Cal Football: Who Plays Behind Laird in the Running Game?

PALO ALTO, CA - NOVEMBER 18: Patrick Laird
PALO ALTO, CA - NOVEMBER 18: Patrick Laird /

Another transfer leaves a bigger hole in the Cal football running game, and the team will need to figure out who steps up alongside Patrick Laird.

With another year under head coach Justin Wilcox and offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin, the Cal football offense figures to be improved and more dynamic in 2018. But they suffered a big blow last week, one that leaves a hole that won’t be easy to fill.

Last Friday, running back Tre Watson announced his intention to transfer from Cal and pursue his master’s degree at another school while using his final season of eligibility. Watson was granted that final season after missing the majority of the 2017 season, participating in two games before a lower body injury shelved him for the balance of the season.

Watson’s injury hurt the offense, but also opened the door for Patrick Laird to become the team’s breakout star. Laird was the workhorse, gaining 1,127 yards on 191 carries (5.9 per carry) while scoring eight time, and adding 45 receptions for 322 yards and another score.

Laird is back for his senior season, and is going to be a big part of the offense in 2018 with or without Watson. But having Watson as another option would have made the Cal offense that much better, giving opposing defenses one more talented player to game-plan for and focus on.

Now, the Bears have to find more offense from their backfield. Watson had accumulated 1,380 yards and eight touchdowns in 31 games in his career, mostly playing in the pass-happy, Bear Raid offense. He also contributed to that Bear Raid, catching 37 balls for 379 yards and five scores.

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It isn’t just Watson’s transfer that is hurting the Cal offense. Zion Echols and Billy McCrary III are also leaving Cal, which deals a serious blow to their depth. Neither Echols nor McCrary compiled many carries with the Bears (McCrary recorded six in three seasons while Echols had 13 in his lone season), but their departures leave Laird and redshirt sophomore Derrick Clark as the only running backs with on-field experience. Clark’s experience is also limited, with just 14 carries that all came last season.

Add in the graduation of Vic Enwere and the Bears will have to dig deep into their young running back crew to find who will step up in 2018. Along with Laird and Clark, the only other running back left on the roster is Biaggio Ali Walsh, who redshirted as a freshman in 2017. New recruits at the position are Johnny Adams, Jr. and Christopher Brown, Jr (and there’s still time to add more to the group if the coaching staff deems it necessary). It’s a virtually certainty that at least one of Walsh, Adams, or Brown will become a big part of the team next year.

Even without Watson in the mix, Cal’s offense should be much better in 2018 than it was in 2017, particularly in the passing game. They will get wide receivers Demetris Robertson (two games played in 2017) and Melquise Stovall (missed entire season) back from injuries, adding in players who combined for 92 catches, 1,182 yards, and 10 touchdowns as freshmen in 2016. Tight end Ray Hudson (34 catches, 429 yards, three touchdowns career) was also granted a sixth year of eligibility, and he should be the top tight end in Baldwin’s offense. With the entire offensive line back for another year as well, this looks like a much stronger group than the one that finished 10th in the Pac-12 in scoring (27.8 points per game) and 11th in total offense (384.5 yards per game).

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However, they will still need to figure out what to do in the run game behind Laird. Burl Toler III, who was hired earlier this month as Cal’s new running backs coach, seems to have his work cut out for him. At least Laird is back to lead the way again.