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Football: Spring practice preview — running back

RETURNING STARTERS: Eric Stevens

WHO TO WATCH OUT FOR: Covaughn DeBoskie-Johnson

POSSIBLE SURPRISE: None (not enough healthy bodies)

THE BREAKDOWN: The luxury of having running backs like Jahvid Best and Shane Vereen in the program at the same time is being felt now. Jeff Tedford slept well at night (when he decided to sleep) the last few years knowing he had tailbacks who could carry the offense. As 2011 spring practice begins, there is a lot of uncertainty with the running game, just like with the quarterback position.

Tedford has definitively said that junior Isi Sofele enters spring as the No. 1 tailback. Sofele has 81 carries in his career. Last year as Vereen’s primary backup, he carried 69 times for 338 yards and a touchdown. He also caught five passes, two for touchdowns.

Sofele is only 5-foot-7 but is a muscular specimen at 188 pounds. There are some who question if Sofele has the physical stature to be an every-down back.

There are plenty of examples of smaller backs carrying the load. Just four years ago, Justin Forsett compiled the second-best single-season rushing total in school history (at the time). Forsett isn’t quite as small as Sofele, but skeptics were asking the same question about him before his one season as a starter.

Sofele certainly has the speed to make plays, especially out on the perimeter. And he has good lateral movement so he can make a move inside and get to the outside. The question is whether he can do it enough over the course of an entire game and ultimately a full season.

The Bears have plenty of backs in their program, all of whom came to Cal highly regarded. The problem this spring is most of them aren’t healthy, so Sofele won’t have much competition. The one player who could push Sofele and is healthy is Covaughn DeBoskie-Johnson, who is recovered from a minor knee injury suffered near the end of last season. Sofele beat out DeBoskie-Johnson for the backup job last season, but DeBoskie-Johnson still appears to have the combination of size and athleticism to make him a real candidate for the job.

Dasarte Yarnway will miss  the spring as he recovers from ACL surgery. No recent update on Trajuan Briggs, whose status for the spring has been in doubt because of ankle and back injuries.

Whatever happens this spring, the picture could change in the fall with the arrival of Brendan Bigelow. A dynamic athlete, Tedford believes Bigelow can compete right away as a true freshman. But the question with Bigelow is his health. He tore knee ligaments twice and hasn’t played since his junior year of high school. Will he be healthy, and if he is, will he be the same player?

The Bears have their top three fullbacks returning from last season. Stevens got the most starts but Kapp certainly got his share of playing time as well. They should engage in a good competition, along with John Tyndall.

Jonathan Okanes

Jonathan Okanes is in his fourth year covering Cal's football team. Previously, he covered Cal's men's basketball team for four years. He can also be followed on Twitter at twitter.com/OkanesonCal.

  • rollonubears

    i’d have to say if sofele can be a 1,000 yard rusher, that would qualify as “possible surprise.” wonder if we can just use two fullbacks. let one block for the other on running plays, and let them both beef up the pass protection when we want to throw.

  • CalHipHopHead

    What about Anderson? Is he on campus now or will he be arriving in the Fall? I fully expect him to get some carries next year.

  • ho

    sofele – if you’re reading this, i believe in you man. prove all the skeptics wrong this season!

  • c98

    Yes, CalHHH, I was looking forward to CJ Anderson being our next JJ Arrington (last juco tfr we had who worked out REALLY well). CJ dominated in a very tough juco league. He’s big, fast, shifty & looks awesome on film). No mention of him at all?

  • The Wisdom Cow

    I don’t doubt Sofele’s talent. I just don’t think he is an every down back. He is just too light between the tackles. His speed is not shifty, like Quiz at OSU, so an arm can bring him down when he is at the line. This takes plays out of the pro set play book.

  • milo

    A lot of the effectiveness of the run game will be the o-line. In Sofele’s case, I think he needs the o-line like Quiz Rodgers…wait for the blocking to develop, hide behind it, exploit holes, slip sideways and such.

    The other thing, have to get Sofele into space with some passes to use his speed. If he gets 20 or so total touches (run 12x/pass 8x) that could be a good combo.

    On that note, who were on the o-line during Forsett’s senior year? I think that was the last very good year for Cal’s o-line, no?

  • kevin

    Forsett avg’ed 7.6 yrd/cr as a change of pace back as a sophomore, 5+ as a full time starter, and is a key contributor on a NFL roster.

    Have a some respect and please do not EVER compare Isi Sofele to Justin Forsett.

  • Bobby

    Easy there Kevin. Let the kid start a few games before decimating him.

  • milo

    Not taking away anything from Forsett…but he had a very good line to run behind, the last really good o-line at Cal. If Sofele gets as good of an o-line, I think he can do well.

  • Jpf

    Something that hasn’t been discussed that I’ve seen but is a distinct possibility is Tedford moving the offense towards a Spread or spread option attack.

    Think bout it. He brought on Arroyo (a spread guy) he is focusing on mentoring qbs in spite of the fact that he has a qb coach, there is a total lack of clear RB, and a fantastic stable of WRs and athletes that can play in the wild Bear (Ervin, Sofele, Keenan, and even Mansion can run though no one wants him too. Oh and there’s Maynard)

    It is I believe the perfect opportunity for JT to install a new system or at least elements of a new system.

    I

  • Calduke

    JO aptly identified the confusion and lack of experience at the QB position. His review of the running backs seems less than positive.
    HOWEVER; the strong, dominating OL will be able to counterbalance the questionable QB/RB capabilities.

