Running back Christopher Brown Jr. somehow played in all 13 games last season, but he was at full strength in about half of them.
Various injuries curtailed Brown's production last season, and even though he ended up rushing for 914 yards, Cal would like to see what he could do if he remains healthy for all seven games (and a possible bowl) this season.
"We're hoping we're past those days of him catching the injury bug," Cal offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave said. "We're hoping everybody stays healthy, especially Chris. He's crucial to our success."
**Bill Musgrave discusses Christopher Brown's importance
Part of the equation for Brown is not getting greedy early in the season, with Musgrave suggesting he may not have Brown carry a heavy workload in the first game or two.
When Brown was banged up last season, part of the Bears' offense disappeared. He officially ran the ball twice in Cal's opening possession against USC, gaining 18 and 11 yards on those two plays, the second carry giving Cal a first down at the USC 21-yard line. He carried once more in that same opening possession, a play that was nullified by a penalty. That was it. Brown suffered an injury and did not carry the ball again in that game.
The fact that quarterback Chase Garbers was sidelined with an injury in the second quarter of that contest probably was more influential to the result -- a Trojans' 41-17 win -- but Brown's absence played a part too.
By contrast, Brown had 197 yards on 38 carries in the season-opening win against UC Davis, but that was against an FBC school. His most important games were the last two contests of the season, when he rushed for 111 yards and caught two passes for 18 yards in the victory over UCLA and then ran for 120 yards and had three receptions for 17 yards and a touchdown in the Redbox Bowl win over Illinois.
Brown has no specific explanation for why he performed so well at the end of the season,
"I don't know, I guess it just happened," Brown said. "I guess just putting the pieces together."
Being healthy presumably played a role.
He should be aided by the addition of a fullback as a lead blocker on some occasions this season, but he remains the same kind of runner that he was last year -- "just a better version of myself," Brown says.
**Christopher Brown talks about how he's improved
This year's version is still a 6-foot-1, 235-pound physical back, a style that makes him vulnerable to bumps and bruises. And Cal coaches have to find ways to keep him at full speed.
"He's a tough guy, and he's had to fight through some things injury-wise," Cal head coach Justin Wilcox said. "The position he plays is a physical position. He's a physical guy; he embraces that part of the game.
"Chris is also one of those guys we gotta protect him from himself a little bit. Every run at practice he wants to finish it 40 yards down the field, he want to take every rep, he'll carry the ball every time if you let him. So part of that will be how we use him in the game situations. There's also some guys in that [running back] room that can do some good things for us."
**Justin Wilcox looks at Christopher Brown's assets
Marcel Dancy, a smaller, elusive back, provides a different style, while grad transfer Bradrick Shaw is similar to Brown. Both of them as well as DeCarlos Brooks figure to get playing time in the backfield, especially in the first few games. Dancy was particuarly helpful in last year's upset at Washington, with all 72 of his rushing yards that day and both of his rushing touchdowns coming in the second half.
"Every one of them is going to warrant a high number of touches, and we're going to try to spread it around, especially here early in the season when we may not be in complete football shape," Musgrave said. "I don't think we're looking for Christopher Brown to carry it 38 times in one game [as he did in last year's opener].
"We want to be real smart and make sure our guys get into football shape and kind of work our way into it early in the season."
**Bill Musgrave discusses use of Cal's running backs
Cal plays only seven regular-season games this season, starting with the home game against Washington on Nov. 7. Maybe having fewer games will lessen the wear and tear on Brown. But maybe it will prevent Brown from being such a weapon late in a season when opposing defenses are worn down. Remember he had his best performances in games 12 and 13 last season.
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