FALL CAMP: Catch Him If You Can
BERKELEY -- On Day Six of California's fall camp, tailback Khalfani Muhammad kicked out to the right on a handoff from Jared Goff, then pulled off a move that, were Brendan Bigelow more litigious, should have resulted in a trademark infringement case, as the true freshman used a carbon copy of the junior's spin move that broke him open for an 80-yard touchdown at Ohio State to spin out of the grip of linebacker Khairi Fortt.
"I'm trying to let everybody get a little taste of it," Bigelow smiles. "I'm teaching everybody my spin move."
That may be just about the only thing that the true freshman can learn from the junior who averaged nearly 10 yards per touch last season. Bigelow freely admits that Muhammad is the faster of the two, and rightfully so. Muhammad – the former Sherman Oaks (Calif.) Notre Dame star – took home two straight state titles in the 100m, the 200m and the 4x100 relay, with a personal-best 10.22-second 100 in the CIF Southern Section Masters meet securing his second 100m crown.
"He's the speedster," Bigelow says. "He's doing really good, though. I'm actually impressed with his speed. He has a whole lot of it. He's going to see a lot of the field."
On Day Seven, Muhammad took his first live kickoff return reps, and didn't disappoint.
"We've pretty much been going live all through practice through these few days, but that was the first time really doing it in special teams," he said at the time. They want us to get a real feel for it, so that's what we came out here to do."
What he did was rip off three big returns of well over 20 yards, though the plays were quickly whistled dead to avoid any nasty collisions.
"He'll be in the picture from Day One on the kickoff return stuff," says head coach Sonny Dykes. "He could be the starter. We'll see."
"It feels great to come out here as a true freshman and get some playing time, and especially, get to start on something like that, that's phenomenal," Muhammad says. "Right now, I'm ecstatic, and I'm really looking forward to the season."
By Aug. 31, Muhammad may very well be as much of a weapon as Bigelow, as effective a receiving threat as any of the outside receivers on the roster.
"Out here, I'm feeling pretty comfortable," he says. "Every day we come out here and we practice fielding the kicks, so when I got out there, I knew what I had to do, and they told me to just find a gap and hit it, and that's exactly what I did."
Muhammad didn't start out so comfortable. On his first day, he had several fumbles, his hands were unsure and his footing tentative. But about halfway through practice, something clicked.
"First day, it was something new to me," he says. "I'm not used to it, so I had to come out here, feel the vibe, embrace it and get the flow in. That's what I've been doing through the few days that we've been practicing."
For most players, the speed of the college game is the biggest adjustment from high school. Not for Muhammad.
"As a matter of fact, it feels the same to me," he smiles. "That's what we were talking about the other day. My transition is working on cuts, getting faster and breaking out. The speed there on the top end, I already have that. They're bigger and stronger, most definitely, but that doesn't mean anything."
On a field of giants, among the likes of 6-foot-8 Freddie Tagaloa, 6-foot-5, 315-pound Deandre Coleman and 6-foot-8, 350-pound Aaron Cochran -- Muhammad's teammate on the 2013 Semper Fidelis All-American West squad – Muhammad would have no difficulty hiding. At a generously-listed 5-foot-8, 175 pounds, Muhammad is just barely bigger than an afterthought, but it's his speed that has him taking nearly as many reps as the two favorites to start in the backfield – Bigelow and Daniel Lasco.
"You've got to believe to achieve," Muhammad says. "I'm just trying to come out here and get better every day and go through the motions and not fall."
Other than his speed, Muhammad's biggest asset is his ability o catch the ball out of the backfield – something upon which the new Bear Raid offense places a heavy emphasis. During the Day Eight scrimmage, Muhammad broke free down field and hauled in a 30-yard duck from Goff and turned it into a 60-yard touchdown.
"That guy is the fastest dude I've ever seen," says redshirt freshman quarterback Zach Kline. "I talked to Hardy [Nickerson, Jr., the covering linebacker] after, and he said that he looked back, and as soon as he saw there was no safety, he knew it was over."
If Muhammad continues that maturation through the rest of fall camp, Pac-12 defenses may soon have that same thought as they watch No. 29 fade into the distance: It's over.
"The transition from high school to college -- that's the main thing," Muhammad says. "Once I get that down, I'll be going for something nice."
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