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2022 UCLA Football Position Preview: Running backs

UCLA football senior running back Zach Charbonnet prepares to catch a pass. Charbonnet is expected to be the Bruins’ top running back in 2022. (Joseph Jimenez/Assistant Photo editor)

By Jon Christon

Aug. 18, 2022 12:48 p.m.

This post was updated Aug. 28 at 9:22 p.m.

With the 2022 UCLA football season on the horizon, Daily Bruin Sports will preview the Bruins’ outlook at each position group as the countdown to football begins. Next up, senior staff writer Jon Christon breaks down the backfield.

Personnel

UCLA may have one of the most experienced quarterbacks in the country under center, but make no mistake: The Bruins are a run-first team under coach Chip Kelly.

And it’s clear who will be the centerpiece of the rushing attack.

Running back Zach Charbonnet enters his senior season as the undisputed bell cow of UCLA’s backfield after splitting carries with Brittain Brown a year ago. The former Michigan transfer ran for 1,137 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2021 – good for third and fourth in the conference, respectively – and those numbers are expected to rise as he absorbs most of Brown’s 102 carries.

Charbonnet has already proved capable of handling a heavy workload, tallying 21 or more carries in six of the Bruins’ last nine contests in 2021 after just 23 total rushes in his first three contests. He also eclipsed the 100-yard mark in over half of UCLA’s games.

At 6 feet, 1 inches and 220 pounds, Charbonnet has the size to work between tackles with the agility to get around the edge. The only thing keeping him from being a true every-down back is his ability as a receiver. He showed flashes last season with two games of more than 40 receiving yards, but watch for Charbonnet to expand on that aspect of his game even more as he nears a professional career.

Kelly has shown a willingness to go beyond his No. 1 back, however, and as of right now, it’s unclear who will play Robin to Charbonnet’s Batman.

(Jon Christon/Daily Bruin senior staff)
Redshirt junior running back Keegan Jones jogs at a practice. Jones could slate in as the Bruins’ second back behind Charbonnet. (Jon Christon/Daily Bruin senior staff)

As the only other running back on the roster with meaningful game experience, redshirt junior Keegan Jones is the top candidate, spelling Charbonnet and Brown on the occasional third down and in blowouts a year ago. Redshirt junior wide receiver Kazmeir Allen also has experience in the backfield and could return to his original position as another change of pace from time to time.

If Kelly is looking for someone that better resembles the bruising Brown, redshirt freshman Deshun Murrell – a 5-foot-11, 190-pound four-star recruit from the class of 2021 – could be someone to keep an eye on, as is freshman TJ Harden.

Predictions

It won’t be a question whether or not Charbonnet produces in 2022.

It’ll only be a matter of how high of a ceiling he will reach.

All signs are pointing toward Charbonnet – a preseason Doak Walker Award watchlist member and a dark-horse Heisman candidate – having a monster senior season and etching his name into UCLA lore.

For starters, the Bruins’ favorable schedule should ensure Charbonnet racks up the carries as UCLA racks up the wins. A trio of lackadaisical nonconference opponents followed by conference matchups against Colorado and Washington – two of the worst rushing defenses in the Pac-12 a year ago – to open the campaign could lead to an early season hype train for Charbonnet that turns heads nationally.

If he’s able to build off the presumably hot start and pick up some of Brown’s vacated 615 rushing yards, Charbonnet should be able to blow past his 2021 totals and eclipse the 1,250-rushing yard mark – a single-season threshold that would place him top 10 all-time in UCLA history and near the top of the Pac-12 yet again.

And with more growth as a pass-catcher, Charbonnet will also likely cement his status as a mid-round pick in the 2023 NFL Draft.

Looking beyond Charbonnet, redshirt senior quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson will almost assuredly be the Bruins’ second-leading rusher, followed by Jones. Any production from Murrel or Harden – the likely futures of the position – will be the icing on the cake.

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Jon Christon | Sports senior staff
Christon is currently a Sports senior staff writer. He was previously the Sports editor on the men's basketball and football beats and the assistant Sports editor on the women's basketball, softball, men's tennis and women's tennis beats. Christon was previously a contributor on the women's basketball and softball beats.
Christon is currently a Sports senior staff writer. He was previously the Sports editor on the men's basketball and football beats and the assistant Sports editor on the women's basketball, softball, men's tennis and women's tennis beats. Christon was previously a contributor on the women's basketball and softball beats.
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