Camp Countdown: Running Backs

We've already broken down the quarterback competition, so now it's time to look at just who'll be getting the rock in the backfield as we take a look at video highlights of spring ball and break down the speedsters and the Big Bone bashers.

With the first fall camp of the Sonny Dykes era at California set to pop on August 4, we set ourselves to the task of breaking down the Bears, position-by-position, with video and analysis. Today, we go behind the line and take a look at the running backs.


Junior tailback Brendan Bigelow.
USA Today Sports

Brendan Bigelow
5-foot-10, 185 pounds
As a recruit: A three-star prospect, No. 32 running back, slowed by two ACL injuries in his junior and senior seasons.

Daniel Lasco
RS Sophomore
6-foot-1, 200 pounds
As a recruit: A four-star prospect, No. 19 running back.

Khalfani Muhammad
5-foot-7, 174 pounds
As a recruit: Three-star prospect, No. 53 running back, Semper Fidelis All-American.

Jeffrey Coprich
RS Freshman
5-foot-8, 170 pounds
As a recruit: Two-star prospect, No. 122 running back; Split time between running back and defensive back at Stevenson Ranch (Calif.) West Ranch. Rushed for 1,246 yards on 153 carries as a senior, caught 5 balls for 41 yards and made 20 tackles with one pick.

Darren Ervin
RS Sophomore
5-foot-10, 195 pounds
As a recruit: Three-star prospect, No. 86 running back; Recruited as an offensive athlete, with experience at receiver, quarterback and running back. Completed 8 of 17 passes for 61 yards, rushed 114 times for 716 yards as a senior

THE SITUATION: Similar to Cal's quarterback situation, whoever winds up as the starter will be a first-timer. Both Lasco and Bigelow have seen live snaps in games and both have played on special teams, while Coprich will be playing running back for the first time since high school. Ervin has dealt with injuries on and off over the past three years, but played in 11 of 12 games last season, primarily on special teams.

Running backs coach Pierre Ingram produced two 1,000-yard rushers in three seasons at Louisiana Tech, and the one season he didn't – 2011 – former fourth-string wide receiver Lennon Creer rushed for 838 net yards, while Hunter Lee rushed for 650. Because of the amount of plays this offense runs per game – over 80 – and the speed with which they operate, this isn't going to be a one- or even a two-man job, strictly speaking. Dykes has said that, ideally, they'll have three true tailbacks, rotating snaps, based on down, distance, situation and when each needs a rest.

RS Sophomore tailback Daniel Lasco.

TALE OF THE TAPE: Again, much like the quarterbacks, the top three contenders here – Bigelow, Lasco and Muhammad – each have different skill sets.

As we saw last year at Ohio State, Bigelow has uncanny balance, a lot of strength for his size and of course breakaway speed. While Bigelow was sidelined with a minor knee injury during the spring, Ingram was chomping at the bit to see him in action, just based on the highlights he'd seen.

Last season, Bigelow rushed 44 times for 431 yards without a single negative play. He caught seven passes for 92 yards. He took back 35 kickoffs for 805 yards. All told, Bigelow produced 1,328 yards on just 86 touches – an average of 15.44 yards every time he put his hands on the pigskin. In comparison, Keenan Allen produced 12.45 yards every time he touched the ball. The bottom line: Bigelow makes things happen. Awesome things.

While Bigelow had problems with Jeff Tedford and Ron Gould's complicated schemes over the last two years, this simple system will allow him to do what he does best – get the ball in space without having to think.

As Lasco showed against Southern Utah, he's no slouch in the speed department, either, but what Lasco brings that Bigelow does not is power. Lasco hits the hole low and hard, and is more of a bruiser than Bigelow. While Bigelow has struggled with pass blocking, Lasco is not afraid to stick his nose into a defender. At 6-foot-1, 200 pounds, Lasco is not a typical big back, but he's a Texas boy, born and bred, with all the toughness and moxie you'd expect given his family history – his uncle Sammy O'Brient was a nose tackle for Texas A&M's Wrecking Crew unit in the late 1980s.

