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2023 UCLA Football Position Preview: Running backs

Sophomore running back T.J. Harden steps over a California defender in an attempt to avoid a tackle. (Anika Chakrabarti/Daily Bruin senior staff)

By Jack Nelson

Aug. 24, 2023 12:19 p.m.

This post was updated Aug. 27 at 9:18 p.m.

With the first snap of UCLA football’s 2023 season rapidly approaching, Daily Bruin Sports will be previewing each of the Bruins’ position groups before gameday. Sports senior staff writer Jack Nelson continues with the offense by breaking down the running backs.

Personnel

With the Bruins’ star running back sidelined late last season and his departure all but certain, a successor began to emerge.

But the following months changed the script, and now there are other hands clamoring for the starting role.

Sophomore T.J. Harden headlines the group of returning running backs for UCLA football, following his flashes of promise at the end of 2022. Operating as the primary back with Zach Charbonnet unavailable, Harden racked up a combined 200 rushing yards on 23 carries across the team’s final two contests, including 10.1 yards per carry on 11 attempts in the Sun Bowl.

The two Bruins who eclipsed Harden’s 325 rushing yards on the season – one of whom wasn’t even a running back – are no longer in the picture. Charbonnet and former quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson took to the NFL after spearheading the nation’s No. 6 rushing offense in 2022, and they left UCLA with nearly two-thirds of its run production to replace.

Harden would’ve been the natural choice to lead the Bruin backfield if coach Chip Kelly had stuck with his in-house options. But Kelly didn’t, and as a result, the race for carries is far tighter.

Competition arrived in the form of junior Carson Steele, a Ball State transfer with 2,447 yards and 20 touchdowns in his two-year career. In addition to his prowess on the ground, Steele’s pass-catching abilities have proven fruitful: He was one of seven true freshmen in the FBS to surpass 1,000 all-purpose yards in 2021.

Being able to deploy multiple backs in both the running and passing games has been critical to Kelly’s offensive scheme, and a pair of further roster changes were made in that vein.

Redshirt senior and former quarterback Colson Yankoff is now listed as a running back after converting 34 attempts into 174 rushing yards while not throwing a pass last season. Senior Keegan Jones was switched from running back to wide receiver as well, but, according to Kelly, he will be used both out wide and in the backfield similar to Kazmeir Allen’s role last year.

Joining Steele as a new addition is redshirt junior Anthony Adkins, a transfer from Army West Point who averaged 5.1 yards per carry over 136 attempts in three seasons of action. Though never utilized as the primary back at West Point, Adkins brings an old-school, smash-mouth style following his development at a run-heavy program.

Predictions

Harden and Steele can duke it out all they want for starting rights, but more than one man will define this rushing attack.

UCLA is, after all, presented with a challenge it hasn’t faced in five seasons. There will be no dual-threat quarterback taking the field, whether that be freshman Dante Moore, redshirt junior Ethan Garbers or redshirt junior Collin Schlee.

Without the dimension that has so consistently defined his team’s offensive attack, Kelly may very well use his running backs more aggressively than ever before in his tenure. The Bruins have considerable depth at the position, and he could get creative with his bag of tricks.

He already has by granting new duties to Yankoff and Jones. The former brings a big body to the backfield as the tallest player in the group, meshing well with the latter’s speed.

Throw in Adkins, who exceeds Yankoff in weight and nearly matches him in height, and the Bruins possess an ability to overpower opponents on the ground. Especially considering the three new starters on the offensive line, strength will be key in complementing the agility that Harden and Steele bring to the table.

The makeup of the backfield has changed, but the story remains the same – versatility will be the name of the running game.

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Jack Nelson | Sports senior staff
Nelson is currently a Sports senior staff writer. He was previously an assistant Sports editor on the softball, men's tennis and women's tennis beats and a contributor on the men's tennis and women's tennis beats.
Nelson is currently a Sports senior staff writer. He was previously an assistant Sports editor on the softball, men's tennis and women's tennis beats and a contributor on the men's tennis and women's tennis beats.
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