a lot, but I’m just trying to go out here and do the best I can and try to learn something new every day,” James said. “I think I just need to improve on being more consistent and having my teammates count on me.”
James is quiet and hard-working, perfectly content to remain in the shadows while others take the spotlight. It’s clear that James is not the vocal, outgoing leader off the field that Franklin was but he does carry the same team-first mentality. James is more than OK with the committee approach, because as a unit the running backs are strong and skilled and perfect for some of Mazzone’s offensive schemes.
“I feel like we have a strong group of running backs, we all can play, we’re all capable and we all have talent,” James said. “We’re going to show people what we can do.”
Franklin was a special, irreplaceable player that left a lasting impression on his team. But it’s time for the Bruins to move on.
“I think we’re going to miss a lot of things about him but we can’t keep looking back at that,” Mora said. “We have to keep moving forward and developing guys.”
Importance of James
Mora has said he is No. 1 on the depth chart and although the entire group will see snaps, James may see the most. James is durable, has good hands and the ability to elude defenders in an exciting way. While not the most experienced, his confidence and his work ethic have made James look as though he is a veteran at times.
Mora: “He looks bigger to me. His ball security’s been really good. And I don’t want to jinx him, but he’s been hitting it more downhill. One of the things Jordon and I have always talked about in the past was that he’s very shifty and very quick, but I like a guy who can put his foot in the ground and go downhill. He seems to be doing that better.”
Number of note: 19
James lost only 19 yards in all 14 games last season, which was tied for the least amount yielded by any of the regular rushers. Thigpen lost only 19 yards as well but only played in 10 games. Bottom line: James takes care of the football.
Should one of the running backs emerge as a full-Franklin replacement, it will likely be James. While James will be used in a similar manner as Franklin, he has made it clear that he isn’t Franklin, nor will he ever be.
And he doesn’t want to be either: He’s ready to run the ball his way.