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Replacing Shane Vereen - Cal Running Backs In 2011

TwistNHook: For the first time since I can remember, Cal has questions at RB. Normally, we have an embarrassment of riches with 2+ amazing RBs. Now, we don't have anybody who has been the starter before. We have Isi Sofele, who is agile and fast. We have Covaughn Deboskie-Johnson, who is powerful. What can we expect out of the RBs in 2011???

HydroTech: I think most of the concern regarding Cal's RB situation isn't so much the fact that we don't have a proven backup who can this year be the starter, but the fact that Sofele is 190 pounds (as of the latest Cal Football roster). It seems like whenever I read an article about how Cal has question marks at RB, it always mentions how Sofele is a smaller back who "may not be able to carry the ball 30 times a game" (or something to that effect). First of all, most Cal RBs don't run the rock 30 times a game anyways. In fact, Marshawn Lynch never ran the rock for more than 30 attempts in a game EVER. He ran the rock 25 times or more only THREE times ever. So all these concerns about Sofele being able to run rock 30 times a game are pretty baseless.

The real concern for Cal fans is that Sofele is small and light. There's this huge stereotype in football that RBs can't be small and light. Umm... Jacquizz Rodgers anyone? He turned out pretty well. Darren Sproles anyone? He turned out pretty well. Look, playing RB is sort of like playing WR. It helps to be bigger but if you're smaller and faster then it doesn't really matter how big or thick you are because you're going to be so fast and elusive that most defenders won't be able to catch you. Dun dun dun!!! Sort of like... DESEAN JACKSON! (GASP) Everyone was whining about his weight, and quite frankly his (lack) of weight was his biggest asset. The dude was bitchin' fast. It didn't matter that he was so light that if he got lit up that he'd probably die, because... nobody could catch him. Same principles apply here to small RBs.

Bottom line, no matter how big or small a RB may be, if the dude can play ... THEN LET HIM PLAY. Sofele was a serviceable #2 last year behind Vereen, and so far nobody has come close to challenging him this year for the #1 spot. I understand that the fact that he only got 23% of the rush attempts last year is somewhat of a concern for some Cal fans, but that's still a good amount. 23% is fairly normal. I think Cal fans are just used to seeing Cal have two RBs who are more of a 60/40 split like Best/Vereen in 2008, and Lynch/Forsett in 2006. But did you know that in 2007, Jahvid Best only got 8.7% of the rush attempts behind Forsett? So... Sofele gets more reps as a #2 than Best did, but yet somehow more people are concerned about Sofele? Oh I know... it's the talent level disparity between Best and Sofele, right? Well, if Sofele was that bad then why give him the rock 23% of the time last year? Clearly, the coaching staff has confidence in Sofele to give him that many rushes.

I think most Cal fans' concerns over RB is extremely unwarranted. And you know what? It's not so much the RB which matters for a successful ground attack, it's the offensive line. A RB can only be as good as his OL. Cal fans shouldn't be sweating over RB, they should be sweating over the OL.

Kodiak: With a serviceable Oline last year, I think we wouldn't have been so worried about Sofele this year. With semi-competent QB play, we might not have had to over-use Vereen as our workhorse.

Although Sofele is the shortest (note, I'm not saying smallest) of our backs, he's also the best blocker. He's really strong and gets great leverage. Plus, he has a willingness to stick his nose in there and attack the pass rusher. I think he's a much better pass protector, in fact, than Vereen or Best.

I'm happy to hear that Deboskie-Johnson put in the work the re-make his body and re-dedicate himself to football. Considering how Cal fans have been wishing for a short-line powerback the last few years, I'm hopeful that Debo's slashing style might fill that void.

We may not have any home-run threats from the backfield this year, but I'd be happy with a steady diet of singles and doubles that move the chains. We've done just fine in the past with clock-eaters such as Igber, Arrington, or Forsett.

Although there's a lot of talk about who will win the #3 slot, I have doubts that they'll see much action. Tedford and Gould have typically been very sparse with snaps beyond the 1-2 rotation. Marcus O'Keith got a handful per game, and Jahvid Best, of course, demanded a few because of his brilliance.

