Dec. 28, 2011
Holiday Bowl: Memorial Stadium
By Brandon Singer
When Shane Vereen made the decision to forgo his senior season and declare for the NFL Draft, it seemed to create a question mark at the tailback position going forward for the Golden Bears. One of the smallest guys on the team, junior running back Isi Sofele, proved to be one of the team's biggest contributors on offense and showed that the legacy of great Cal tailbacks is in good hands.
Sofele became the ninth back in the past 10 years to rush for over 1000 yards in 2011, heading into the 2011 Bridgepoint Education Holiday Bowl with 1,270 yards, the sixth most in a single season in Cal history. He also has a team-high nine of his 10 career rushing touchdowns this season and provided consistency on an offense that went through some growing pains this year breaking in junior transfer quarterback Zach Maynard by rushing for at least 74 yards in all but one game.
"My first year coming in as a starter, I expected more," Sofele said. "I'm grateful for the season that I had, but I had bigger expectations of what I could do."
That attitude of high expectations is what has helped Sofele rise to the top of the depth chart. He has put in a lot of hard work to become one of the Pac-12's best tailbacks this year, but his Cal career started on special teams in 2009 as a true freshman. He recorded nine tackles and had 12 kick returns for 248 yards that year.
"He is such a tough guy," said fullback Will Kapp, his 2011 backfield teammate until suffering a season-ending injury. "In his freshman year, when he played on special teams a lot, there was a punt and Isi got down the field fast so that right when the guy caught it, he knocked him over. Isi is just the toughest guy I have ever seen in my life."
Heading into his sophomore season, Sofele took on a bigger offensive role as the backup tailback to Vereen and had 69 carries for 348 yards. After Vereen was selected by the New England Patriots in the second round of the 2011 NFL Draft, Sofele became the team's starter.
"I never once thought there was going to be a problem at the position when I left," Vereen said. "I knew Isi would take over and do a great job just like he has done and he is going to continue to do."
Sofele has left no doubt that the Cal tradition of great tailback has continued. He has a legitimate chance in the bowl game against Texas to pass Marshawn Lynch's 1,356 yards for the fifth-best rushing mark in Cal history.
"I think the difference for Isi this year is just confidence," Vereen said. "He's played with a lot more confidence. I always knew that Isi had the talent and the toughness to be a good running back and now he is just taking off and having a great year."
In addition to taking on more carries this season, Sofele has also become a leader among the tailbacks.
"I lead by example," Sofele said. "I'm not too vocal but I try to do the best I can leading these running backs and getting them ready to compete every day in practice so our level [of play] will be high."
The running game has been the most consistent part of the offense this season as the Bears have rushed for 100 or more yards in all but two games and topped 200 rushing yards on four separate occasions, including three of the last four contests. While Sofele has been a big part of those totals, backup junior transfer C.J. Anderson has also proven to be a good complement and change of pace back for the Bears.
"If Isi comes out of the game, the defense can't think they can relax now because I'm coming in fresh and just as strong and powerful," Anderson said. "Then, after I wear them down, Isi comes back in and they have to deal with his speed. That is the one-two punch that we have."
Anderson has rushed for 343 yards and eight touchdowns, adding a ninth score on a 74-yard reception in the season finale against Arizona State to tie him with Sofele for the team lead in total touchdowns with nine. His size and strength provide the thunder to go with Sofele's lightning.
"People didn't think much of those guys coming in," associate head coach/run game coordinator Ron Gould said. "But, I am so proud of those guys to have come together as a family and work so hard to prove everyone wrong. They just took one small step, then two and three and went from there as they turned weaknesses into strengths."
Despite having a great season and establishing himself among the Pac-12 elite, Sofele once again expects more from himself and the running game going forward.
"We all have high expectations around here for next season," Sofele said with confidence. "We all have a chip on our shoulder to get better. I know we are all going to come out pumped up and our offense is going to be a powerhouse next year. We are expecting a lot of big things."
The shortest guy on the team has the tallest ambitions and the Bears hope that he continues to exceed the expectations of everyone but himself. The lightning and thunder combination between Sofele and Anderson has Cal looking forward to next season with far fewer questions about the strength of the running game.