BERKELEY – A Cal alumnus – and program donor – said this week, while watching practice, that Bears running back Daniel Lasco looks taller. His height hasn’t changed, in the media guide, at least, where he’s still 6-foot-1, as he’s been since he first came to Berkeley. He’s just standing a little taller, but it's not the height that strikes you. It’s the strength. His arms are more defined; his shoulders, broader; his chest, deeper; his resolve, stronger.
“If I’m crawling off the field, as long as I come away with a win, that’s all that matters,” he says.
Not even being on the Doak Walker Award Watch List for the second year in a row makes a dent. When asked about the honor, his voice doesn’t even change pitch.
“I don’t pay any attention to anything that doesn’t have to do with Cal football -- the end of the season, outside things, at all, for that matter – my family gets excited,” he says. “I let my family soak it up, post it all on social media, do stuff like that and be excited for me, but honestly, that’s just a distraction. That’s all it is. People can’t predict what’s going to happen tomorrow.”
The second-year team captain – and fifth-year senior – became the first Cal running back since 2011 to eclipse the 1,000-yard mark with his 1,115 yards last season. He averaged 5.3 yards per carry and scored 12 touchdowns. On a team where quarterback Jared Goff is the highlight, the Heisman candidate and the Golden Boy, in an offense known for passing the ball, Lasco was the team’s MVP last season, and an honorable mention All-Pac-12 selection. In some circles, it's whispered that he could even approach J.J. Arrington's 2,000-yard 2004 campaign.
“I never feel like I have a starting job here,” he says. “I can’t stay the same. If I stay the same today, that’s me, getting worse.”
Lasco is emblematic of the senior class. He’s seen two head coaches, three position coaches, a 1-11 season and could only sit and watch on the sidelines, as a redshirt, as the Bears fell, 21-10, in the Holiday Bowl to Texas – the archrival of his uncle Sammy O’Brient’s alma mater -- Texas A&M -- for which he played defensive tackle as part of the Wrecking Crew defense.
Lasco will get his shot at the Longhorns in just over two weeks.
“That’s going to be a big-time game," Lasco says, "but right now, it’s just Grambling State.”
“We’ve been through a lot,” says redshirt senior right guard Jordan Rigsbee. “We’ve been through, as freshmen, first coming in and going to the Holiday Bowl, thinking it was going to be like that the whole time. Then, we had coaching changes, and we had guys leaving, other guys coming up, guys getting kicked off the team, guys getting hurt – all these different things – we’ve been through so much. Now that our leaders are the guys -- the seniors -- that have been through the most, it’s easier for us to keep that group together. There’s nothing that someone on our team hasn’t seen.”
Rigsbee says that this is the first time in his five years in Berkeley that there are “no beefs” in the locker room, that the camaraderie on the team is “the best it’s been.”
The senior class has been through plenty, and that’s why Lasco – even when he’s smiling – can burn a hole through you with a glance. When some of his teammates, in the past, have hammed it up for the sideline cameras, he shot them a look.
“It’s time to work,” he’s said.
That's just what Lasco has done this offseason, through spring, summer and fall camp, and for the past two weeks, as the Bears prepare for a season-opening tilt against Grambling State on Saturday at 2 p.m., at California Memorial Stadium.
“Their defensive style and philosophy is risk-reward," he says. "They do a lot of pressures and throw a lot at you and try to hope for the best. But, it leaves openings in the back end for other plays. Honestly, I don’t believe that they will stay in their defense that they played in all year last year, but if they do, we have answers for it. All we have to do is focus up front, our offensive line picking it up, as long as the running back is with them, and being on the same page in communications. We’ll pick it all up.”
“I think he’s one of the hardest workers, one of the best leaders, one of the most respected guys on the team, and I think that’s just because he works hard. That’s the guy he is. He’s a great teammate, a great guy, and I’m happy to have him in my backfield, for sure.” -- Jared Goff
There’s good reason for that sentiment. Lasco has Goff’s back.
“We’re staying in protection, protecting Jared and any quarterback that’s in there, and focusing on our job,” Lasco says of the running backs, as a group. “That’s the No. 1 thing, is protect the quarterback at all times. Just be on the same page with the quarterback.”
Goff and Lasco hooked up for the longest passing play in school history, that may as well have been a run – a 92-yard catch-and-run up the eastern sideline against Sacramento State last season.
There’s going to be more of that, this season. For one, the running backs are now in the same meeting room as the quarterbacks, with offensive coordinator Tony Franklin coaching both positions, following offseason staff shuffling that moved head coach Sonny Dykes back into the mix as a wide receivers coach – a spot which, he says, is where he feels most at home, and how he identifies himself as a football coach.
