UCLA running back Milton Knox spent the last few months running up and down the large hill near his family's house. Occasionally, he hit the dunes in Manhattan Beach, plowing his way through the heavy sand.
"I'm a man on a mission this year," Knox said. "I know the playbook. The game has slowed down for me. I have to show them what I can do."
There is some urgency for Knox and fellow redshirt freshman Johnathan Franklin. Junior Christian Ramirez and sophomore Derrick Coleman are the top two tailbacks. The scrap is for the third spot and a chance at some playing time.
"If you're divvying up game reps, it's hard to use more than three," UCLA Coach Rick Neuheisel said. "But that doesn't mean you can't use four in a game."
Last season, Kahlil Bell and Coleman had a combined 194 carries. Raymond Carter and Aundre Dean, the other two tailbacks, had 35. Carter (Colorado State) and Dean (Texas Christian) transferred after being passed by Franklin and Knox during spring practice.
"Both still have to handle the pass protection, that's the key," Neuheisel said. "You can't collapse just because somebody's coming at you 100 mph. We haven't broken that egg yet."
The quick Franklin entered camp third on the depth chart, and has had a solid four days, but Knox has shown closing speed.
Knox, a target of energetic recruiting by Notre Dame as well as UCLA, wanted to be faster, so he began running the hill this summer two or three times a day.
"Milt has come in and had a really good four days," running backs coach Wayne Moses said. "He's hitting the hole now, not looking for the home run all the time. He's going in and snatching four yards and that's a good play for us."
Knox and Franklin are aware the depth chart is still overpopulated, with incoming freshman Damien Thigpen.
"It means I have to mind my Ps and Qs," Knox said. "I can't make too many mistakes. We're all good running backs. Now it comes down to who does the little things."
Neuheisel downplayed the numbers game.
"I think it's a position almost every university is filling by committee," he said. "I think they can all look forward to some opportunities. It's also a physical position because there is some attrition."
UCLA does have a quarterback showdown . . . just not for the No. 1 spot. Who will back up Kevin Prince is the question heading into the first practice in full pads today.
Kevin Craft, last year's starter and now a senior, set a school record with 20 interceptions. Richard Brehaut is a true freshman, who enrolled early to participate in spring practice. Nick Crissman is a redshirt freshman who missed last year after shoulder surgery.
"We're waiting for one to step up," offensive coordinator Norm Chow said. "We're hoping someone will. No one has yet."
Chow's assessments? Craft "has to have better decision making," Brehaut "needs to learn a little quicker" and Crissman "doesn't understand what we're trying to get done, but he hangs in there."
Abele on offense
A day after moving freshman lineman Nik Abele from defense to offense, Neuheisel said the switch is permanent.
"He's a gifted guy, with the right temperament," Neuheisel said.