Can explosive running back Jaydn Ott thrive in Cal’s new offense?

Can explosive running back Jaydn Ott thrive in Cal’s new offense?

BERKELEY — New Cal offensive coordinator Jake Spavital has coached seven quarterbacks who played in the NFL, but rarely a running back with the explosiveness of Jaydn Ott, the Bears’ dynamic sophomore.

“I think he’s going to be really fun to watch in this offense,” Spavital said.

Spavital does not expect to take in the full effect until Cal’s season opener at North Texas. He is playing it safe in the meantime, limiting Ott’s exposure to potential injury in practice.

“We didn’t let him go today because I understand the value of having a really good running back,” Spavital said after Ott had a light practice day on Friday.

“He’s shown signs on tape of his explosive ability where we can get north and south. I haven’t seen him go live yet . . . I don’t want anything to do with it until Sept. 2.”

In his first season in a return to Cal, where he served as Sonny Dykes’ coordinator in 2016, Spavital said he wasn’t even sure how much playing time Ott would see in the Bears’ first full scrimmage on Sunday at Memorial Stadium.

Cal has moved on from offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave, whose pro-style attack produced an average of just 23.3 points over three seasons on teams that were 10-18.

Spavital brings a fast-tempo offense that hopes to stretch the field vertically and compensate for an offensive line that allows 31 sacks last season. In his previous season at Berkeley, with Davis Webb at quarterback, the Bears averaged 37 points and 513 yards.

Spavital’s coaching roots are with Houston coach Dana Holgerson and the Air Raid offense, but he wants a run-pass balance. That’s where Ott comes in.

As a freshman last season, Ott rushed for 897 yards and eight touchdowns and got the nation’s attention when he cut loose for 274 yards and three scores — including runs of 72 and 73 yards — against Arizona.

“He’s got some burst,” Spavital said. “His lateral movement, his jump cuts, the one move, it’s pretty impressive.”

In 10 previous seasons as a coordinator at Houston, Oklahoma State, West Virginia, Texas A&M and Cal, Spavital’s offenses have churned out 43,799 passing yards and 375 TDs through the air.

California running back Jaydn Ott (6) runs against UCLA linebacker Laiatu Latu (15) during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Berkeley, Calif., Friday, Nov. 25, 2022. (AP Photo/Jed Jacobsohn) 

But he’s had just three 1,000-yard running backs.

That could change this fall.

“I wouldn’t be surprised (by 1,000 yards),” Spavital said. “We want to rush for a lot of yards. That makes life so much easier.”

Ott said his personal goals are secondary to helping the Bears improve upon last season’s 4-8 record.

“Of course, every running back would wish to get 1,000 yards and I definitely want 1,000 yards as well,” he said. “But however it goes this year, as long as we’re back in the top of the Pac-12.

“We’ll be really explosive as an offense, high tempo and catching a lot of defenses off guard and making ‘em jump and not be in the right mindset or having the right play calls ready when we’re already running our plays. It’ll be exciting.”

Now wearing jersey No. 1 (he was No. 6 last year), the 6-footer from Chino in San Bernardino County, is listed at 200 pounds — five pounds lighter than he was as a freshman. Even so, Spavital has been impressed with Ott’s strength and ability to run inside.

“People kind of think he’s a space guy, just a speed guy,” Spavital said. “He actually has a toughness and an edge and can get downhill. The physicality is the thing I’ve been most impressed with.”

Ott also can catch the ball, which separates him from the three previous 1,000-yard rushers Spavital coached. Oklahoma State’s Kendal Hunter in 2010, Texas A&M’s Tra Hunter in 2015 and West Virginia’s Justin Crawford in 2017 combined to catch 57 passes for 322 yards.

By himself last season, Ott had 46 receptions for 321 yards and three touchdowns. None of the seven freshmen nationwide who rushed for more yards than Ott matched his production as a receiver.

Spavital arrives at Memorial Stadium by 4:30 a.m. most days, and you can imagine he spends some of those quiet hours designing ways to best utilize Ott as a runner and receiver.

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“It’s hard to find a guy who can do them both,” he said.

Who will be throwing the ball for the Bears remains undecided. TCU transfer Sam Jackson V, a dual-threat QB who has speed to match Ott, won the job in spring ball and remains the frontrunner. But returning sophomore Fernando Mendoza has made a huge leap and Ben Finley arrived this summer from North Carolina State, creating an unexpected three-way competition.

Ott says the Bears will be in good hands regardless of who wins the quarterback job.

“I love all those dudes,” he said. “They all have their own certain skillsets, it’s cool to watch them. I just come out here and take the ball from whoever’s there.”

BERKELEY, CALIFORNIA – SEPTEMBER 24: California’s Jaydn Ott (6) runs for a touchdown against Arizona during the first quarter of their game at Memorial Stadium in Berkeley, Calif., on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group)