On the stat sheet, the play looks like any other four-yard gain, a positive but unremarkable advancement on the football field. But it was how Laney College running back C.J. Anderson gained those four yards last Friday night that shows why he is one of the best junior college running backs in the state.
On a pass from his quarterback, David Ross, Anderson caught the football behind the line of scrimmage on the left side of the field, where he immediately encountered Iosia Iosia, a 6’6”, 270-pound defensive end for City College of San Francisco. With a juke left, then a cut right, Anderson moved past his significantly larger opponent with ease. An instant later, he was surrounded by three defenders, one pursuing him head on and the other two closing in from the right. Only one managed to lay a hand on the ball carrier. With a push off—known as a “stiff arm”—and a cut left, Anderson found more running room.
Now, seven defenders were pursuing him from all directions, with a couple of Anderson’s blocking teammates mixed in. His scamper was about to end, but not before he employed one more of his deft skills. He jolted forward, put his shoulder down and was finally dragged down by the San Francisco defense—but not until he tunneled his way to the far side of the scrum, having turned what could have been a two-yard loss into a scintillating four-yard gain.
That all happened on a pass play, a mode of moving the football downfield in which the quarterback, usually standing behind the offensive line, throws the ball to a teammate in a more open space. Running backs catch passes on occasion, but their primary function is to take a handoff from the quarterback and find a way to gain as many yards as possible while almost instantly confronting a wall of defenders countered by his own blocking teammates. Some running backs use brute strength to plow through tackling defenders. Some running backs rely on their quickness and agility to avoid tacklers. Anderson does both.
Anderson is usually given a chance to work his magic each game during 20 or more running plays. That’s when his instincts direct him to barrel through or scamper around the oncoming defenders as he attempts to gain as many yards as he can. His longest run of the season is 75 yards. His average gain is 8.1 yards every time he’s handed the ball—best in the state. In fact, Anderson ranks first or second in every significant statistical category among California’s junior college running backs. His 1,184 rushing yards through seven games leads the state. His 14 touchdowns scored tie him for the second most in the state.
According to the website Scout.com, which tracks high school and college sports athletes across the nation for scouting purposes, Anderson “has been one of the most productive [junior college] backs in the entire country.”
Anderson, a stocky 19-year-old of average height, came to Laney in 2009 from Jesse Bethel High School in Vallejo, where he dazzled on the football field as an offensive player and a defensive player. After attracting interest from four-year division 1 colleges as a defensive cornerback but failing to land a football scholarship, Anderson opted to play offense at Laney.
“C.J. is a special kid,” said John Beam, Laney’s athletic director and the football team’s offensive coordinator. Anderson was voted all-conference by the league’s coaches last year, so the Laney coaching staff knew they had a good player at running back, Beam said. But they didn’t realize how good he was going to be until the first game of the season, when Anderson gained 214 yards on just nine carries against College of the Redwoods, a junior college in Eureka. “That pretty much told us then,” Beam said.
Anderson has rushed for at least 178 yards in five of his team’s seven games so far this season, including 200-yard performances in the first two games of the season and a 178-yard effort against San Francisco, whose defense headed into last weekend’s game allowing opposing teams just 71 rushing yards per game, the lowest average in the state.
Rushing for 100 yards on any level—professional, Division 1 college, junior college, high school—is considered an impressive feat. To roughly double that total in five of his first seven games speaks to Anderson’s ability as a running back and the help he receives from his offensive teammates, especially the five offensive linemen.
Laney’s starting offensive line on Friday night—Virgil Hart, Joshua Wilson, Donovan Frazer, Johnathan Gerber and Jeremy Summers—averages 6’ 2” and 295 pounds, which is just a tad smaller than the average offensive lineman in the
National Football League. Like any humble running back, Anderson credits his offensive line for his success. “People tell me, ‘You’re the best [running] back in the state,” Anderson said. “I tell them ‘We have the best line in the state.’ Because they’re making the plays.”
The offensive line’s job on every play is to control the line of scrimmage, where, after each snap of the ball, its members collide with their counterparts on the defensive line in a group sumo match. If the offensive linemen successfully push the defensive linemen where they want the defenders to go on running plays, that increases the running back’s opportunity to gain yards. There is almost never a perfect execution of an offensive line’s blocking scheme, so the running back is expected to scrap for as many yards as he can on each play he is handed the ball. With hostile defensive players—generally both fast and strong—trying to stop the ball carrier, the running back position requires a rare athlete.
