BERKELEY, Calif. – Brendan Bigelow is the fastest running back on the California roster.
“And if anybody want to race me, you know where I’m at,” he said after a recent practice at Witter Rugby Field.
He was only half-joking.
It is a remarkable pronouncement as the sophomore is less than two years removed from two major injuries in the same knee. Bigelow tore the ACL in his right knee as a junior at Fresno (Calif.) Central, then did so again less than a year later.
He was able to play last season as a true freshman, but is only now recapturing the form that was poised to make him a highly sought-after recruit in the Class of 2011 before he was hurt.
“I feel great,” Bigelow said. “I said this last year too, but it’s a different strength that I got in my knee now. I can plant it now and just go. I’m a lot more confident. I feel better physically and mentally. I’m about to get after it.”
The timing could not be better, as there is a competition to identify a third running back this spring. Ideally whoever emerges would see some reps behind starter Isi Sofele and C.J. Anderson this year, but might also have the edge to replace the two seniors next season.
“As soon as we can get the pads on, it is going to be critical that we get those guys in game-like situations, especially Bigelow because he didn’t have a lot of that last year from the backfield,” said Cal head coach Jeff Tedford of Bigelow, redshirt freshman Daniel Lasco and freshman Darren Ervin. “All three of those guys, it’s real important to find out what they can do, so we are going to take a good look at them.”
The early assessments of Bigelow have been positive. Offensive coordinator Jim Michalczik was impressed, noting that the 5-foot-10, 188-pound tailback wasn’t able to get into a routine last fall.
“The feel, to make those cuts, to see the vision. Those moves are there, but he has got to get back to using them,” Michalczik said.
The 2011 season was mostly focused on rehab, while easing in on offense. Bigelow carried the ball six times rushing for 25 yards and caught one pass for 11 yards. Instead he was the Bears’ primary man on kick returns, averaging 20.7 yards per attempt, scoring on an 88-yard return against Presbyterian.
“It was pretty cool to try to get used to things,” Bigelow said. “If I didn’t play, I wouldn’t know as much as I do now. I’m glad I actually got to play a little bit.”
Most of Bigelow’s efforts were dedicated to finishing his rehab, a process he was more than familiar with from his first injury. He was quick to note the roll his coaches played, encouraging Bigelow to continue the taxing routine.
“They motivated me and stuck by me and talked me through. ‘It’s okay. You’re not going to lose anything.’ That kind of motivated me to continue to keep pressing on,” he said.
“It really helped out. And I thank them for doing that. It was a blessing, for Cal to come at me.”
Said Michalczik: “There are a whole lot of days people didn’t see when he was out here with the trainers on the field working on cutting and all the progressions. It’s not just they fix it and you’re back. There is a full six months or a year progression to get back to full speed.
“He did a phenomenal job when he was here doing everything he was asked to do. He had that want, that want to get healthy.”
The challenge was reconciling the physical and mental disconnect, being able to play without thinking about how his knee would respond.
“I thought I wouldn’t have a problem with just stepping and going, but I did have a problem with it,” Bigelow said.
“Now I’m back.”
Dan Greenspan is the publisher of Cal Sports Digest and covers the Pac-12 for Fox Sports/Scout.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanGreenspan.