Daniel Lasco headlines Cal football’s running back corps

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The Cal football team, whose offense emphasizes passing the ball on the great majority of its players, can catch teams off-guard by being efficient on the ground. Because of the nature of head coach Sonny Dykes’ Bear Raid offense, the offense’s identity is defined by putting quarterback Jared Goff at the shotgun and letting him make short and easy passes.

In an ideal drive, the quick routes and catches that are converted successfully will open up holes deep in the defense’s secondary for Goff to take advantage of by slinging the ball downfield to his single-covered receivers. And with Cal’s receiving personnel stacked with speed-threat receivers and big targets to throw to, the Bears have options to attack defenses after introducing the short pass.

Not surprisingly, that was an effective formula for the offense. But a pleasant surprise was the emergence of the running game, primarily led by Daniel Lasco, who broke out for 1,115 yards and 12 touchdowns in his junior year. To make things even more impressive, Lasco needed only 210 carries to put up those numbers, which means he averaged 5.3 yards a pop. Lasco running with that kind of efficiency means the Bears can get a first down every two times they give him the ball.

Of course, Cal probably won’t be doing that a lot. On a team that passed 57.6 percent of its plays, compared with the 42.4 percent it runs, it makes sense for Lasco to have noticeably fewer carries compared with other star running backs in the country. Lasco’s not supposed to be a workhorse, but “workhorse” is a relative term, as Lasco took over half of the team’s 413 total carries. The next-highest totals on the team don’t even belong to running backs, as Goff had 55 and backup quarterback Luke Rubenzer had 52. The next running back who appears on the carries leaderboard is Khalfani Muhammad with just 46 carries.

But Cal doesn’t ask Lasco to be the kind of do-it-all running back who will have the ball on first and second downs. Lasco is more of a change-of-pace threat. This is typically used to describe backup running backs who specialize in speed or strength to act as a changeup from the starting running back and throw defenses off. In the Bears’ case, however, the “starting running back” is really Goff making short passes.

The Bears are a pass-first team, and because of that, defenses focus extensively on guarding the pass. Defensive linemen will be focusing on penetrating the packet rather than on plugging running lanes. Linebackers will be dropping back to play coverage instead of running toward the running back at the line of scrimmage. Cornerbacks will be positioned to defend receivers. Safeties will be watching for the deep pass instead. All the things Cal does to establish its offensive rhythm make defensives vulnerable to the run.

It could be argued that the soft defense created by the Air Raid contributed to Lasco’s success last year. Lasco is still the most experienced and instinctive running back on the team, so it’s likely that the distribution of carries won’t change much next year. When teams have an obvious No. 1 in Lasco, backups are typically used only to provide relief and give the starter rest. But Lasco likely won’t need much rest, because Cal’s going to be passing often.

There are interesting names behind Lasco in the depth chart, such as Muhammad, Tre Watson and Vic Enwere, who have all displayed the potential of being explosive players. Muhammad and Watson both move fast, while Enwere is more of a power bruiser. But the sample size of times they’ve been able to display their abilities is small. Freshman Lonny Powell and junior Bug Rivera — the nephew of the coach of the Carolina Panthers, Ron Rivera — will also be fighting for reps.

With Lasco showing no signs of slowing down for his senior year, all eyes will be on him to see if he can duplicate the same kind of success he had last year.

Ritchie Lee covers football. Contact him at [email protected].