UCLA football’s defense dominated the first two weeks of spring practice. But to start the third week, Jalen Starks gave the offense something to get excited about.
The hybrid fullback/running back plowed his 250-pound frame through the Bruins’ second-team defense, breaking multiple tackles to score a long touchdown. The sophomore’s offensive teammates hurled water in the air to celebrate of one of the Bruins’ best running plays all spring.
“Yeah, I don’t think that people are real anxious to tackle him when he’s in the open field,” said coach Jim Mora of Starks. “He’s a big fella and he runs hard.”
Starks saw limited opportunities in his 2016 freshman campaign. He was mostly a short-yardage back, accumulating 26 carries for 77 yards and two touchdowns on the year.
“We’d gone into spring thinking he’d be a fullback, but his running skills are darn good,” Mora said. “He gives us the big back that can run the ball in the open field.”
Starks has 30 pounds on UCLA’s next-biggest running back, junior Bolu Olorunfunmi. Mora said that although a recent hand injury kept Starks from doing everything in UCLA’s winter training program, the tailback has a tendency to gain weight quickly.
“I’m really confident when we come back for fall that he’ll be 250, 255 pounds – which is probably right where you want him. Because he moves well – he’s a smooth, explosive guy. You don’t really want to hit him high; I know that,” said Mora, a former defensive back at the University of Washington.
With Starks’ standout contributions Monday, Mora said that the running backs as a group had their best day so far in spring practice.
“I just feel like we have to continue to improve. And if we’re able to run the ball, it will open up the passing game for (junior quarterback) Josh (Rosen),” said redshirt sophomore tight end Caleb Wilson. “We can just let Josh do what he does best.”
Best position group on the team?
Even after losing UCLA’s top-projected draft pick in defensive end Takkarist McKinley, defensive line coach Angus McClure called his 2017 unit his deepest one yet.
“Right now, currently, we’re rolling three deep for spring ball, which is quite a bit,” McClure said. “I remember my first year going defensive line – I think week three we didn’t have any twos; we kind of ran out of bodies.”
McClure added that he could play as many as 10 different defensive linemen per game come fall.
One of those defensive linemen is Jacob Tuioti-Mariner. Mora cited the senior’s versatility, saying he can play every defensive line position except for nose tackle.
“There was a point last year when he became a little bit frustrated that we were moving him around (too many positions),” Mora said. “It was in camp, I remember (Tuioti-Mariner) expressed it to me: ‘I would like to have a spot that I can kind of own.’”
So far this spring, Tuioti-Mariner has played mostly as the strong-side defensive end on the first-team defense. On the opposite side, ESPN’s No. 3 overall recruit in the 2017 class – Jaelan Phillips – has rotated in for some first-team reps at the edge rusher spot.
“He’s really picked up our system,” McClure said of Phillips. “I can really tell the difference between week one to week two. He’s just gotten twice as fast.”