2021 Cal Football Positional Preview: Running Backs

Horses in the Back(field): Thunder, Lightning and Everything in Between

Barring the occasional cheat code that looks a little like this in the return game, an elite running back is the most electric player in college football. Thanks to God’s gift that was Jeff Tedford’s recruiting, this type of elite specimen is no stranger to the blue and gold. 

Take your pick, here’s mine — Jahvid was the first tailback who I can recall making Joe Starkey’s voice crack from excitement over the transistor radio my parents gifted me in elementary school. I still contest that without his freak injury against Oregon State, he might still be in the NFL — or at the very least, possibly Saint Lucia’s first-ever Olympic medalist. 

Anyways, I wasn’t quite old enough to fully comprehend the greatness that was J.J. Arrington’s 2,000-yard season, or even the 1-2 punch of Beastmode and Forsett. But my Cal football fan experience (est. ~ 2007) has seen its fair share of elite horses in the backfield. 

Alas, I was just a kid when I committed myself to this rollercoaster. I’ve since graduated from Cal (somehow), haven’t missed a home game that I could attend since 2015, and remain an ardent believer that my dad and I will be in Pasadena on New Year’s Day sooner, rather than later. 

Back to our scheduled programming — previewing this year’s running back corps! Entering 2021, it’s no secret that Coach Aristotle Thompson’s room leaves plenty of electricity to be desired. There are no former Heisman candidates, 1,000-yard seasons or double-digit touchdown campaigns. 

But it would be naive to not label this group as dimensional, experienced and maybe even a bit underappreciated, led by a three-headed monster that has given defenses fits (in spurts) dating back to late 2018. It’s as simple as one, two, three: a should-be starter, two capable change-of-pace backs, and three projects with potential. 

RB1: Christopher Brooks, Sr. (Oceanside, Calif.)

He’s *already* a senior, folks. 

The projected rushing leader is a reminder of how ephemeral a student-athlete’s collegiate experience is. Even with redshirts and additional methods of eligibility preservation (cc: Luc Bequette), four years is still just four years — yet it still feels like some players who saw significant playing time in the 2018 Cheez-It Bowl just arrived on campus. Exhibit 1: Nikko Remigio. Exhibit 1A: Christopher Brooks. Time flies. 

Trip down memory lane aside, the player formerly known as Christopher Brown Jr. has the best shot at RB1 duties to begin the season, and for good reason. After earning the starting job following Dr. Patrick Laird’s departure to the NFL, all Brooks did was get 40+ touches to begin the 2019 season, en route to more than 200 yards from scrimmage and the stiff arm of the year. 

The rest of Brooks’ sophomore campaign didn’t quite live up to Laird’s production, but he did prove to skeptics that he was more than just a third-down or goal-line call. Whether it was carrying the rock 30 times in Beau Baldwin’s spread scheme, or making plays downfield as a surprisingly agile receiver, Brooks did a lot for an offense that faced plenty of scrutiny following a turnover-prone 2018. Did I mention that he didn’t fumble the rock once? 

All told, it was a solid if not spectacular 2019 season. Then came 2020. 

Between the last-minute schedule shift, untimely injuries and an offensive line that lost several starters due to COVID-19 protocols, Brooks may have been the biggest victim of 2020 from a purely football standpoint on the team. He saw limited action after the unprepared offense got blown out at UCLA, missed all of the Oregon State loss, scored his lone touchdown of the year prior to the exclamation (extra) point that was Cal special teams in 2020, and rushed for just 14 yards against Oregon. 

So which Brooks is expected to trot out for the first offensive snap, week one against Nevada? Besides the name change, not a whole lot is inherently different: he’s still listed at 6’1” and 235 pounds, the same marks from last year, after gaining more mass each subsequent season since he arrived in Berkeley. With Chase operating under center a bit more, and only minimal action in 2020, it remains to be seen how heavily Brooks’ powerful frame will be utilized under a new offensive coordinator. 

He stayed relatively healthy two seasons ago, and as the lone non-QB with at least 1,000 yards to his name, I anticipate moderate-to-heavy usage in 2021. Bring the thunder. Cue the lightning.

RB2A and 2B: Marcel Dancy, R-Sr. (Oakland, Calif.) / Damien Moore, So. (La Puente, Calif.)

Like Brooks, Dancy has quietly entered his fourth season with the program, albeit via the junior college route. After CBJ was center stage to kick off the 2019 season, Dancy stole the show in the wee hours of the Week 2 matchup at Washington, appropriately featuring thunder, lightning and one of the more impressive wins in Wilcox’s tenure. 

