Departing: Brendan Bigelow (NFL draft), Jonah Hodges (transfer)
Returning: Daniel Lasco, Khalfani Muhammad, Darren Ervin, Jeffrey Coprich
New (maybe): Devante Downs
It's been a long long time since I've been more concerned about the Cal running back situation than the quarterback situation, but here we are.
Gone is the mercurial, frustrating, and sporadically brilliant Brendan Bigelow, who never lived up to his billing as a starting running back. He was pulled, benched, switched, and then eventually left a year early to pursue NFL dreams. I can't even say if we'll miss him or not; Bigelow had some good moments, but he didn't provide anything that can't be made up for in other ways.
The big question is what remains. The Bear Raid needs -- needs -- a successful running game to complement the passing game. As much fun as it is to watch 50 passes a game, defenses are too good in the Pac-12 and know how to key in on a one-dimensional offense. An effective running back is desperately needed this season.
This spring, Khalfani Muhammad looks ready to step into that number one role. The two time track champion has proven that he's not only an excellent runner in the open field, but perfectly capable of eluding edge tacklers once he turns the corner. Additionally, he's shown that he can catch out of the backfield, making him a true multi-dimensional threat on offense.
If Muhammad can make that second year leap along with Goff and become more complete in other aspects of the game (namely, pass protection, reading his blocks, picking up tough yards), I can see him being our feature back this season. If he's not, we could be scrambling to find the necessary players.
Daniel Lasco seems to come the closest to being our "power runner". He was usually the only running back who didn't shy away or get brought down by immediate contact, forcing defenders to body up to take him out.
Lasco desn't have that edge speed to be an effective outside runner, but he has enough strength to pick up yardage that the smaller Muhammad has trouble with. That being said, he does fumble a bit and doesn't seem likely to burst out for big gains. His upside is limited.
Jeffrey Coprich and Darren Ervin are guys you just hope can breakthrough and provide some nice moments. Coprich is doing wonderful community work and Ervin is a really hard worker. Both saw plenty of extended garbage time action last year, but neither could crack that four yards per carry barrier. It's hard to get significant snaps when your average gain can be measured on an unweighted GPA scale, and it's doubtful we'll see them in a meaningful capacity.
Now, Devante Downs is on campus and is ready to go this spring, although he's definitely needed more at the linebacker position than at running back right now. However, I would think that Sonny would love to experiment with giving Downs a few snaps this offseason and see what he's got there. He's talented enough to play two ways and it would be fun to see some Myles Jack–type experimenting.
Another wildcard is Lucus Gingold. Cal seemed to want to employ those bone formations plenty but didn't deploy it in too many circumstances. Gingold is definitely a physical player who can be employed more if the regular run attack gets going and Cal finds itself in more short yardage situations. Unfortunately those circumstances were rare and the Bears were often left throwing it all over the field.
This will be a big season for Pierre Ingram. He has proven he's a solid recruiter, but he has yet to show that he can coach up his talent. Can his team open things up on the ground so that the pass game is not shouldering the entire load? We won't know too much until Tre Watson and Vic Enwere get here, but how effectively he can develop Muhammad and Lasco will be telling this spring.
Big questions this spring.
1) Who will become the primary back leading into the fall? Is it Muhammad's time or will Lasco showcase his talents? Or will it be a two-back battle that rages into the fall?
2) Do you think the freshmen can work their way into the starting rotation early?