Cal football’s offensive playmakers headline preseason watch lists

Michael Ball/Staff

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As the Cal football team prepares for a schedule littered with some of the toughest FBS opponents in the country, several members of the Bears’ 2014 roster have already garnered national attention.

Over the past month, college football award organizations have named multiple Cal players to their preseason watch lists. Those featured so far include running backs Khalfani Muhammad and Daniel Lasco, quarterback Jared Goff, wide receiver Chris Harper and punter Cole Leininger. Players named to preseason watch lists are projected to demonstrate strong candidacy for national honors that will be conferred at the end of the season.

On Thursday, Muhammad was named to the CFPA Kickoff Returner Trophy Watch List, which features 41 other FBS players predicted to be in the running for the award in January. Muhammad’s inclusion was based on a formula used by the CFPA that measures the extent to which individuals increase the overall effectiveness of their teams.

As a freshman, Muhammad showed promise in his limited carries. The newcomer was second in attempts and yards with 74 carries and 445 net rushing yards, giving him a team-leading six yards per carry. Possessing remarkable speed — Muhammad is also a member of the Cal track and field team — Muhammad often appeared as the Bears’ kickoff returner, where he set a new school record with 46 kick returns and 1,006 kick return yards. His varied skill set has earned him a spot on the watch list for the 2014 Paul Hornung Award, an honor given annually to the most versatile player in college football by the Louisville Sports Commission.

Expected to share the top spot with Muhammad at running back is Lasco, who was recently named a preseason candidate for the 2014 Doak Walker Award. The junior has played in more games than any Cal running back, and his preseason listing reflects his standing as one of the top 53 backs in the country.

If the Bears hope to develop their running game, Lasco and Muhammad will need the opportunity to further test their playmaking abilities. The lack of a consistent run game proved to be one of Cal’s primary struggles last season. The Bears had a total of 658 dropbacks last year — which accounted for more than 60 percent of offensive plays — compared to 426 carries.

While the run game will have to rebound after an underwhelming 2013, Chris Harper will be the leader of a wide receiver unit that was one of the most reliable aspects of the Bears’ offense last season. Named to the Biletnikoff Award watch list for the second year in a row, Harper is the Bears’ active career leader in receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns. He also appeared on this year’s CFPA Wide Receivers Trophy Watch List.

Harper’s talents do not derive from overwhelming athleticism or speed, but he is a reliable deep threat option for quarterback Jared Goff, who was recently named to the watch list for the CFPA Quarterback Trophy. Goff was also on the watch lists for the Davey O’Brien National Quarterback Award — where he was one of seven sophomores on the list — and the Maxwell Award, given to the College Player of the Year. In his freshman season, Goff broke the Bears’ single-season record for passing yards, with 3,508, and for passes completed, with 320. Goff, the first true freshman QB in Cal history, also broke the program record for pass attempts at 531 and became the second Pac-12 quarterback ever to throw for 450 or more yards in a game three times.

Yet, a good percentage of Goff’s gaudy stats came in garbage time and were inflated by a lack of a dependable run game. Goff is primarily known for throwing decent short and intermediate routes but has a sketchy deep ball characterized by ill timing and suspect accuracy. Fatigue likely played a part in Goff’s spotty play, as he threw 529 times through the course of last season. Goff also struggled to make good decisions when the pocket collapsed and will have to be better at throwing on the run so long as Cal’s pass-protection remains unreliable. If the Bears hope to be more competitive next season, head coach Sonny Dykes must develop his young quarterback and implement a game plan that properly balances the run and the pass.

Contact Michelle Lee at [email protected].

Contact Dani Jo Coony at [email protected].