If there is one thing the Jeff Tedford era has consistently produced for Cal football, it has been productivity at the running back position. Only once in Tedford's 10 seasons as coach have the Bears failed to produce a 1,000-yard rusher --- and that was in 2009 when Jahvid Best's season was cut short by a horrific injury that kept Best out of the final 4+ games of the season. So the theme is consistent over the years: Cal haz productive running backs.
Last year was no exception to the rule. Isi Sofele rushed for 1,322 yards and 10 touchdowns, answering critics who wondered whether he was capable of following the tough act of Shane Vereen as Cal's feature running back. As good a season as Sofele had last year, he comes into the season not as the clear #1 at running back, but, rather, part of a #1 and #1a tandem with C.J. Anderson. Add guys like Brendan Bigelow and Daniel Lasco to the mix at running back and what do we have? Perhaps an exciting set of running backs. And we haven't even talked about the running threat that quarterback Zach Maynard brings!
CGB's fearless leadership pumps some sunshine about the Cal running back corps.
TwistNHook: In Coach Gould We Trust!
unclesam22: I'd love to see those three guys running teams silly like the WVU trio did. And I really don't think that it is a stretch to think that they can. I'm really excited about our running game this year and I think that it will be a huge plus for the offense.
I also think that the superb strength of this unit makes me wonder how many touches per game we can get the top 4 guys. I'd love to see Isi and CJ both go over 1,000 this year, but I'm also interested in seeing how Lasco and Bigelow have progressed. Some meaningful game reps would be nice to see, not only to get them some experience, but also to keep everyone fresh and less banged up. But, as we've talked before, the O-line is going to be key in opening up enough holes for these guys to run through. I think a decent line lets them do well, and a stellar line lets them run free.
(Read more thoughts about Cal's running backs after the jump.)
norcalnick: Basically every year when we talk about the running backs, the question isn't "will they be good?" or "Who's starting?" The question is how good, and how do you go about splitting up the carries?
With all three backs returning, I see little reason to expect significant changes from last year. Isi will get the majority of the touches (15-20 touches/game) and CJ will get the majority of time as a back-up (5-10 touches/game). There is one potential exception. We know what Isi and CJ will do (pile up lots of yards and touchdowns). But how much better can sophomore Brendan Bigelow get?
It's generally unfair to expect great things from a true freshman and it's even more unfair to expect anything from a true freshman coming off of major knee injuries. But just the fact that Bigelow didn't redshirt speaks to the coaching staff's opinion of his talents.
Of course, it's entirely possible that he just doesn't get a ton of touches. When you have runnings backs like Isi and CJ, along with Keenan Allen and a quarterback who likes to run the ball himself . . . well, that just doesn't leave a ton of opportunities for everybody else. But if Bigelow gets the chance he could be the home run threat Cal's offense is arguably lacking.
Isi Sofele rushed for 190 yards against Oregon State last season.
LeonPowe: The one thing I'd say from spring and fall practice however, is that the carries will be split a lot more evenly between CJA and Isi. When Tedford is saying things like CJ is pushing for starting position - and they're talking about two tailback formations, I think CJ is going to get a lot more touches (and consequently Isi, fewer).
Ohio Bear: The depth chart for the season opener vs. Nevada has been released, showing Sofele and Anderson as co-No. 1's at running back. So this provides some evidence of what LeonPowe is talking about here. With the season that Sofele had last year, it says a lot about Anderson's improvement that he was able to push to be at the top of the depth chart along with Sofele. It will be interesting to see how these two work as a running back tandem. Cal has had numerous teams over the years that had two running backs get playing time, but this could be the first time we've had a situation where there is not a clear # 1 guy. And that's not a bad thing here.
solarise: A major component of our offense from the Best/Vereen era was the empty set with Best/Vereen as WRs. If Anderson and either Lasco or Bigelow emerges as capable route runner with excellent hands, I can see situational usage where we create mismatches for yards after catch.
The return of Eric Stevens also excites me. His versatility at the goal line and screens gives us yet another weapon to work with from the backfield. I wonder though if Stevens will get as many opportunities to shine compared to his Soph campaign since we seem to expect more emphasis on TE/H-backs.
Pump pump pump.
Ohio Bear: Stevens is listed at the top of the depth chart at fullback. It's good to see him all the way back. Equally nice -- and intriguing -- is the depth chart listing Dasarte Yarnway as the backup fullback to Stevens. Here's hoping both Stevens and Yarnway can stay healthy.
solarise: Just really happy seeing Yarnway making his presence felt at practice translating onto the field as part of the two deep behind Stevens. The man finally caught a break after shaking off all injury issues. Go Bears!
Kodiak: With so many options available, it'll be interesting to see how Coach Gould divvies up the snaps. Historically, he's used two backs heavily when he's had the talent, leaned on one when he doesn't, and given the third back very little time.
This year is unique in that Isi and CJ could be considered 1a/1b, and a healthy Bigelow may be too good to keep off the field. Of the four backs, CJ is the only one who has really proven himself to be a capable receiver. If Bigelow has good hands, that really opens up what the coaches can do with him. I remember that Tedford used to put Lynch in motion behind stacked receivers and either throw a quick hitch, or fake the quick hitch to set up some downfield action.
Ball security and pass protection will probably be the keys to how much time the young backs get to see. Isi has clearly been the best pass-blocker the past couple of years, and the word is that CJ has greatly improved this part of his game. During spring, Bigelow was emphatic that holding on to the ball and working on his blocking were two of the biggest things he had to adjust to at this level.
I'm also excited to see what we've got at fullback. When healthy, Stevens reminded me a bit of Manderino; kind of a do-everything fullback who could run, catch, and block proficiently. During the spring, Yarnway was getting snaps at fullback and showed off some nice hands out of the backfield. If he can keep his pads low and block capably that's yet another interesting option for the coaches to figure out.
It's good that the backs are all so capable because I think we're a better team when we can rely on our ground game to set up the pass. Whether the big guys up front can make this work consistently is probably the difference between a 7-win season and something greater. (or worse)
2011 Cal running back highlights
unclesam22: Is there any chance we run a Wildbear formation with Isi and CJ and Bigelow in the backfield? I know it'd be pretty unconventional to put all 3 out there, but surely that would give the defense some pause and create an opportunity. Or is that just completely insane to think?
HydroTech: I feel really comfortable with what we have going this year at the running back position. It seems as if we have our every-down guy (Sofele), we have a power back (Anderson), and we have a speed back (Bigelow). Even if one of those guys goes down, we have Lasco to fill in -- he's apparently had a pretty good spring.
I think the running backs will be the strength of our offense. In a way, I liken our situation to that of the San Francisco 49ers. We're overflowing with some good RBs. Of course, whether our running backs are able to grab tons of yards on the ground will still hinge on how well the offensive line is able to block for them. We won't know the answer to that question until the season starts.
(What do you think about the Cal running back situation? Share your thoughts after the jump.)