Fullbacks Vie for Starting Job While Striving to Meet Ta'ufo'ou Standard
In Will Ta'ufo'ou, the Cal football team lost a 6-foot, 255-pound fullback who could bulldoze a linebacker, surprise you with his speed, catch a pass out of the backfield and -- despite guiding 1,500-yard rushers in back-to-back years -- probably go unnoticed on campus.
In Ta'ufo'ou's replacement, the Bears are looking for somebody who can do all of those things (the latter is probably optional) and fill what running backs coach Ron Gould right now calls a "void" in the backfield. Fortunately for an offense riding a streak of seven straight seasons with a 1,000-yard rusher, Ta'ufo'ou taught his potential replacements quite a bit before he left.
"I learned a lot of things from Will, man," says senior Brian Holley. "Playing fullback, it's not glorified, its not anything. Just be humble, go in there and get the job done. That's what I learned from Will. He did that every day."
Ta'ufo'ou played in 11 games in 2007 and all 13 contests in 2008, the primary lead blocker for tailbacks Justin Forsett and Jahvid Best, respectively. Forsett and Best combined for 3,126 rushing yards in those two years. This season, with Best's explosive running being one of the biggest factors in the potential for Cal to unseat USC atop the Pac-10, whoever replaces Ta'ufo'ou is going to be crucial to the Bears realizing that goal.
Holley and sophomore Will Kapp appear to be the top candidates for the job a week into fall camp, with sophomore John Tyndall and redshirt freshman Eric Stevens in the discussion as well. Holley has taken most of the first-team reps with Kapp mixing in intermittently.
Neither Holley nor Kapp is quite the physical anomaly that Ta'ufo'ou was. Each gives up a significant amount of weight to Ta'ufo'ou, with Holley listed at 235 pounds and Kapp at 216. But Gould says that doesn't lower the expecations or change the way that the Bears run the ball because playing fullback is all about establishing leverage under a defender.
"Will, at his weight, he could move extremely well," says Holley. "I don't know if I could beat 255 and move as good as he does. But the thing about fullback, it's all about technique and pad level stuff, and Coach Gould's been shaping all the backs with getting pad level down, feet and striking. You can be 300 pounds and 6-foot-5 and still not be a good fullback."
Right now, Tedford characterizes the fullback play as "hit and miss," which is normal for early practices but falls below the Ta'ufo'ou Standard. Tedford has said that the depth chart will be finalized a week and half before the Maryland game, which gives the each fullback just under two weeks to lay claim to the starting job -- as Gould says, become the guy who's going to "take the bull by the horns and run with it" -- and start replacing Ta'ufo'ou.
"Just the way Will played, his play and his actions spoke tons about him," says Kapp. "He worked so hard in the weight room, which nobody saw, and in practice every rep he took was a quality rep, full intensity. We've seen that. We've seen what it takes. We know how high the bar is and we just have to keep working at it and try to get there."
That's the irony of the situation. For two years, Ta'ufo'ou played in relative obscurity while the guy running the ball behind him soaked up the stats and the recognition. It's now that he's gone that his name seems like a popular one, mostly popping up in the form of, "How is Cal going to replace ... ?"Holley, Kapp and company, by following Ta'ufo'ou's lead, just need to make people forget him again.