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Cal 2009 Position Previews: Running Backs

Give it to Best. GIVE IT TO BEST. GIVE IT TO BEST!!!!

I'm not sure how many times I uttered that phrase last season. I'm not sure how many times other Cal fans were mumbling it under their breath. What I AM sure of is that Jahvid Best's 2008 campaign was something to behold.

Yes, he piled it up on craptacular teams, and yes, some of our commenters had the gall to start the nonsensical Quizz-Best debate (They do different things people. They do different things). But quite simply, our 2008 offense WAS Jahvid Best. He accounted for over HALF of Cal's offense in the final four games of last season.

Take a look at the percentage of offensive production Best came up with last season:

Top Cal offensive player Year Yards from player Total Team Yardage % of yards
Jahvid Best 2008 1826 4888 37.36
Justin Forsett 2007 1748 5297 33.00
Marshawn Lynch 2006 1684 5403 31.17
Marshawn Lynch 2005 1371 5135 26.70
J.J. Arrington 2004 2139 5909 36.20

To make his accomplishments even more impressive, check out his all-purpose yard percentage after the jump.

Top All-Purpose Player Year All-Purpose Yds Total Team A-P Yds % of Yds
Jahvid Best 2008 2247 6632 33.88
Lavelle Hawkins 2007 1840 7032 26.17
Marshawn Lynch 2006 1785 6794 26.27
Marshawn Lynch 2005 1642 6563 25.02
J.J. Arrington 2004 2139 6852 31.22

(numbers from the tables from

As you can see, Best had to carry most of the load, surpassing even JJ Arrington in terms of burden. Of course, the disclaimer is that JJ was on a better team and that production was going to go to other people anyway (the Cal offense produced a thousand more yards in 2004 than in 2008). Nevertheless, for Best to come close to matching Arrington's load in only eleven in a half games...that's something to whistle at.

That being said, I'd prefer he didn't get close to 34% this season. As fun as it was to see him turn Huskies, Cougars and Cardinal into mannequins, I'd prefer the Golden Bear offense to be a little more...balanced. Think of all the one-player offenses in football that have ended up winning anything. Exactly.

Will you give me a yard, sir? Just a yard. Remember how much agony short-yardage caused us in 2006-2007? It wasn't much better in 2008. By better, I mean worse.

Year Rank YPA
2007 79 2.41
2008 91 2.21

Red Zone Rushing YPA

Year Rank YPA
2007 34 4.21
2008 93 2.45

3rd and 1-3 Rushing YPA

Year Rank YPA
2007 1 14.5
2008 106 -0.3

3rd and 4-6 Rushing YPA (Just put this up because it was craaaazy, sample size is too small to mean anything)

These stats aren't fun to look at, especially when we start remembering all our failures to punch in that critical yard. We should be concerned that the short-yardage problem will continue to bother us this season, because...

Welcome to the Brian Holley era



If there's any issue that should worry the Bears, it's who's leading into the pile. Will Ta'ufo'ou will be missed, not only for how he busts open gaps for Best to speed through, but also plunging into the pile in short yardage situations and giving us that extra cushion. We have very little idea what Brian Holley brings to the table. The Bear Will Not Quit prognosticates about this worrying issue.

I think this team is going to struggle a bit in this department, especially up the middle. As of now, this is not an overpowering offensive line or runningback group. Last year's wasn't really either, and they had Mack and Ta'ufo'ou. This group doesn't even have that.

From watching them last season (granted they may have improved since then), Boskovich, Guarnero and Teofilo did not show blow-you-off-the-ball type ability. Best and Vereen are not power backs. Holley (if he gets the start) gives up 2 inches and about 20 pounds to Ta'ufo'ou and has little experience.

For this reason, I think we will see glimpses of 2006 all over again, where the offense moves the ball well most of the time (better than the last two years I predict), except when it gets into short yardage and red zone running. In 2006, as good as the offense was, it had problems punching it in or moving it several key times. Arizona after Hawkins tripped on the 1 yard line comes to mind. And that 2006 team struggled with short yardage despite having a true power back in Lynch and a legit passing game led by Jackson. This team has neither.

However, even with Ta'ufo'ou pulling the pile, the Bears averaged a mere 2.45 YPA on 3rd and short situations this seasons, 93rd in the nation and a clear dropoff from the season before (4.21 and 34th). While I'm sure Holley won't be a drastic dropoff, it does leave Cal very small in the backfield, and you wonder how much the Bears will be able to handle the physical Pac-10 defenses with even less size behind the line of scrimmage. Get ready to sweat 3rd and 1 again.

How much do these stats mean though? That's a real good question, and I'm not sure I know. There are several factors accounting for why Cal struggled in these situations.

  • Jahvid Best was the focal point of every defense we went up against. With Cal's passing attack chickening out like Michael Bluth with women, Best was the focal point of all short yardage situations.
  • Interestingly, on situations of 3rd and 6 or less, the Bears ran the ball 32 times but passed the ball 40 times in 2008. The ratios of rushing to passing run consistent with 2007 (38 rushing, 51 passing) and 2006 (38 rushing, 46 passing). Surprisingly, the Bears turned to a passing game that was barely producing on half of its plays rather than letting a running back averaging 7-8 yards a carry to take the load.
  • So was the decision-making off, or was Cignetti betting on catching defenses off guard by going to the pass? Or were they not sure if Best could convert in short yardage situations? We won't really know the answer to that.
  • The offensive line got injured. A lot. Our normal power run schemes broke down with guys like Tepper and Guarnero getting knocked out, and linemen having to play out of position. We saw a lot of the more running plays focusing on the center.

Both Best and Vereen are probably never going to be the power backs we want them to be; they're speedsters and evaders. It'd do more damage than good to their talents to try and alter their games to suit our purposes.

But at the end, power might be what we need to win the conference. It was why danzig was pleading for Tracy Slocum to get a chance early last season, and why many of us are wondering whether Covaughn Deboskie has the potential to be a bruiser, although 5'11 188 lb makes him even lighter than Best and Vereen. Carp has these thoughts on Deboskie, Sofele, and Yarnway, the future of the Cal running back program.

I don’t have much Debo knowledge. I think he’s nearly the same size as Best and Vereen, but he might be a few pounds heavier and is not as quick. Because of this and Cal having a (presumably) healthy Vereen and Best, it sounds like Debo’s skills won’t be needed. All things being even in terms of RS (and they aren’t), I foresee Yarnway & Sofele getting snaps before Debo this year (and that’s no knock on Debo).

If we’re going to play Big10-style football this year (and we might), I think we need a short yardage “Bus” in the backfield.

If Sofele is as electric as advertised, is it likely he won’t be RS?

Best attempts at comparisons:

Yarnway – Would Jerrome Bettis be his ceiling? He’s 1" taller and 7 lbs heavier than Lynch already. He’s also 7 lbs heavier than FB Will Kapp.

Sofele – A fast Warrick Dunn?

Debo – Vereen 0.5?

So when the defenses harden in October and November, when the need for speed and agility are replaced with the need for power and robustness, who will be able to carry us through those critical 3rd and 1s and 4th and 1s?

It's a question I'm not ready to answer. But if it ends up being the Jet...get those Heisman ballots ready.