Muhammad is a curious blend of Lasco and Bigelow. He's by far the smallest back, at 5-foot-7, but as he showed during the week of practice for the Semper Fidelis All-American Bowl, he's objectively a very good blocker, which is all the more impressive, given his size. As far as speed, Muhammad has it in spades. In the 2013 outdoor track season, he never lost a race in the 100 meters, posting a personal best of 10.22 seconds at the CIF Southern Section Masters meet to win his second straight state 100m title. Muhammad also took home his second straight state title in the 100m, and his Sherman Oaks (Calif.) Notre Dame 4x100 relay team took home the state title for the second straight year.

Dykes has out-and-out said that Muhammad will "have to play," and this offense seems to be a perfect fit for a player of his skill set.

Of course, only Coprich and Ervin were available as true tailbacks in the spring due to injuries to Bigelow and Lasco, so they got a bit of a jump on understanding how the system works. Coprich is tough to bring down, shifty and has a bit of speed, so he could possibly get one or three carries a game if the top three need to take a break. Ervin is a Swiss Army athlete, who can slot in as a tailback, receiver and wildcat quarterback if need be, but he'll likely see more time on special teams than on offense.


Junior receiver Jacob Wark.
USA Today Sports

Maximo Espitia
6-foot-2, 215 pounds
As a recruit: Three-star prospect, No. 6 fullback; Played quarterback, tailback, fullback, wide receiver and tight end as a do-everything offensive weapon for Salem (Ore.) South Salem, completing 84 of 178 passes for 1,182 yards and 12 touchdowns, rushing 128 times for 859 yards and catching 11 balls for 115 yards.

Jake Davis
RS Junior
6-foot-4, 220 pounds

Lucas Gingold
6-foot, 240 pounds

Jonah Hodges
RS Freshman
5-foot-9, 170 pounds

Jacob Wark
RS Junior
6-foot-4, 250 pounds
As a recruit: A three-star prospect, No. 38 tight end; Wark was recruited as a dual-sport athlete (baseball and football) and was drafted in the 38th round of the 2010 Major League Draft by the Atlanta Braves.

THE SITUATION: With the elimination of the classic tight end position (though there will be times where the Bears add one or even two players to the offensive line, either as hand-in-the-dirt blocking tight ends or as extra offensive tackles), Cal has consolidated some former tight ends and former fullbacks into what's called the Bone position.

Most prominent in the diamond package, where two Bone players line up next to the quarterback with a tailback forming the point of the diamond in the backfield, this formation serves several purposes.

First off, the formation is versatile enough to be used as both a run and pass formation, with two receivers split out wide. It's balanced, so runs or passes can go to either side of the field. It has aspects of a max-protect formation in that it adds two blockers (the Bone players) to the five offensive linemen, but because all four players in the backfield can handle the ball, it can also be used – as we've seen in spring practice – as a power run formation. With the two receivers spread out wide, a safety has to split his attention between the run and half of the field for pass coverage, which will put receivers like Chris Harper, Kenny Lawler, Bryce Treggs and others into single-coverage situations. It can also have the feel of the pistol, with the tailback behind the quarterback in the shotgun.

TALE OF THE TAPE: The beauty of this position is that it can fit a lot of different types of athletes. You have a prototypical H-back body in Espitia, a prototypical tight end in Wark and two true fullbacks in Hodges and Gingold.

Wark and Hodges are both plus blockers, which is why you'll probably see Wark in the Bone more often than at inside receiver, though Wark has deceptive speed for an individual his size, and is a very smooth runner with improving hands.

Gingold is an absolute hammer, as we saw when he and Jordan Morgan had a meeting of the minds during practice this spring. Hodges is not going to beat anyone off the line, but former Cal running back C.J. Anderson told BearTerritory that there's no one he'd rather run behind, because he knew that Hodges would plow the way against any defender in the Pac-12, without any fear.

Espitia was forced into action at Ohio State last year after the gruesome knee injury to Spencer Hagan, and looked like a deer in the headlights, but after that, he settled down and was a competent blocker, playing in eight games. Espitia was one of the more impressive big bodies when it came to catching the ball in spring, so he may wind up being more of an inside receiver than a member of the Bone set.

We're more likely to see Davis slot in with Wark when the package requires for two big bodies to open up running lanes, but both he and Wark can catch the ball well – Wark's hands are much improved after spending the spring in right field for the Cal baseball team – so the Bears aren't really losing any options when going with that duo, rather than Gingold and Hodges. Gingold and Hodges are more likely to take the ball and run out of the backfield, and Wark/Davis are more likely to block or catch, and there's always the possibility of mixing and matching. Top Stories