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A SHIFT AT TAILBACK : UCLA : Green, Ball and Primus Swing Balance of Power to Bruins

August 28, 1986|THOMAS BONK | Times Staff Writer

The backfield is clearly in motion at UCLA, where it is hoped that a revolving-door policy of tailbacks will determine once and for all whether one position can be divided among three players. Mathematicians everywhere are taking note.

If good things come in threes, then the Bruins don't have a worry in the world, or at tailback. And if Coach Terry Donahue can just figure out a way to call running plays using three footballs and the same number of tailbacks, then maybe everything will turn out to be just as wonderful in the UCLA backfield as it appears to be right now.

The problem, if indeed it is a problem, seems to be one of numbers. With Gaston Green, Eric Ball and James Primus, the depth chart at tailback has lengthened a few fathoms.

Donahue said there certainly is room at the table for everybody, even though all won't be dining at the same time. Maybe any one of the Green-Ball-Primus troika could have a shot at the Heisman Trophy if he played exclusively, but Donahue says that is not his concern. And as hard as it may be to believe, the players sound as though they're only too happy to go along with the program.

"We're not as interested in building a Heisman Trophy winner as we are a good team," Donahue said. "The players are going to have to give up a little bit of themselves for the betterment of the team. They're going to have to deal with that."

By rights, there should be some healthy egos involved here, so the dealing has begun among the three tailbacks. But they maintain that they're not at all worried about leaving the decision of who gets the ball the most entirely up to the coaching staff and, ultimately, Donahue.

It all may get very unsettling eventually, but not now, the players insist.

"Nobody can believe we get along so well in this situation," Ball said. "Nobody can believe there's no friction between us, or any ego problems. Nobody can believe we don't hate each other because of this."

Only one tailback can play at a time, so who gets the first turn? Why not start with Green? This is what Donahue will probably do. Green, a junior, rushed for a team-high 712 yards last season, even though he missed four full games and parts of two others because of injuries. Even so, Green averaged 101.7 yards in the games he carried the football.

At 5 feet 10 1/2 inches and 190 pounds, Green has the kind of speed that can melt a stopwatch. When he ran track at Gardena High School, he was timed in 10.58 seconds for the 100-meter dash.

Actually, Green had better be able to run fast, besides staying unhurt, because he is traveling in fast company. When Green pulled a hamstring in the first quarter of the Rose Bowl game last January, Ball took over and promptly renamed the game the Rose Ball.

He rushed for 227 yards, scored 4 touchdowns and led UCLA to a 45-28 victory over Iowa, serving notice that he had run himself right into the middle of the huddle for the starting tailback job in this, his sophomore season.

The third tailback, Primus, like Green, is a junior, and he probably deserves a higher ranking. He would surely have one on another team. Primus missed four games because of injuries last season, but he still rushed for 471 yards, 129 of them in a 34-9 victory at Stanford in which he scored twice when Green was out with a sprained knee ligament.

Now, the backfield is crowded. All three are back again and reasonably healthy, although Ball hasn't practiced since Friday because of a bruised knee. However, he is showing improvement and may not have to miss UCLA's season opener Sept. 6 against Oklahoma at Norman, Okla.

Donahue said all will be well emotionally, too, with his talented threesome.

"We don't expect anybody to get 'pooched out,' " he said.

Pooched out?

"Yeah, you know," Donahue said, then demonstrated the pooch look by sticking out his lower lip in a full-fledged pout.

"The players know that one will not play as much as the other," Donahue said. "This is not socialism. At this present time, we have a situation where the players are evenly bunched. Each one of them has his faults, but in my judgment, the three players are all very equal. But as far as dividing the playing time one-third, one-third and one-third, I don't think it's going to work like that."

How will it work? Donahue isn't sure yet, but he is fairly certain of how it won't work. The Bruins will not change tailbacks for each series of downs, but instead plan to go with whomever is hot.

"I don't think backs should be running out after every play or series," he said. "They should get a feel for the game. I really assume that everything will be as it was last year. It wasn't like there were three healthy guys standing on the sidelines for every game.

"This year, if all of them are 100% healthy at the same time, I imagine some of them will get upset because they're not playing. If they do, that's just the way it is. Competition makes a competitor and the presence of the other runners makes them stronger."

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