Cal returns top three rushers from 2015, led by Doak Walker nominees Tre Watson and Khalfani Muhammad

The Cal running back corps may be the best and deepest the Bears have had in years, led by a three-headed monster.

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Running Backs

Personnel Losses: There's only one, but it's a biggie. Cal loses two-time Doak Walker Award Watch List member Daniel Lasco, who was drafted in the seventh round by the New Orleans Saints. Lasco rushed for 100 or more yards six times in his career, totaling  2,395 career all-purpose yards over 41 games and 15 starts including 1,872 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns on the ground to rank 10th on Cal’s all-time list. While Lasco was dynamic his junior year -- rushing for 1,115 yards (1,471 rushing and receiving yards combined) -- he only rushed for 331 yards and three touchdowns on 65 carries over nine games, with only three starts, as he was missed four games and was limited in others due to injury.

View From the Top: Losing the talent of a Lasco is tough, but the fact of the matter is, he was severely limited in all but one season because of injuries. There's a reason that I've been trumpeting this group (along with the offensive line) as one of the strongest on the entire team: All three leading rushers -- Khalfani MuhammadVic Enwere and Tre Watson -- return.

Muhammad -- who ran a 20.80 200m this outdoor track season -- rushed for 586 yards on 87 carries, with one touchdown. Enwere, specializing in short yardage situations and red zone carries, rushed for 529 yards on 106 carries, with a team-high eight rushing TDs, as the only running back who saw action in all 13 games. Watson played in 11 games, rushed for 517 yards and three touchdowns on 89 carries, and caught 10 passes for 106 yards and another score.

Two of those three returners -- Muhammad and Watson -- are on the Doak Walker Award Watch List.

Watson is my bet to be the starter, although that title is purely nominative in this offense. That said, Watson averaged 89.75 rushing yards per game over his last four contests, and he's probably the most complete back on the roster. He's not the fastest, doesn't have the most shake, and isn't the biggest, but he's the only back who grades out as plus-plus in each of those categories.

"We could very well have three," said head coach Sonny Dykes. "I think that means they're good players. It's a credit to those guys. It shows you the importance of having depth at that position."

I think, beyond the top three projected rotation players, you'll see a heavy dose of Billy McCrary III, the converted defensive back. McCrary was a Swiss Army knife athlete on both sides of the ball in high school, but he could use his speed to truly excel at running back, or at the very least, a scat-back or change-of-pace back.

“Billy McCrary was a guy that, every time he got his hands on the ball this spring, he made a big play," Dykes said. "He can really run. He’s got great speed. I think that’s going to be a position of strength for us.”

It should be a strength, especially considering how much the Bears bring back on the offensive line, both personnel-wise and stylistically. Cal is going to continue to play the traditional pass set, rather than the vertical pass set that former offensive coordinator Tony Franklin favored. The Bears switched to the traditional, non-retreating pass set about midway through the season, and the results were eye-opening.

The Bears allowed just seven sacks over the final six games, after having allowed 20 over the previous seven, and allowed 19 tackles for loss over the final six games, compared to the 47 they gave up in the first seven games of the season.

Projected Rotation:

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Burning Questions

Greatest strength: Versatility, period. 

You have a burner like Muhammad (10.5-second 100m dash this outdoor track season, and a PR of 10.44), who's gained some wiggle to go along with straight-line speed, and you have power, like Enwere. You also a combination of all worlds -- hands, power, speed and vision -- in Watson.

Enwere has gone from 230 pounds last year to 240 this year, and has actually gotten faster, he told me. Freshman Derrick Clark, an early enrollee who came in with "a couple of different" injuries (of greatest concern was his knee) that some worried would prevent him from seeing the field, has worked out in full, is completely cleared, and will get some run in fall camp. He's gone from 195 pounds when he got to Cal, to 210 pounds after summer workouts.

“Healthy, I think. I think for the first time, we’re going to see what he can do," Dykes said. "He came in a little banged up. We knew he was going to be. I think he’s been fully released, so he’s working out with everybody and the reports are good. We’ll see how he does.”

Overall, there's a lot of physicality with this group, and it's embodied in the likes of Enwere and Patrick Laird, who was a workhorse in the spring game, rushing for 52 yards on 10 carries, with two touchdowns, and catching three balls for nine yards.

"When we're tackling, hitting, he always performs well," Dykes said of Laird.

Greatest concern: Injury. None of the top three backs have spent too much time on the shelf, but with this position, it's always a concern. Cal was able to function without Lasco for much of last season because of the blend of the three backs behind him. Personally, I'd prefer one back to take the lead, and I think Watson will do that, and if he goes down, you've got sufficient depth and versatility behind him to make up for it, but byond Enwere and Muhammad, that depth is pretty young and inexperienced. This is truly the most nit-picky concern I have amongst all of the units we've looked at so far, because I honestly think that this group is very strong, very deep and very competitive, with the Bears set up for years to come in the backfield. Confidence level about depth, scale of 1-10: 10. Beyond the three-headed monster of Enwere, Watson and Muhammad, McCrary and Laird can help carry the load, and you've got two dynamic young backs in Clark and Zion Echols. There's so much depth here, and as we saw last year, when Lasco struggled to stay healthy, that depth in the backfield can be crucial.

“I think you have to have three or four or five running backs, just because guys are going to get banged up," Dykes said. "You’re going to lose on or two during the course of the season, and then, you’re going to still need to be able to play with three, so you’d better have five good ones. I like the guys that we got. I’m excited to see what Zion Echols can do. I think he’s a guy that’s got a good skill set, and has some potential to be a good player. Obviously, Vic and Khalfani and Tre are rally solid, and got better in the spring.”

Where does this position group rank on your team from strongest to biggest area of concern? Right along with offensive line at the bottom of the concern list. There's depth, there's experience, there's talent and there's diversity, which is really all you can ask out of a running back corps that doesn't have a Christian McCaffrey. There aren't any superstars in this group, but they don't need any superstars. They're all hard-hat-and-lunch-pale guys with a lot of pop, some shakes and a healthy amount of physicality. You've got the Watson types who can wriggle through the line between the tackles, an outside-the-box afterburner speedster in Muhammad and a sledge hammer short-yardage monster in Enwere, plus the developing fullbacks in Kyle Wells and everyone's favorite Thighsman Award candidate Malik McMorris, who I think we'll see in an expanded role compared to last year. I can certainly see him toting the rock a bit more this year, as well as running the occasional route (he does have one more receiving touchdown than tight end Ray Hudson, after all).

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