Chip Kelly’s Bruins have just made a big-time pickup. After entering the transfer portal shortly after this season ended, running back Zach Charbonnet has chosen to continue his football career at UCLA. The move could pay off big for the Bruins, and the fact that Charbonnet chose UCLA out of all places to play speaks volumes.
Zach Charbonnet is a 6’2”, 215 pound running back from Westlake Village, California. He was a 4-star prospect and the 4th best running back from the 2018 recruiting class. Charbonnet was heavily recruited out of high school, including by both USC and UCLA. Greg Biggins of 247sports projects him as a future first-rounder and compared him to David Johnson, formerly of the Arizona Cardinals. Says Biggins, “Shows tremendous upside. Projects as an impact, upper-tier Power 5 starter and future high round NFL draft pick if he can stay healthy.”
Charbonnet ultimately decided to go to Michigan, and he had a good freshman year splitting the load with Hassan Haskins. During that season, Charbonnet ran for 726 yards on 149 carries–good for 4.9 yards per carry–and scored 11 touchdowns on the ground, good for Michigan’s single-season freshman rushing touchdown record.
But things really fell apart for Michigan last year, and the Wolverines coaching staff did not commit to giving the ball to Charbonnet on the ground. Despite averaging 6.5 yards per carry, Charbonnet was only given 19 carries all year.
It is likely because of this, in addition to how badly Michigan struggled last year and how uncertain their future is, that Charbonnet decided on a change of scenery and entered the transfer portal after last season ended.
Chip Kelly wants to run the ball, he wants to be physical, and his teams are better when they can run the ball. That in and of itself is enough of a reason to get excited about a guy as talented as Charbonnet in this offense. But it also goes beyond that. Kelly’s teams over the past few years have relied on a rotation at halfback led by a powerful and tenacious running back that can handle big loads. For two years, that guy was Joshua Kelley. Last year, it was Demetric Felton. There’s no reason to think that Charbonnet can’t be that guy moving forward, especially now that Felton is leaving.
And sure, UCLA has depth at running back, but it’s always better to be ahead of schedule in this sport. Felton was backing up Kelley before he became the bell cow. Charbonnet will likely have to sit out next year due to transfer rules unless he is granted an exemption. So with Felton gone, Brittain Brown will likely see an elevated role. But this is Brown’s last year of eligibility. That means that come 2022, Charbonnet will be more than ready to go.
I have very little doubt that Charbonnet can run successfully in this system. His time at Michigan saw him run a lot of pro-style run concepts out of spread looks. UCLA may run more zone than gap scheme stuff, but they too like to run pro-style concepts out of a spread shell. In fact, UCLA has been better at running tempo than Michigan, whose transition to a spread under Josh Gattis never fully materialized. This will likely lead to more carries and more production for Charbonnet against worn-down defenses.
But even more important than the addition of Charbonnet as a player is what this transfer means. Yes, he’s from California, and yes, UCLA and USC were high on his initial list before he committed to Michigan. These factors likely played a role in Charbonnet’s decision to come back West. But even so, it’s not very often you see a young, talented player go from a school as prestigious as Michigan to the Pac-12. That Charbonnet chose to do so is yet another sign that Kelly may be changing the identity of this program into a place that is truly appealing to blue-chip players. Charbonnet clearly believes he can have success at UCLA and that it’s a place worth playing. Considering how irrelevant UCLA has felt in recent years, that is a huge positive for this program.