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UCLA turns to the past in search of its lost running game

After physically dominating Alabama for a second consecutive year in 2001, former UCLA running back Deshaun Foster was nonetheless complimentary about the effort of the overmatched Crimson Tide -- which had just lost a season-opener in Tuscaloosa for the first time since 1893.

"They were really swarming to the ball," Foster, now the Bruins' running back coach, said. "They didn't quit this time. They played the whole ball game."

"This time" Foster had rushed for "only" 110 yards. The "last time," a year before, the then-No. 3 Crimson Tide went down 35-24, with Foster forcing the Tide defense to wave a white flag of surrender as he finished with 187 yards and three touchdowns on 42 carries.

Ah, memories. And how times have changed since 2000-2001, eh?

UCLA was once a physical force running the football, tougher and more skilled than the SEC bell cow, which notably hasn't played a home-and-home series with a Pac-10/12 team since then.

In fact, way, way back in 2015, UCLA ranked 23rd in the nation with 5.03 yards per carry.

Last year though? Yuck. UCLA ranked 127th in the nation -- second to last -- in both yards per carry (2.93) and rushing yards per game (84.25).

That's why coach Jim Mora cleaned house with his offensive staff, hiring Jedd Fisch as his coordinator, Hank Fraley to coach the beleaguered offensive line and Jimmie Dougherty to coach the receivers and coordinate the passing game.

And he brought Foster back to mentor the running backs, a talented crew that drastically under performed last year.

"It was little stuff breaking down," Foster said when asked about what he saw on film from 2016. "It wasn't anything ability-wise by the running backs. It was simple things that can be corrected."

That might sound pretty beige, but Foster also ticks of specific issues he saw: incorrect aiming points for the running backs, poor handoff setups by the quarterbacks, and missed assignments by the full backs and offensive linemen.

He doesn't mention schematic issues and episodes of questionable effort, but anyone who follows UCLA knows there was plenty of scuttlebutt in that direction by mid-to-late November.

There also is the most obvious problem that led to the Bruins implosion over the second half of the season: What would become a season-ending shoulder injury to quarterback Josh Rosen on Oct. 8 at Arizona State. The Bruins entered that game at 3-2 overall and were averaging 4.5 yards per rush and 170 yards per game.

"He's the guy the offense is built around," junior running back Soso Jamabo said. "Everyone knows it. It was very unfortunate. It led to a lot of [the problems], to be quite honest."

Jamabo led what looked like a strong, seasoned crew of backs before last season, one that seemed perfectly capable of replacing the production of Paul Perkins, who became Bruins third all-time leading rusher in three seasons before getting drafted by the New York Giants. In 2015, Jamabo averaged 6.1 yards per rush; Nate Starks averaged 6.4 yards per tote; and Bolu Olorunfunmi offered up 5.4 yards per carry.

Last year, none of the troika broke the 4.0 mark.

Frustrating? Absolutely, said Jamabo. And, yes, there was some finger-pointing at times.

"There were times when there was frustration amongst the linemen and the running backs," he said. "Sometimes you point fingers. But at end of day, we've got to find a way to work together."

A lot of the finger pointing took place in front of the mirror, too. When asked to critique himself, Jamabo said he let his conditioning slip. That has been an offseason emphasis.

Foster said Jamabo, one of the nation's top-rated running backs coming out of Plano West (Texas) High in 2015, needs to run lower and more behind his pads. That's not always easy for an unusually tall -- 6-foot-2 -- running back. Jamabo also needs to shorten his strides for quick cuts, particularly on inside runs.

Jamabo might want to study Foster, who at 6-foot wasn't exactly a short running back. Jamabo seemed genuinely interested when told about his new position coach's efforts against Alabama.

"I did not know that but I am not surprised by that at all," he said. "We know he's a legend. I've seen film. He ran like a dog. He's a monster. We're trying to do the same thing he did here."

Texas A&M visits on Sept. 3. A matchup with another SEC team might be a good place to start.