  • Bears

    Every position is unproven and is going to be viewed as nothing special. Every aspect of our offense last year was weak minus Vereen. Will it be again?
    Wish I knew, no idea how RB will shake out? Can OL and TE’s become dominant? Will WR’s execute and produce and do more than have potential.
    Will a QB or QB’s stand up?
    Lots to prove Bears…

  • David

    Key word shall be ‘elements.’ Just a few plays, you can count on it.

  • c98

    Keenan running a pistol ‘element’? I can dig it.

  • todd nizzle

    CJ will be the starter…etch it in stone

  • rotfogel

    I went to the spring game last year and the guy that really stood out, with his size and speed, was Traquan Briggs. He looked like an NFL RB…sorta like Lynch. It’s really too bad that he’s a bit dinged up as I would like to see if a full year of training and working out has made him even stronger and faster. Ceiling wise, he’s got the highest one of any of the backs, hopefully he can get healthy.

  • dball

    Bigelow has the highest ceiling of any of the incoming true- or redshirt-freshmen, though Briggs and Lasco are not far behind. Ervin is going to be special in his own right. Unfortunately, we’ll have to wait a bit to see how quickly they adapt.

    As a transfer, Anderson is the furthest along the learning curve of any of them, and with the injuries to the guys already on campus, he’ll likely play a prominant role sooner than others.

  • LR

    I agree with the above poster regarding CJA. If he doesn’t start, Cal is in serious trouble.

    JF and Arrington were as close to being power runners as any sub 5’10 guys can be. Sofele is not in their league.

  • rotfogel

    DBall,
    No, Bigelow is just below Briggs in terms of highest ceiling. I take it you’ve seen neither. Well, I can’t say I’ve seen much if any of Bigelow, but I have seen Briggs. Briggs has first round talent, maybe Bigelow does too, but he doesn’t have Briggs’ size and strength.

  • Eric

    Can any of the RBs catch out of the backfield? Whoever is the best at that may have a leg up, since every year over the last 3-5 years one of the favorite plays is the wheel route to the RB and wide-side screens to the RB.

    Absent a material restructuring of the playbook, it may not matter. Over the last few years, we have consistently run out of the Ace set or the shotgun (or even that idiotic wildcat) and it hasn’t worked. To the extent that there have been god gains, it usually has been through tackle-breaking one-person efforts by the likes of Forsett, Best, and Vereen. Until we get back to the I-formation, as the standard set, with the benefit of a blocking FB, and until the plays involving rollouts, rolling pockets, and called QBs are included, our RBs will get stuffed and our QB, whoever it is, will face the same problems that plagued Longshore and Riley. Maybe Coach M’s addition signals that Cal’s offense will finally figure it out.

  • bigmarsh415

    Rotfogel:

    briggs is good. has the size, enough speed, and has the makeup of a marshawn type…maybe…

    that being said….

    WATCH the highlights of brendon bigelow…this is the best running back in the country hands down. he is jbest fast, and is bigger!!!!! if his knee gets better (we should all pray) move everyone aside and let this phenom do his thing.

    i want Bridgford at QB (nobody wanted maynard out of college except keenan hahah) he was like 50/50 Td/int at buffalo…the pac-12 is a little harder i would say..don’t know why everyone is so high on him..
    bridg is accurate, fast delivery, just needs a little more weight. he is an aaron rodgers..while maynard is reggie robertson

    a healthy BIGELOW at rb…with cj as his backup and briggs if healthy

    and marv keenan tevin and clay (who has serious speed) at wr’s

    now only if the 0-line with coach M can improve we will be sickkkkkkk

  • t0ast

    In Gould We Trust

  • milo

    Sofele can catch the ball. He should be in the slot 8-10 plays a game.

    Regarding the wildcat and all…still need a good o-line to execute that formation, if not more so. Sure you can get away with less size but you still need execution. I think we’ll see a big change with Coach M in there.

  • Calfansincebirth

    David Aknin is a BEAST. He should get some consideration at Full Back. He had 400 yards in one game when he was at my high school

  • Jan K Oski

    Milo- don’t forget about Coach Blasquez in getting these kids conditioned for the season. He was a major factor in DLS being undefeated all those years, and I have no doubt he’ll do the same at the next level with bigger and better athletes.

    Go BEARS!

  • calbear

    interesting stuff. Most RBs seem good at catching, especially Sofele. I hesitate to call Briggs 1st round talent …wouldn’t deny it but our 1st round pick 11 Marshawn never redshirted…that says something about his preparation and overall talent.

    Would i like to see Briggs burst through? Of course. I remember the other year we were worried about talent at teh RB position…the beginning of 2008. yes, we had best and vereen but Best was recovering from hip surgery, vereen was banged up and we had Deboskie for spring practice. Do we have something to worry about compared with QB? Not so much in my opinion. I have complete faith in Gould and how he prepares these kids.

    Who is David Aknin? A new FB? Walk-on? Would like to hear more.

    New strength coach…awesome!

  • Dangn56

    Got that right, TOast. Gould wil coach’em up. He’s the man! There’s plenty of talent there.

  • armchair quarterbackn

    when it comes down to it, the only people who truly know what these backs are capable of are the ballers themselves and the coaches.

    To compare one back to the other is a waste of time. Different teams, players, coaches, schemes etc etc…

    I’d be more concerned about the lack of depth on the O-line especially at tackle. Not to mention the fact that there is no proven starter at qb.

    Without a deep, quality o-line and a decent passing game, who starts at rb really won’t matter.