Oct. 24, 2012
BERKELEY -By Tim Miguel
When Cal fans think about the best tailbacks in school history they are likely to come up with many names, including those of current NFL players Jahvid Best, Justin Forsett, Marshawn Lynch and Shane Vereen, but current senior tailback Isi Sofele is probably not a name that quickly comes to mind.
But any doubters of Sofele's place among Cal's all-time elite need only to look at a junior campaign that culminated with Sofele posting the sixth-best single rushing season in school history with 1,322 yards. It all started when he carried the ball 24 times for 88 yards and two touchdowns in the 2011 season opener against Fresno State. It was the beginning of a season that in addition to his final yardage total included five 100-yard rushing games and 10 scores on the ground.
The question heading into the 2012 season was what could he do for an encore? Through six games that made up the first half of the regular season, Sofele has rushed for 354 yards and two touchdowns as part of a running back trio to also feature fellow senior C.J. Anderson and sophomore Brendan Bigelow that has combined for nearly 1,000 yards.
Now in his fourth season at Cal, Sofele is the most experienced member of the trio and against Arizona State on Sept. 29, he reached the milestone of 2,000 career rushing yards.
"I've been so blessed to have reached this point in my life," Sofele said. "For me to be one of the few backs at Cal to have reached 2,000 yards means a lot to me. I'm just going to keep working and get more yards."
When Sofele took over as the team's feature back after Shane Vereen graduated and left for the NFL following the 2010 campaign, even he himself was unsure if he would achieve the kind of success he's had the past two years.
"I did but I didn't at the same time," Sofele said. "I felt like I was going to be out there doing big things, but again, I kind of second guess myself. I'm just really excited to be where I am right now."
In addition to the impressive stat totals, Sofele has proved to be very durable as he has played in in every game possible while at Cal. Even more astonishing is that Sofele has been able to stay on the field while having his number called many times. In 2011, he carried the ball at least 20 times in eight games, including the last five in a row, and went over 100 yards rushing five times, including three of the last five games. His finest performance last season was a whopping 190 yards on the ground against Oregon State at AT&T Park. He has added two more 100-yard rushing games in the first half of 2012 to bring his career total to seven and leads the team with 73 carries.
That kind of dedication and willpower is something associate head coach and run game coordinator Ron Gould has come to expect from Sofele. In case Sofele wondered at all how much his position coach would be counting on him this year, Gould made it very clear at the start of training camp that he expected Sofele to be one of the Golden Bears' leaders on offense this season.
"Isi reminds me a lot of Justin Forsett in that his heart is as big as the United States," Gould said. "His whole life, people have always told him what he couldn't do. He did a good job of playing through all of that and focusing on what he can control."
At the outset of the 2012 season, Sofele was named to numerous watch lists for national honors, including the Maxwell Award given to the nation's most outstanding overall player, the CFPA Running Back Trophy and the Doak Walker Award, both given to the nation's top running back.
But Sofele doesn't let any of the hype and attention get to him. He blocks all of that out and just focuses on following his linemen on the gridiron.
"My personal goals are to break 1,000 yards again and to contribute to the team as much as I can," Sofele said. "I just want to have a successful season again."
With Anderson nipping at his heels, Sofele will constantly be pushed to succeed. The two are the best of friends off the field but true competitors on the field. It is a friendly rivalry that has helped them both succeed. Bigelow has also burst onto the scene in 2012, giving this backfield even more of a boost.
"The way we compete in practice, coach Gould doesn't favor anybody out there," Sofele said. "So you don't really know what's going to come out of it, but we're competing to the fullest. Off the field, we help each other with plays and try to get everything down. On the field, it's a straight competition. That helps us a lot. It feels like everything is second nature."
When Cal fans see No. 20 line up behind quarterback Zach Maynard, they can be sure they're rooting for a player who will put his heart into every single rushing attempt.