Isi is short for Isileli. It’s an island name, Isi Sofele says, and translates to Israel.
That’s not surprising. After all, Sofele sure seemed like he was running to the promised land on Saturday night. There’s just something special about this junior tailback.
He sprinted and darted, surged and slowed, backtracked and bulldozed over for a career high 190 yards rushing in Cal’s relatively easy win over Oregon State. It took him only 23 carries and the help of a career-high 56-yard run, but he made it. He’s the only person who doesn’t seem to realize he’s only 5-foot-7 and 190 pounds.
At times during his freshman and sophomore years, Sofele seemed a lot more tentative, not actively seeking contact. He’s still best in the open field, using his speed to beat defenders to the outside. But he doesn’t seem to have a problem charging into defenders to gain that extra yard now. In fact, he seeks contact, something few would have expected back in August.
“My favorite thing about football is making guys miss me, making guys look dumb,” Sofele said late in September. “Having linebackers come up thinking they’re going to blow me up just because I’m a small little guy, and I just give them a little hit, give them a little pop, show them what I’m really about.
“I love being a little dog in there.”
He is more than just a little dog; he’s the alpha dog of the offense, the most reliable option on the unit. Zach Maynard’s ups and downs have been well-documented, but the junior quarterback seems better suited for the game manager position he took on Saturday. Cal fans may cringe when Maynard throws off one foot, but when Sofele touches the ball, good things always seem to happen.
A big talking point in the offseason was about Sofele’s viability as starting running back. He’s not big enough. He’s no Shane Vereen. He can’t handle a heavy load. He can’t be focal point of offense.
All that talk — it’s vanished, disappeared throughout a season of inconsistent quarterbacking, meanwhile the running game and its primary back have gotten better and better. Sofele has silenced those doubts, recording a 1,000-yard season, Cal’s ninth in 10 years. His 1,029 yards rank fourth in the Pac-12 and his 102.9 yard per game average indicates that he will surpass the 1,167 yards Vereen amassed last season. Interestingly, Vereen, who was drafted in the second round, only averaged 97.2 yards per game in 2010.
That’s not saying Sofele is a better back than Vereen. Few would put Sofele with the great Cal tailbacks in recent history — Arrington and Lynch, Forsett and Best — but certainly this season Sofele has held his own and then some.
C.J. Anderson is a capable backup who has shown glimpses of potential for being a power third-down back. Brendan Bigelow has a high ceiling if he can retain the speed that wowed recruits before a knew injury cost him his senior year of high school.
But one thing has become clear in the last two weeks: While the Cal offense may live and die with Maynard’s turnovers, it is Sofele’s unit. It is his will and determination and fire, as the smallest guy on the field, that speaks volumes.
In Saturday’s Big Game, Cal may lose and Cal may win though. As long as the offensive line keeps opening things up, Sofele will be climbing into the end zone again.
Don’t slow down; you don’t move too fast. Just maybe, with Sofele leading the way, the Bears will be feeling groovy after a Big Game win.
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Isi Sofele is a sophomore. In fact, he is a junior.