Cal fans have spent the past two seasons getting acquainted with running back Isi Sofele. Now it's time to deepen their relationship.
After two years of spot duty, Sofele enters the 2011 season as the Bears' starting tailback as a junior. In recent years, by the time a Cal tailback had taken over a starting role, he had played enough as a backup that the Bears had an idea of what to expect. Not so with Sofele, who has just 81 carries for 420 yards in his career.
With Shane Vereen leaving early for the NFL draft, primary duties suddenly fell to Sofele, a diminutive but strong and quick runner who is yearning for the chance to become the next in a line of productive tailbacks under coach Jeff Tedford.
"I'm ready for this," Sofele said. "I have some big shoes to fill. I feel like I'm going to go out there and achieve greatness. We all have to carry on that legacy."
Each of the past five starting Cal tailbacks became NFL draft picks, with Marshawn Lynch and Jahvid Best going in the first round. At only 5-foot-8, 190 pounds, Sofele doesn't have the measurables to be found on many draft boards. But he does possess excellent strength and has the quickness to be a productive college back.
"He's small but very, very strong," Cal running backs coach Ron Gould said. "He's short in stature, but you can't measure his heart. This young man is going to give us everything he has. I feel good about what Isi is going to bring to the table."
Gould and Tedford have made it a point over the years to give significant reps to a backup tailback, to keep the starter fresh and build experience for another player. In 2005, Justin Forsett rushed for 999 yards -- backing up Lynch.
But Cal went away from that trend last season, partly because of Vereen's durability and partly because Sofele wasn't ready to fulfill that role.
"Isi wasn't quite as ready as he is now," Gould said. "That was part of it. But Shane is a bigger, stronger guy that can handle the workload, so we gave it to him."
There is some uncertainty as to what Sofele can do. He's had double-digit rushing attempts just once in his Cal career, last year when he had 13 carries against UCLA. Some question whether Sofele can withstand the pounding of being an every-down back.
"I'm used to hearing that," Sofele said. "I've been hearing that ever since Pop Warner. Everyone would say I'm too small. I take that and use it to help me. I use it as motivation. I love it when people tell me that I can't do something. I love to prove people wrong."
Gould hopes to return to spreading the carries to at least two running backs this season. Junior Covaughn DeBoskie-Johnson is the backup, and Laney College transfer C.J. Anderson also could push for playing time.
That being said, Cal's coaching staff is confident in giving Sofele 25 carries a game. He became the Bears' No. 1 back as soon as Vereen declared for the draft, and no one has come close to challenging him for that spot.
"There's always competition, but there's been nothing there that has put anybody ahead of him," Tedford said. "I have a lot of confidence in him, but anytime someone new goes in there, there's a learning curve. It's not his first time, but it's his first time in an extended role."