Football: Training camp preview — running backs

WHAT WE KNOW: That Isi Sofele is going to carry the ball. Jeff Tedford has made it clear that Sofele is the team’s No. 1 running back. Does that mean he can’t be challenged for the starting job? Not at all. The problem is Tedford has been so dissatisfied with the rest of his corps of tailbacks that he hasn’t really publicly entertained that possiblity. Tedford was surprisingly candid in expressing his disappointment with his tailback group during the spring, other than Sofele. Some may see that as a motivational ploy, but I think it’s sincere. Part of that likely is because of the other returning running backs inability to stay healthy. Covaughn DeBoskie-Johnson, Dasarte Yarnway and Trajuan Briggs are all coming off of injuries last season.

When camp starts next Saturday, all of their returning running backs will be on the field and healthy. That may make Tedford allow for more competition. DeBoskie-Johnson has reportedly worked hard this summer to shed weight and get into good shape.

Tedford has made it clear he is going to take a long look at the incoming running backs, especially freshman Brendan Bigelow. After recovering from two knee surgeries, Bigelow is expected to be on the field for the first day of practice. Fellow freshman Daniel Lasco and JC transfer C.J. Anderson will also get  a look. And what about walk-on Mike Manuel, who opened some eyes at the beginning of the spring before falling off late (partly due to injury)?

Clearly, there are a lot of tailbacks in camp, and all of them could legitimately compete for playing time.

The Bears are a known commodity at fullback with Eric Stevens and Will Kapp returning.

WHAT WE DON’T KNOW: How healthy is Bigelow? Even with his knee injuries, Bigelow was one of the most sought-after running backs in the country. He’s been compared to Jahvid Best, and we know that Best was able to play as a true freshman. If Bigelow is at full strength and Tedford is still down on the other running backs, he could make a quick ascent up the depth chart.

The other unknown is where the returning running backs stand with their health, and with their head coach. Can DeBoskie-Johnson prove to Tedford and running backs coach Ron Gould that he is a legitimate candidate to start? Is Yarnway or Briggs perceived as an every-down back at this point in his career?

Anderson is another intriguing study. Since he comes from the JC ranks, one might think he should contribute right away. But Anderson also could have been brought in simply to provide depth since the health of three returning running backs was unknown (don’t forget Anderson was a late commitment in the recruiting season).

IN SUMMATION: With the quarterback competition settled at the end of spring, tailback now becomes the most intriguing position battle of the fall. Even if Sofele is considered the starter at the beginning of camp, it’s clear he will share the load with a backup (not only because Sofele is smaller in stature but because that is Tedford and Gould’s usual preference). Bigelow arguably is the most interesting player in camp, except maybe for new quarterback Zach Maynard. If you believe Tedford, the Bears need him (or another newcomer) to contribute right away. But Cal also has to be careful with Bigelow because of his knee. He missed his entire senior season because of it. Of the returners, DeBoskie-Johnson has the best shot at playing time. Yarnway is recovering from a torn ACL and missed the spring and Briggs is only a redshirt freshman.

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.