Freshman running back Jaydn Ott opened some eyes with his strong performance this past spring, but it wasn’t until Phil Steele’s annual preseason college football magazine came out in June that it dawned on people that Cal might have something special.
Steele named Ott to his preseason fourth-team all-Pac-12 squad, which may not sound like much, but when you consider that only one other true freshman (Stanford outside linebacker David Baily) and no other Cal running back were named to any of Steele’s 104 preseason all-Pac-12 selections, the mind starts spinning about what the Bears might have in Ott.
“Honestly, I haven’t even played a down in college football,” Ott, said of his reaction to the Steele honor. “It’s cool to be recognized, but I’m just excited to get the season started, and whatever happens happens.”
Ott is not likely to be a starter to begin the 2022 season, a role Damien Moore seems to have locked down, but Ott is getting a lot of work with the first- and second-team offenses in preseason training camp, and it’s clear he is in the mix to get significant playing time as a freshman.
“Yeah, I would say that’s fair,” head coach Justin Wilcox said this week after four preseason practices. “He’s still got a lot to learn, but he’s very attentive and he’s got explosiveness and quickness.”
Running back is a position at which freshmen can make an immediate impact, and although Cal coaches are reluctant to lavish too much praise on Ott before he plays a down, sometimes their excitement is evident.
“He can change the game,” running backs coach Aristotle Thompson said. “He can shorten the field really fast. He’s had some great runs [in practice]. He had one the other day where he made like three guys miss and you say, ‘Oh, OK.’ That’s difficult.”
Ott’s speed is his most noticeable trait, but his ability to catch passes out of the backfield or while split out in the slot has made an impression too.
It’s all part of the Ott plan. He decided in seventh grade that he wanted to graduate early from high school so he could participate in spring ball prior to his freshman college season.
He played his freshman ball at Norco High school, played at football powerhouse Bishop Gorman in Las Vegas as a sophomore in 2019, averaging 11.7 yards per carry on 39 attempts, but sat out the 2020 season during COVID when Bishop Gorman played only two games. But because Bishop Gorman, as a private school, did not let students graduate early, he returned to Norco High School in Temescal, Calif., for his senior season, averaging 10.0 yards per carry and graduating early as part of the plan established five years earlier.
“I’ve been playing football since I was 4 years old, flag football,” Ott said, “playing tackle football at 5 years old. My parents helped me set up a plan to get to where I want to be, which is the NFL.”
It led him to Cal, albeit in an unusual way: He committed to Cal in June of 2021, then decommitted in September, but then recommitted to Cal in December, passing up offers from Georgia, USC, Oregon, Utah, Wisconsin and UCLA among others. He was a four-star recruit and is the highest rated player in this year’s Cal freshman class.
Getting to Cal early so he could participate in spring ball has put him in this position to make an immediate impact.
“Oh, man, way ahead of the game now,” Ott said of the spring experience. “I feel like if I had come in at the regular time freshmen come in, I’d be a lot behind.”
"He had a great spring," Cal offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave said. "He really made a great first impression on everybody that crossed his path."
As a result, expectations rose and people like Phil Steele took notice.
247 Sports named Ott one of 15 Pac-12 freshman expected to make an immediate impact, saying this:
Jaydn Ott, RB, Cal
247Sports Composite: No. 291
Ott has several advantages in terms of earning early playing time: He’s one of the highest-ranked recruits to sign with Cal in recent memory. He plays a position in which it's easier to play quickly. He was Cal’s only early enrollee. The Bears have three upperclassmen backs ahead of Ott, including probable starter Damien Moore, but there’s still a chance for reps in a run-first offense.
For now Ott is merely a combination of potential and expectations with no data to support either, but he has a shot to be something special as a freshman, particularly later in the season. And Cal could use something special on offense.