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New and returning running backs seek to replace production in Charbonnet’s absence

Sophomore running back T.J. Harden rushes through a hole. Harden tallied 325 rushing yards and two touchdowns in six games last season. (Anika Chakrabarti/Daily Bruin senior staff)

By Gavin Carlson

Aug. 20, 2023 12:00 p.m.

This post was updated Aug. 23 at 11:38 p.m.

The Bruins still don’t know who their starting quarterback will be.

But with two weeks to go until their season opener, the man tasked with making the final decision isn’t rushing to name a starter.

“It’ll take care of itself,” said coach Chip Kelly. “We’re right where we need to be right now.”

Despite the ongoing quarterback battle, the main topic of discussion at Friday’s UCLA football practice was a different, equally crowded offensive position group – the running backs.

The running game was a vital aspect of Kelly’s offense last year. The Bruins’ 237.2 rushing yards per game ranked sixth in the country. More notably, UCLA’s six yards per carry was the nation’s best in 2022.

But now, the departures of former running back Zach Charbonnet and quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson mean almost two-thirds of the team’s production on the ground is gone. Charbonnet logged 195 carries for 1,359 yards and 14 touchdowns, while Thompson-Robinson’s 118 attempts resulted in 645 yards another 12 scores.

UCLA looked to the transfer portal for running back reinforcements and added junior Carson Steele from Ball State and redshirt junior Anthony Adkins from Army. They will join sophomore T.J. Harden and redshirt senior Colson Yankoff in the backfield.

Despite earning the third-most carries on the team last year, senior Keegan Jones initially appeared to remove himself from the run-game conversation when he switched from being listed as a running back to wide receiver this offseason.

However, Kelly said Friday that Jones is still seeing plenty of practice reps out of the backfield and will act in multiple aspects of the offense this fall.

“Keegan practices at running back every day,” Kelly said. “If you watch him during the course of practice, he’ll do individuals with the running backs, he’ll do individuals with the receivers, and he’s just kinda going back and forth. … I really believe he can play both positions for us.”

Kelly added that Jones’ role will be similar to that of former Bruin Kazmeir Allen last season – who also transitioned from running back to wide receiver.

Jones isn’t the only converted player set to receive carries in 2023.

Yankoff entered UCLA as a dual-threat quarterback, received 34 carries in 2022 despite being listed as a wide receiver and is now officially listed at running back ahead of the upcoming season.

“I definitely feel more comfortable this year than last,” Yankoff said about his role as a running back. “This time last year I was really thrown into the fire and just trying to figure things out.”

While Adkins doesn’t have to worry about a position change, the back comes from a unique triple-option system at Army.

Adkins said adjusting to the speed of Kelly’s spread offense has taken some time.

“The biggest learning curve is just the speed of the game,” Adkins said. “Triple option is relatively slow sometimes, but coming out here, coming to a spread offense – the biggest difference is the speed of things.”

Army’s offense rarely passes the ball, and Adkins almost exclusively ran up the middle as the hand-off option in the team’s triple-option system in 2021. He ultimately ran for 355 yards on 76 carries two seasons ago before not seeing in-game action in 2022.

When Adkins’ 6-foot-2, 245-pound frame arrived in the spring, Yankoff was skeptical of his new teammate’s abilities as a runner.

“When he (Adkins) showed up on campus I was like, ‘Dang, this guy’s pretty big – can he really do this?’” Yankoff said. “(But) from day one, man, I was just like, ‘Man, that guy can really move.’ He can run the rock, and nobody wants to get in his way.”

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Gavin Carlson | Sports staff
Carlson is currently a staff writer on the football, men's basketball and women's basketball beats. He was previously a reporter on the softball and men's golf beats.
Carlson is currently a staff writer on the football, men's basketball and women's basketball beats. He was previously a reporter on the softball and men's golf beats.
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