If Bigelow had lit things up in camp, I think he had the game-breaking ability to earn some snaps, but it sounds like he'll most likely be blueshirting to continue recovery from his knee injuries.

Berkelium97: What is unusual about the argument that Sofele is too small or too short is that players on defense have repeatedly mentioned how difficult he is to take down. At last year's Pac-10 Media Day I asked Mike Mohamed about which players on offense give him and the rest of the defense trouble during practice. He singled out Sofele, likening him to a bowling ball.

Another reason I am not concerned about Sofele's small stature is his tremendous blocking ability. When he can hold his own against 240lb linebackers, it does not seem very farfetched that he can break tackles and muscle his way to a few more yards after contact.

TwistNHook: What I have always liked about Sofele is I felt like his legs never stopped moving. That was something I enjoyed with Marshawn and I think it is a key ingredient to any success.

Kodiak: The other key to the running game this year will be the health of our fullbacks. In previous years, we've had our best years running the ball when we've had a great fullback like Manderino, Ta'ufo'ou, or Holley.

Stevens made great leaps last year, and it's really unfortunate to lose him. Kapp is a bit undersized, but is probably the best technician as a blocker. The problem is that he often had to cut block last year because he just didn't have the size/strength/mass to blast someone out of the way. If the defender evaded the cut, the running play stalled or got blown up. It's promising to hear that Kapp has shown good hands and wheels out of the backfield as a receiver during the fall scrimmages. We'll just have to hope that an off-season with Coach Blasquez has buffed him up to be a punishing lead blocker.

After Kapp, the depth chart gets pretty light with just Tyndall, Dumont, and JC transfer David Ankin on the roster as fullbacks. Tyndall did get some playing time last year, but it was mostly Stevens/Kapp.

Normally, I could see Tedford compensating for fullback depth by using more double TE sets, or more H-back formations. But, our TE depth is also an issue.

We very well might see more spread formations/single-back sets because of our available personnel.

NorCalNick: Is this the place to say that I want to see CDJ on the field, making a difference - just because he has Oski in his name? BOOM basketball and baseball writer insight'd!

Seriously though, I share everyone else's lack of concern with Isi. Dude may not rock our world the same way Jahvid and Marshawn did, but if he doesn't I doubt it will be for lack of ability.

OhioBear: I might be less worried about the Cal running back situation than most. I was impressed with Deboskie-Johnson's ability when he got some touches in 2009 and wondered a little bit why we didn't use him more after Jahvid Best was lost for the season. In both 2009 (post-Jahvid injury) and 2010, we gave Shane Vereen the bulk of the work and did not use the # 2 running back as much. Last year, Vereen had 77 percent of the carries as between him and Sofele. Not since 2007 when Justin Forsett did the yeoman's work as the # 1 back had we used the # 2 RB as little as we did in 2010. (In 2007, Forsett got 82 percent of the carries as between him and the Jahvid Best/James Montgomery combination as # 2.)

Was that due to a lack of confidence in Isi Sofele and/or CDJ's injury problems? Or was it just because Vereen was simply the workhorse back extraordinaire? Maybe a little of both. I spent a lot of last year thinking that Vereen was just head and shoulders above anyone we had. And perhaps with our offensive line woes, Vereen just gave us the best chance to move the ball on the ground consistently with his combinaton of speed and strong running ability inside the tackles.

Still, I have tempered optimism about the Sofele/CDJ combination. I love CDJ's slashing running style -- at least that's the way I remember his style from the runs he had against Arizona, Washington State, and Stanfurd in 2009. And a stronger, faster Isi Sofele could make him a very formidable weapon. Forsett and Joe Igber were "small" backs who gave Cal very good production when they were # 1 backs -- maybe Isi can follow in their footsteps and be that guy for Cal this year. If he does, we'll be all right. If not -- well, that'll be a lot of pressure on Zach Maynard.