There are two main ways to improve a sports team.
The more common method is for the team to try to eliminate some of its weaknesses. The other way is for the team to take its strengths and make those so strong that they overwhelm the team’s weaknesses.
Lonny Powell, an incoming recruit at the running back position who was also a standout linebacker in high school, will join the Cal football team — whose weakness is defense and strength is offense — hoping to contribute on both fronts. Powell, a four-star recruit, will start his career at the running back position, where he seems poised to receive some early playing time.
The Bears have a solid depth chart at the running back position already, led by junior Khalfani Muhammad and senior Daniel Lasco, who had a big breakout season that put him as the next star in the long line of successful Cal running backs. But even with these players, Powell will still have room to give the Bears a boost.
“Whenever my name is called to get the ball, I’ve got to make the play,” Powell said. “That’s really how I see it. I’ll show them that I deserve the ball more — hopefully they’ll give it to me.”
Cal ranked only 86th in the nation in yards per rushing attempt. This number is especially troublesome when taking into account that Cal is an offense built upon spread principles and passing the ball 50 times a game, which should make running lanes open up more easily throughout the game.
Powell’s 5-foot-11, 210-pound frame could help the Bears improve upon this number, even when he comes in as a freshman. While most of his effect won’t be felt until Lasco is gone, Powell will likely get some situational playing time early on. His role will likely consist mostly of playing when Lasco needs a breather and when the Cal coaching staff wants a bigger back than the 5-foot-7 Muhammad. This should give Powell time on the field for some of the team’s clear passing downs (which may be most plays in the Bear Raid).
Powell, who played in a spread-principled offense in high school, is used to being responsible for blocking for the quarterback, and he will be tasked with doing so again at Cal.
“When you’re blocking, you’re still making a play. If you get a big block, then everyone’s going to hear it,” Powell said. “You’re still making the plays, still helping the team out.”
His high school tape also reveals a player who excels at catching the ball, whether it means catching passes from the backfield or a few occasions when Powell lined up in the slot as a wide receiver.
But in the long term, starting when Lasco graduates and likely heads to the pros at the end of the 2015 season, Powell will bring a lot more to the table. For one, his frame and his toughness, which came from playing linebacker, have him primed to excel at running the ball down the throat of the defense. This does not mean that he is one-dimensional: His high school play showed that he knows what to do with the ball when he gets out into the open. With his size and speed combination, he figures to bolster an already strong Cal offense in the coming years.
Powell also hopes to stretch his influence on the game to the other side of the football. As a linebacker in high school, he was nothing short of dominant. He tallied 74 tackles for loss and 45 sacks in his final two years of high school. These eye-popping numbers would seem to indicate that a great future at the position lies ahead of Powell — or, at the very least, a role like Myles Jack’s at UCLA that would give him playing time on both sides of the ball.
Cal’s coaching staff, which recruited Powell as a running back from the start, will likely be hesitant to give the young player a workload on both sides of the ball. Playing both positions at the FBS level is a different animal from doing so at the high school level, and while Powell has very intriguing tools for the linebacking position, the Bears will likely keep him on offense — at least for his first few years at Cal.
The fact that this is even a conversation to be had about Powell speaks to his impressive athleticism. This, combined with his instincts and size, give Powell all the tools he needs to do well at Cal once he surpasses the roadblocks ahead of him.