Cal Running Back Unit Ranked Eighth-Best in the Country

Jaydn Ott leads the way for the Bears in 2024, but Cal has other talented backs who should get playing time
California Golden Bears running back Jaydn Ott
California Golden Bears running back Jaydn Ott / Rob Gray-USA TODAY Sports

Cal has been stockpiling quality running backs the past few years, and at least one reputable college football analyst is recognizing the running back talent the Golden Bears will put on the field in the ACC in 2024.

Phil Steele’s preseason football magazine ranks Cal’s running-back unit as the eighth-best in the country and the third-best in the ACC.  Pro Football Focus and Athlon Sports were not has kind to the Bears, as neither ranked Cal’s group among the nation’s top-10 running back units, as you can see from this table provided by Super West Sports.

Top 10 Running-Back Units for 2024

Mike Bloesch, Cal’s offensive line coach who took over as the Bears offensive coordinator when Jake Spavital left to become Baylor’s offensive coordinator, loves to run the ball.  He suggests that as many as four Cal running backs could get playing in any game, and if Cal runs the ball as often as Bloesch hopes, the Bears may need four quality backs.

That group is led by Jaydn Ott, a first-team All-Pac-12 selection in 2023 when he rushed for 1,315 yards and averaged 5.3 yards per carry.  Phil Steele put Ott on his preseason fourth-team All-America squad as well as on his second-team All-ACC preseason team.

However, there is talent behind Ott. 

Kadarius Calloway transferred from Old Dominion, where he averaged 7.1 yards per carry. He origically signed with Alabama and enrolled there before changing his mind and going elsewhere.

Byron Cardwell was on the preseason Doak Walker watch list entering his sophomore season at Oregon in 2022 after averaging 6.8 yards per carry and playing all 14 games as a freshman.  But he managed to play in just two games in 2022 and none in 2023 in his first season at Cal because of injuries.  His participation in spring practice this spring was limited too, so we will have to see whether he can contribute in 2024.

Justin Williams-Thomas, a transfer from Tennessee, missed the first half of last season with a knee injury, but did some good things when he played late in the season, running for 91 yards on 21 carries in his redshirt freshman season.

Jaivan Thomas jumped into the running back rotation as a true freshman in 2023, and seemed to improve as the season wore on.  He averaged 6.1 yards per carry, but missed the final three regula-season games with a scary injury.

Cal also has running back Dean-Taylor Chapman, a walk-on and the son of former standout Cal running back Lindsey Chapman. He did not play last season as a freshman.

If they all remain healthy, Cal should have some impressive talent and depth at the running back position.  But since injuries to running backs are almost inevitable, it imperative that teams have reliable backups.  Cal’s lack of running back depth hurt the Bears last season, which is why they have brought in more running.

Cal will add incoming freshman Jamaal Wiley to its running back unit, although it remains to be seen if he can earn any playing time in 2024.

The Bears also have commitments from two more running backs in the class of 2025, although they don’t count when ranking running back units for 2024.

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Jake Curtis

JAKE CURTIS

Jake Curtis worked in the San Francisco Chronicle sports department for 27 years, covering virtually every sport, including numerous Final Fours, several college football national championship games, an NBA Finals, world championship boxing matches and a World Cup. He was a Cal beat writer for many of those years, and won awards for his feature stories.