“It’s the thing I’m most comfortable with, because I was a very bad running back,” says Franklin, a two-year starting running back at Murray State in the late 1970s. “Usually, bad running backs make good coaches. I love doing it. I love doing both. It’s been fun to have them both in the room, and I think they like being in the room, together.”
Before Franklin had coached his first game in Berkeley, he said that he’d never been on a championship team that couldn’t run the ball. During that frightful 1-11 debut season, Cal was ninth in the Pac-12 in rushing offense, averaging an anemic 3.5 yards per carry. A championship team, they were not.
That year, before the first game, Dykes told his team that they were “unbelievably prepared, and we’re going to go unbelievably fast.”
They weren’t, and they didn’t.
There is no more of that bravado – borne from having the highest-octane offense in the land at Louisiana Tech in 2012. There isn’t even a sense of quiet confidence, as there was before last season. There is only focus.
Goff, Rigsbee says, is more detail-oriented, learning everything he can about the offensive line, and understanding the offense as a whole in a deeper, more complete way. “He was always a great quarterback,” says Rigsbee, “and now, he’s progressing past that, into a great football player.”
That means more plays like that 92-yarder, and more checks down to his running backs.
“Us being in the meeting rooms with coach Franklin, he really harps on, if he goes through his progressions, and the first two, three reads aren’t there, or whatever it is, just to get the ball straight down to the back,” says Lasco. “That’s what Jared’s done in the spring time, that’s what he’s done in the summer time, and he’s continued to do it throughout fall camp … I’ve got a lot of faith in coach Franklin’s play calling.”
Lasco allows his granite façade to crack, just a bit, into a knowing grin.
“Franklin is a great offensive coordinator,” he says. “He sees the defenses in ways that a lot of offensive coordinators that I’ve been around really don’t. With that said, him being able to call out different things and Jared having the ability to change it up if he sees something that the plays not going to work, what was called, then he has the ability to switch it up and change it or tag a different route or add on different things to it. That’s just going to be one thing that Jared works on throughout the season. It’s not going to be perfect the first game, but the practice, getting it in the film room and seeing, ‘Well, that didn’t work, so we’re going to have to try to do this,’ it’s just us tweaking things.”
Lasco fought through shoulder injuries in 2013 that limited him to eight games, and one start, rushing 67 times for 317 yards and two touchdowns. He was tied for second on the team in rushing.
Reflecting, Franklin said he was afraid to call running plays. That wasn’t the case last year, when Franklin had, in Lasco, a back who played in and started all 12 games, could catch the ball out of the backfield as soon as run it up the A-gap, and took pressure off of Goff.
“We’re in Year Three,” says Franklin. “We should be able to run the ball better. If not, I’ll be extremely disappointed – run it at the end of a game, when we want to finish a game. That’s where we’ve got to get good – line up, up by a touchdown, run four minutes off the clock and pound the ball.”
Or, as Dykes says, be successful running the ball when everyone in the stadium knows you’re going to run it.
Like All Successful Relationships, it's About Communication
“My favorite part about him is how well he communicates with me, and how easy he is to work with. He wants to win as bad as anybody. He’s back there and we’re talking the whole game.” -- Jared Goff on Daniel Lasco
Having the running backs and quarterbacks in the same room, watching film, has turned Franklin from a music producer – mixing various tracks from disparate recordings – into more of an orchestra conductor.
“Us being in the meeting rooms with coach Franklin allows us to understand the offense a little bit more, and just get better communication, standing back there, and know the calls that the offensive linemen are doing up front, things like that,” says Lasco. “It’s going to be tough. It’s going to be tough, each and every week, for us to run the ball, but we love the challenge. We love the fact that people don’t believe that we can rush.”
“Them hearing my communication with the quarterback, when they see why he chose a receiver on a route, or why, in a run-pass situation, he threw the ball instead of handing the ball off, they get it,” says Franklin. “Most of the time, you wouldn’t get it. Now, they can see, based on leverage, number counts and all that. I really enjoy watching them get better in the run.”
In this case, the string section is also studying up on what the woodwinds and the percussion sections are playing, and the first chairs are talking to one another before curtain.
“My favorite part about him is how well he communicates with me, and how easy he is to work with,” Goff says of Lasco. “He wants to win as bad as anybody. He’s back there and we’re talking the whole game.”
Lasco does more than talk. He’s ready to bleed.
“Every single time I come off the field after a game, I get in the shower, and different things, random things, start stinging and burning, and it feels good, especially walking away with a win,” Lasco says. “It doesn’t matter how many bangs, how many bruises, how banged up you are: There’s no better feeling.”