Swanson: Zach Charbonnet’s running speaks loudly for No. 9 UCLA

There’s been debate about the best college QB in L.A.: UCLA’s swaggering fifth-year starter Dorian Thompson-Robinson or USC’s slippery sophomore transfer Caleb Williams? One of them has now taken a loss, yes, but the other is heading into a treacherous test of mettle on the road this week.

OK, now choose your running back.

That’s easier.

With much respect to Travis Dye, the endlessly quotable Norco native who’s rushed for seven touchdowns in his first season with No. 12 USC, there’s no debate about the best college running back in L.A.

It’s UCLA’s Zach Charbonnet – even if it feels like almost no one is talking about him.

Including him.

He’s a quiet dude who’d rather not with the limelight, who’ll happily pass the mic and pass on the interview and let his game do the talking.

And his game has been talking up a Bruins blue streak this season. His game has been loud. Highlights over soundbites, if you will.

Those volume-speaking numbers:

He’s No. 8 in the nation with 151.6 all-purpose yards per game

No. 8 with 123 rushing yards per game

No. 6 with 7.07 yards per carry

And, yes, his Bruins are 6-0. (They had Charbonnet churning out yardage in five of those victories; he didn’t play in the Bruins’ 45-7 victory over Alabama State).

Now No. 9 UCLA is hoping to chase consecutive victories over top-25-ranked Pac-12 opponents with a third Saturday at No. 10 Oregon. It’s perhaps the game of the week, nationally, suited for the site of Saturday’s “College GameDay.”

UCLA’s Toughest Test Yet III is a matchup between two of the Pac-12’s most prolific offenses, with the Ducks averaging 42 points per game and UCLA putting up 41.5, second- and third-most in the conference behind Washington’s 42.1.

Adding another degree of difficulty: Oregon is allowing just 98 yards per game on the ground, boasting a run defense that ranks tops in the Pac-12 and 13th in the nation.

But Charbonnet – like Thompson-Robinson – has proved up to the challenge so far.

They’ve been going, and growing, against the grain for months, starting with their decisions to bypass the NFL draft – though running that route had to have been tempting. Pro Football Focus ranked Charbonnet – 6-foot-1, 220-pounder with the 4.41 40-yard time – as the No. 3 at running back and The Athletic had him No. 6.

UCLA coach Chip Kelly, who coached four NFL seasons, first with Philadelphia and then San Francisco, will tell you: His physical, quick-cutting, forward-moving runner is a prototypical pro prospect at his position.

Charbonnet squares his broad shoulders and squeezes them through small holes, bursting upfield, straightening up like a sprinter as he goes. Good luck to defenders trying to bring him down.

“He got a lot faster,” said Jon Gaines, one of UCLA’s offensive linemen. “I used to joke about him getting hawked before, but you know, he has breakaway speed and he’s hitting dudes in the mouth. That’s all you can ever ask out of your running back.”

“He plays faster,” said Charles Collins, who coached Charbonnet for two seasons at Oaks Christian High in Westlake Village. “Because he has better eyes. Once your eyes get better, you can anticipate sooner.”

Or as Kelly put it during a recent appearance on “The Herd with Colin Cowherd”: “There’s so many good athletes, so much speed in the NFL, you don’t have time to dance in a hole. When he makes a cut, he makes it decisively, and can really get the ball going forward all the time. That’s what you want in the NFL.”

But first Charbonnet – the Camarillo native who began his college career platooning in the Michigan cold – wanted more out of college.

He’s political science major who was on the Athletic Director’s Honor Roll last season, so there was a degree to complete.

And he wanted a Pac-12 title – a reasonable goal, it turned out, after UCLA went and walloped downtrodden Colorado 45-17, raced to a 24-point lead against Washington and then a 17-point advantage vs. defending conference champion Utah.

The last time out, on Oct. 8 against the Utes, Charbonnet cranked up the volume to near 11, rushing for a career-best 198 yards and a touchdown against what was the Pac-12’s best defense.

Anyone outside of the program who claims to have predicted the Bruins’ success had better come with receipts. Because the conference’s coaches and media members weren’t exactly believers, both entities picking the Bruins to finish fourth.

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Didn’t matter to Charbonnet.

“Not done yet..,” the 21-year-old wrote on Instagram because, even there, he’s a man of few words.

“He is not one that does it through social media,” said Collins, who says Charbonnet’s quiet focus serves as an example to current players in the Lions’ program. “If they learn anything about Zach, it’s his work ethic and character – the best compliment if someone compliments you, not if you’re complimenting yourself.”

So I’ll do it for him.

Charbonnet is the best back in L.A., in the Pac-12, and soon, he’s going to be making real noise in the NFL too.

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