Sports Illustrated put Oregon star De’Anthony Thomas on its cover this fall, trumpeting him as “The Fastest Man in Football.”
Cal’s Brendan Bigelow wouldn’t mind challenging Thomas for that label.
“I would love to race him,” Bigelow said.
“I raced him my freshman year in high school. I won. It was close.”
That was track and field. This is football.
Thomas, obviously, plays for the superior team, the unbeaten and No. 2-ranked Ducks. He played youth football in a league organized by Snoop Dogg. And he plays more.
Here’s a statistical curiosity: Thomas has touched the ball as a runner, receiver or return man exactly 100 times this season. Bigelow has done so 50 times.
Thomas, who had a spectacular 73-yard punt return for a touchdown on Saturday against Colorado, is averaging 10.25 yards each time he touches the football.
Bigelow, who ran 57 yards for a touchdown at Utah, accounts for 16.52 yards each time he gets his hands on it.
In other words, Bigelow gains 6 yards more each time he gets the ball than Thomas does. Counting only plays from scrimmage, Bigelow averages 12.9 yards, Thomas 8.7.
It doesn’t mean Bigelow is better than Thomas, but it does raise a question Cal coach Jeff Tedford has been asked repeatedly this season: Why doesn’t Brendan Bigelow get more carries?
“He’s playing more and more each week,” Tedford said Sunday. “I think each week he’s getting more comfortable with things.”
Really? Bigelow carried the ball just twice at Utah — both times after Cal fell behind 42-6. He carried twice against Stanford. Not once against Arizona State. And just nine times in the first half of games all season.
The company line has been that Bigelow, a sophomore, is a work in progress, still learning the playbook, still picking up blocking schemes, still an unfinished product.
To which the masses essentially have been screaming during this 3-6 season: Let him get on-the-job training.
Tedford has the good fortune — or the curse — of having three capable running backs on his roster. Senior Isi Sofele gained 1,322 yards last season. Senior C.J. Anderson is the biggest of the three and leads the team this season with 513 rushing yards.
Bigelow has gained 343 yards on rushing plays.
“He’s a good back — there’s no doubt about it,” Tedford said. “Some of our backs do other things better than he does and he can do other things better than they do.”
Tedford is loyal to his seniors, as he should be because they have been productive.
But while Sofele has averaged 4.4 yards per attempt and Anderson a very sturdy 6.3 yards, Bigelow has ripped off 12.7 yards with each of his 27 carries.
“What I tell myself is either (get a) first down or touchdown,” he said.
On his 33 rushes and pass receptions, Bigelow has produced 15 first downs, including four touchdowns. Not once has he been dropped for a loss on a running play.
To his credit, Bigelow has not publicly complained about his role.
“I’m not for sure where I’m at, but I definitely can tell you I’m still working and I’m getting better,” he said. “I think it’s probably about everything — the playbook, blocking. I just need to get better at my position.”
Whatever his limitations might be, it’s Bigelow’s big-play potential that separates him.
There are 15 players in the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision who have at least three runs from scrimmage of 50 yards or longer this season, Bigelow included. No one has more than four.
The other 14 — including the likes of Ohio State’s Braxton Miller, UCLA’s Johnathan Franklin and Michigan’s Dennard Robinson — have averaged 114 carries this season.
It’s silly to suggest that if Bigelow had as many carries as Miller — who has six times as many with 166 — that he’d have proportionally that many more runs of 50 yards or longer.
But with three games left in a Cal season going nowhere, it also may be silly not to give him the chance to try.
— By the numbers —
Oregon’s De’Anthony Thomas and Cal’s Brendan Bigelow are two of the fastest players in the Pac-12. Here’s how their numbers compare:
— DE’ANTHONY THOMAS, Oregon
Rushing: 58 for 499 yards, 8.6-yard average
Receiving: 24 for 218 yards, 9.1 average
Punt returns: 12 for 220 yards, 18.3 average
Kickoff returns: 6 for 88 yards, 14.7 average
Total touches: 100 for 1,025 yards, 10.25 average
— BRENDAN BIGELOW, Cal
Rushing: 27 for 343 yards, 12.7-yard average
Receiving: 6 for 83 yards, 13.8 average
Kickoff returns: 17 for 400 yards, 23.3 average
Total touches: 50 for 826 yards, 16.52 average