BERKELEY -- Cal offensive coordinator Tony Franklin will know things have changed this season when the Golden Bears face third-and-short situations and he feels comfortable calling a running play.

That didn't often happen a year ago.

"No, I was afraid to call 'em," Franklin said. "We couldn't block well enough to do that, so I had no confidence."

No one understands that harsh reality better than Cal's running backs. "The most important thing," junior Daniel Lasco said, "is to get the offensive coordinator to trust us at the running back position."

Actually, the effort to improve has been widespread. The offensive line is stronger, the stable of backs appears to be deeper and more versatile, and the commitment to create balance in the offense has become urgent.

"It makes us capable of winning," Franklin said.

A year ago, freshman Jared Goff put up school-record passing yardage numbers, but they didn't add up to enough points in a 1-11 season. The Bears couldn't run, and their opponents knew it. It was worse in short-yardage situations and inside the 20-yard line, where Cal ranked last in the Pac-12 in red-zone efficiency.

"We could move the ball down the field, but we could not score in the red zone," said sophomore running back Khalfani Muhammad, who led the Bears last season with 445 rushing yards.

Informed that Arizona State scored 33 rushing touchdowns from within the red zone and the Bears converted just seven, Muhammad rolled his eyes. "That's horrible."


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And an effective run game would change the red-zone equation?

"Totally," said Pierre Ingram, Cal's running backs coach, "because you're not relying on a back-shoulder fade or Kenny Lawler making a one-handed catch. We can run the ball and pound it in."

If that style doesn't sound like the Cal team that threw 622 passes last fall, coach Sonny Dykes has some 2012 Louisiana Tech game tapes he'd like you to see. His Bulldogs that season scored 47 rushing touchdowns, had seven games with at least 233 rushing yards and converted 75.3 percent (64 of 85) of their red-zone chances into TDs.

"When we got really good at Louisiana Tech, it was because we got good running the ball when we wanted to, not when somebody gave it to us," Franklin said. "For us to be good here, that's what we have to do."

A commitment to getting stronger up front was the starting point. Dykes now believes he has eight or nine offensive linemen ready to play.

The Bears also brought in two talented freshman backs -- Tre Watson and Vic Enwere -- to add new dimensions to the running game and provide competition for returnees Lasco and Muhammad.

Said Dykes, "There's always a little bit more of a motivating factor when you look up and you start thinking, 'This guy might get some of my reps.' "

Watson, a 5-foot-10, 190-pounder, rushed for 3,734 yards and 50 touchdowns last season for Southern California powerhouse Centennial-Corona. Enwere, from Austin, Texas, is the power back that Cal was missing a year ago. At 6-1, 223 pounds, he provides the north-south running the coaching staff wants all its backs to emulate.

Dykes has not named a starter, suggesting that all four backs -- plus possibly freshman walk-on Patrick Laird -- will have roles in the offense. Muhammad remains the team's fastest player, and Lasco is the likely No. 1 after offseason and early camp performances that have sold the coaching staff.

Now free of the hamstring and shoulder injuries that limited him to eight games and 67 carries last season, Lasco seems like a different guy.

"In previous seasons, I wasn't as confident as I am right now," the 6-foot, 210-pounder said. "I don't have to worry about my body breaking down."

Lasco gives credit to Enwere for altering his running style after a season in which he ran east-west too much.

"My running form was very different from his, and it taught me how to lower my shoulder and turn it upfield and turn on the burners," said Lasco, who also has been impressed with Watson. "Tre's going to be a nice running back here. He's got all the elusiveness and speed, and everything he does is smooth."

Watson is putting no limits on what he might achieve.

"I've got to be more dynamic and quicker in my cuts. It's not high school. Everybody's not going to fall when I juke 'em," he said. "I want to be better than everybody that's done it before me. I want to be the best ever."

Watson and Enwere said opposing coaches told them during recruiting that going to Berkeley would be a mistake because the Bears wouldn't run the ball. Both wanted the challenge of helping to create change.

"It's hard to win at any level when you're one-dimensional," Enwere said. "We're all pushing toward making this a 50-50 team as an offense."

That's the plan, and so far Dykes likes what he has seen.

"We're a lot different mentalitywise, just a tougher football team than we have been," he said. "We want to be a physical, downhill running football team. That's what we've got to do."

For more on Cal sports, see the Bear Talk blog at ibabuzz.com/beartalk. Follow Jeff Faraudo on Twitter at twitter.com/JeffFaraudo.

AUG. 30 season opener
Cal at Northwestern, 12:30 p.m. ABC/ESPN2