Through Jeff Tedford’s tenure at Cal, and through Cal’s inconsistent defensive teams, their inconsistent offense and quarterback play, the program has never missed a beat at the running back position. Not since before JC transfer J.J. Arrington—perhaps the most underrated football player in the country in 2004 when he rushed for 2,018 yards—entered his senior year did Cal lack a clear-cut, established running back…until now.
And when spring depth charts were released in May (which are subject to change during camp in August), the running back position, featuring starter Isi Sofele (5’7″, 188 lbs., Jr.) and backup Covaughn DeBoskie-Johnson (5’11″, 225 1bs., Jr.), is most likely to change through camp and as the season wears on.
The reason is twofold: Sofele (3-star) and Deboskie-Johnson (3-star) are the most experienced backs but have lacked reps and playing time in their career; they do not possess the talent or pedigree that Arrington (top JC RB in 2003), Marshawn Lynch (5-star prospect and no. 2 HS RB in 2004), Jahvid Best (4-star prospect, no. 9 HS RB in 2007), Shane Vereen (4-star prospect and no. 5 HS RB in 2007) and Justin Forsett (3 years of backup reps and solid production) had. This is not solely based on their HS ratings, which are subject to error, but also on observation.
The second reason is that Cal has some young and inexperienced but arguably more talented running backs waiting in the wings: JC transfer C.J. Anderson (3-star prospect), sophomore Desarte Yarnaway (4-star prospect) and true freshman Brandon Bigelow (4-star prospect), who some have said would have been a top-5 national recruit had he not suffered knee injuries late in his high school career (though Cal could decide to redshirt Bigelow if he is not fully healthy or ready to compete for PT). It may simply take ineffectiveness on behalf of the the top two on the depth chart to create opportunities for reps, or one of these guys could force Tedford’s hand with an excellent camp and impressive play early in the season with whatever reps they are given.
I’m hoping it is the latter—especially if Bigelow, the youngest but arguably the most talented, is healthy enough to compete—and Tedford has shown he is not unwilling to give quality PT to freshman running backs when it is warranted. (Lynch and Best held prominent backup roles as true freshmen, while Vereen held a prominent backup role as a redshirt freshman.)
What is highly unlikely is that Tedford sprinkles carries to three, four or five backs over the course of a stretch, game or season. He will likely stick with a top two, and give the third string carries here and there.
Sofele has given us a small sample size despite being a junior, rushing for 338 yards on 69 carries (4.9 ypc). This, more than anything, demonstrates the large gap between the talent and abilities of Vereen and Sofele last year. It does not, in and of itself, illustrate the fact that Sofele is not good; Forsett was one of the more talented backs in the Pac-10 but had to spend three years behind the superstar Lynch. And the difference being Forsett showed us just how good he was in a prominent back up role. Sofele has not.
At minimum, I suspect Deboskie-Johnson will supplant Sofele, if not full time, at least a by-committee-type rotation. With no clear stud on the roster at the outset, Tedford won’t hesitate to share the carries between the two, using game circumstances and matchups to guage how exactly he utilizes a platoon at running back. The no. 1 title on the depth chart afford to Sofele is merely that at this point: a title. He is the incumbant backup and Vereen is gone. By no means does he have a firm grasp on the starting job.
Yarnaway, a highly recruited, physically ideal back out of San Francisco has had an obscure Cal career his first two seasons. He redshirted in 2009, and played sparingly last year until hurting himself in practice. This may have hindered his ability to climb the depth chart this spring, but he should play a factor at the running back position before all is said and done.
Now, we must acknowledge that a big part of a running back’s success is the quality and effectiveness of their offensive line. Cal’s line has struggled in pass protection of late, but Vereen was able to be both very productive and efficient running behind them the last two seasons. And the line should only get better this year.
I’ll state my prediction plainly: I do suspect that at some point early on, either in camp or the first few games, the depth chart at running back will change. How drastically, well, is difficult to say. I also suspect it may continue to fluctuate as the season progresses. If Bigelow is healthy and does not redshirt, I suspect, at least towards the end of the year, that his role will increase dramatically, if not crack the top two. Anderson, who has two years of experience as a primary back and appears to be the closest one looking in on the top two at this juncture, will probably increase his role the soonest, should injuries or ineffectiveness plague Sofele or Deboskie-Johnson.
By no means am I arguing the running back position, by virtue of being most likely to fluctuate, is the most crucial position battle to the team.
Quarterback is uncertain and suspect, and is certainly the most crucial. If Cal fans early on are calling for Allan Bridgford, or god forbid Brock Mansion, it means Maynard is awful and Cal is in for a long season.
Depth chart questions at tight end—will the highly recruited physical specimen and pass catcher Spencer Ladner supplant Anthony Miller to become the Bears’ first pass catching weapon since Garrett Cross in 2004?—also will play out during the year.
And despite preseason consensuses presupposing a very good Cal defense in 2011, their top recruits the past few years are still making their way up the depth charts, and last year’s unit disappeared against formidable teams (with the exception of Oregon), making each defensive unit—D-line, LBs, and DBs—as or more important than who is getting the bulk of carries at running back.
However, running back will be a position of scrutiny for the first time in nearly a decade for the Cal program. Only if someone establishes themselves early on will the scrutiny—and stability at the position—be reconciled.