Coach Sonny Dykes’ latest bit of tinkering involves promoting a former Texas high school quarterback to No. 1 running back.
Darren Ervin, who started fall camp as realistically no better than the Bears’ No. 4 back, carried the ball a team-high 10 times last week and will continue to get the chance to show what he can do Saturday afternoon when Arizona visits Memorial Stadium.
For the first time since his high school days in Houston, Ervin awoke sore last Sunday morning. “It’s a good feeling,” he said, “because it shows how much work you put in on the field.”
Arizona (5-2, 2-2) arrives with one of college football’s most prolific running backs in junior Ka’Deem Carey, bidding to win back-to-back NCAA rushing titles.
The Bears (1-7, 0-5 Pac-12) can only dream about that type of production. They rank 10th in the Pac-12 in rushing offense.
In an effort to find a winning hand, Dykes has reshuffled the deck constantly since last spring. Players have moved from offense to defense and from one position to another.
Brendan Bigelow began the season as the No. 1 running back, hoping to demonstrate that his 160-yard performance at Ohio State last year was no fluke. He is now playing slot receiver after averaging less than four yards a carry and struggling to hold onto the football.
Daniel Lasco was next up, but injured his shoulder and has missed the past two games.
Freshman Khalfani Muhammad, a former California state sprint champion, has shown flashes while totaling 378 yards rushing and receiving through eight games. But, at 5-foot-8 and 175 pounds, he is not equipped for short-yardage situations.
Dykes gave tight end-turned-slot receiver Richard Rodgers that assignment three weeks ago against UCLA, and the 6-4, 245-pound junior three times negotiated first downs. Yet Rodgers is clearly more adept as a receiver (31 catches for 439 yards) than a runner (7 attempts for 9 yards), and Dykes said his test run as a power back is likely over.
Enter Ervin, a 5-10, 195-pound redshirt sophomore, who played quarterback until his junior year in high school, although he was recruited to Cal as a running back. He was limited last spring and summer by groin and hamstring injuries.
“We always thought Darren had a chance to be a pretty good player,” Dykes said. “But we hadn’t seen him do much.”
Out of necessity, Ervin got his chance against Washington, where he had 37 yards in a performance that earned him a nod from his coach.
“He finishes runs better than any back we have,” Dykes said. “He has good vision, a good sense of how to set blocks up, and he has patience as a runner.
“He’s not going to wow anybody by having great track times, but he’s an efficient between-the-tackles runner.”
If the move doesn’t work, expect more tinkering.
Redshirt freshman Cedric Dozier will start at cornerback, Dykes said. He becomes the 11th different player to start in the secondary, the Bears’ 45th different starter overall on offense or defense.
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