His opportunities and production remained capped with the inclusion of the now-departed DeShawn Collins in the mix, but he came out in 2020 and exhibited the big-play ability that has often escaped the Bears offense in recent years. Across 31 carries, Dancy averaged a tick over five yards per carry thanks to some tough runs in all four games. 

While his speed is above-average, it’s the toughness that Dancy runs with that makes him difficult to wrap up. With a little emphasis on vision, and taking advantage of opportunities to turn the corner, Dancy is a capable lead back, and a perfect complement to Brooks in the middle of drives. I’ve always been a huge fan of Dancy and his story as a local kid with a big heart, and believe he has a chance to get more red zone looks this season than ever before. 

If Brooks is thunder and Dancy is lightning, then perhaps true sophomore Damien Moore is a bit of both — the perfect storm to take over as the lead back in the near future. A consensus 3-star two years ago, Moore’s high school tape was limited by a junior season in which he missed most of the year due to injury. 

With just four spring ball practices and an abbreviated fall camp, it was a mystery as to how much of an impact true freshman and transfers would have entering the abbreviated 2020 season. Moore ended up being one of just three true freshmen (Mo Iosefa, Trey Paster) and the only offensive player to play in all four games. 

And if there was a bright spot to the bitter pill that was the 2020 Big Game, it was a season-high 121 rushing yards from No. 28, the first true freshman back in program history with more than 100 rushing yards in a contest since Marshawn Lynch’s 122 in the 2004 Big Game. 

A limited sample of Moore’s ability gave Cal fans perhaps a glimpse of the future, one that saw a freshman with a veteran’s vision in the open field and a complete back who is clearly comfortable with toss plays and hitting the whole when he needs to cut up field. While Brooks has the inside lane to touches at the start of this year, Moore is the starter of the future. 

Down the (Old Town) Road: DeCarlos Brooks, R-So. (Chandler, Ariz.) / Chris Street, So. (Eastvale, Calif.) / Ashton Stredick, So. (Needville, Tex.)

DeCarlos Brooks (no relation to Chris), redshirted his freshman year and saw action primarily on special teams in 2020. Now in his third year working in the tailbacks room, the 2018 Arizona High School Offensive Player of the Year starred in the 2021 Spring Game, rushing for 55 yards and finding the end zone twice. He’s certainly in the mix for reps, and should continue contributing on special teams, available as a next man up should any of the three-headed monster succumb to injury. 

Arguably one of the better Cal recruits out of the backfield in recent memory, Chris Street saw action in two games with one carry in 2020. A four-star recruit according to Rivals.com, Street has flashed his pass-catching ability throughout fall camp and figures to be a key piece in the 2022 offense, pending any injuries throughout this season. 

Walk-on Ashton Stredick can really, really run — well enough to the point where he had scholarship options when he decided to walk-on last fall. The former Princeton commit, who had offers to Baylor among others, is an intriguing project and has a legitimate chance to contribute in more ways than one. As a scout team player this year and an impact player on special teams, Stredick doesn’t figure to factor into immediate plans, but out of all the aforementioned tailbacks, he might best embody the “electricity” that makes the position so captivating. 

Tying It All Together

It’s important to consider the running game in the context of the entire offense, so let’s make a brief dive into Bill Musgrave’s perspective. If you’ve watched the Cal offense in the post-Goff era, you’ll know that the passing game can only open up when the O-Line and backfield assert themselves. Sometimes it takes just a pair of explosive plays (a Justin Wilcoxism) to change everything, or at least make the defense think. Regardless of the opposing team’s scheme, eight men in the box is a win for the running game and a cue to Musgrave to utilize Chase’s legs and his playmakers off the line of scrimmage. 

It would be superfluous to judge Cal’s running backs by their 2020 production, a collection of four contests featuring last-second schedule changes and a carousel of an offensive line. Factoring in performances from 2019, a Michael Saffell-less but healthy O-Line, and a few strokes of luck, the horses in the back(field) are poised for a bounce-back in 2021. Yeehaw!

Oh, and by the way, my name is Josh and I’m new to Write For California. I’ve sprinkled in a few tastes of my background throughout this piece already, but here’s my more formal intro. A second-generation Cal Bear, I had the privilege of covering Cal Football (and other sports) as a reporter at The Daily Cal, while also interning (remotely) with the program after my graduation in 2020. My feature profiles at DC include that of Ashtyn Davis, Chase Garbers, Luc Bequette and a handful of others. I’m looking forward to a safe, healthy and (hopefully) winning season! 

Find me on game days: Section AA, row 34. Find me on Twitter: @joshcal2020. Always down to chat college football, cool baseball statistics or the best places to grab food in Berkeley. Go Bears!