Professional running backs tend to embody the most complete set of pure athletic skills of anyone on the football field, and perhaps in all of sports. They’re compact, usually standing 5’7” to 6’2” and weighing 180 to 250 pounds. They’re fast, able to elude would-be tacklers with their agility and speed. They’re tough, able to break free from the grasps of defensive players who are often significantly larger, while often initiating the violent collisions intrinsic to football.
At 5’ 8” and 205 pounds, Anderson is on the smaller side when compared with professional running backs and major college team players, but what he lacks in imposing size he makes up with quickness and toughness. “You can be right in front of him and not touch him,” said Jeff Turner, Anderson’s high school coach at Jesse Bethel High in Vallejo. “And he’ll run you over.”
All these physical attributes are necessary for success, but a running back’s greatest asset is his vision, says former UC Berkeley and NFL running back Russell White. “Moves are good, but vision is the ultimate,” White said. “And that is something you can’t teach.”
Vision on the football field does not mean 20/20 eyesight; it means having excellent peripheral vision and the ability to read and react to the defense, identifying where defenders are coming from and anticipating the openings for gaining the most yards on a particular play.
“When you think of the great running backs over time, they always made a great cutback lane,” White says. One moment, “they’re going here, but they cut back so nicely and so effortlessly, it looks like, ‘How did he see that?’”
White, 39, was an All-American running back in the early 1990s at Berkeley, where he holds the school record for most career rushing yards. He played briefly in the NFL after being drafted by the Los Angeles Rams in 1993, and spent some time playing for the London Monarchs in the NFL’s European league. He now lives in Hayward and coaches the varsity football team at Castlemont Community of Small Schools in East Oakland.
There is another factor in a running back’s success. It comes off the field, where a player’s training habits often help him fulfill his potential on the field. Coaches laud Anderson for his tireless hours spent lifting weights, working on his speed and studying game film. “The thing that separates C.J. is that nobody will outwork him,” Turner said. “He probably knows the game better than anybody.”
Anderson said he works on his strength and agility in the offseason, lifting weights with teammates and doing footwork drills. And he does his homework, studying the offensive playbook and film of his performances and of opponents. “Last year, I got a lot of carries, but I didn’t understand the offense so well,” he said. “My football IQ just improved.”
Junior college football tends to be the sport’s least heralded level, a Purgatory between high school and four-year college football. The rosters are filled mostly with players from local high schools, but since high schools tend to be more central than junior colleges to their communities, the fan interest is greater for high schools.
Nevertheless, the talent level at junior colleges is substantial, as many players go on to play Division 1 college football, and from there, some head to the NFL. There is a strong possibility that one or more players in Friday night’s Laney-San Francisco game will be playing professionally within three or four years. But the overall talent on junior college teams is discernibly inferior to that on Division 1 college teams, and four-year college graduates are traditionally more loyal to the sports programs of their schools than graduates of junior colleges.
For four-year college football programs, however, the junior college level is a valued training ground and talent pool to find players to
match with their players who come straight out of high school. For players, junior college football is a stepping stone to continue their education and play football beyond high school. As high school players, they generally didn’t garner enough interest from four-year colleges to receive scholarships, or they received plenty of interest from the next level but didn’t qualify academically.
Anderson played running back through much of his childhood, including when he played Pop Warner—the Little League of football—and in high school, where he also played quarterback. “I like running the ball way better than corner,” Anderson said. “But sometimes I’ll be sitting on the sidelines, watching our defense, and I’ll be like, ‘Ah, I wish I was out there.’”
Despite standing out as an offensive player in high school, rushing for nearly 4,000 yards during three years of varsity football and leading his team to a sectional championship game his junior year, division 1 college coaches thought Anderson (then twenty pounds lighter) lacked the size to play the position at the next level. “Recruiters thought he was too small,” said Turner, adding that he didn’t think Anderson’s size was an issue. “We liked the ball in his hands.”
As a high school player, Anderson was recruited as a defensive cornerback by some major four-year colleges who were intrigued by his ability to cover wide receivers. The most interested schools were the University of Miami and UC Berkeley’s Pac-10 rival, Oregon State University, but neither offered him a football scholarship. Anderson said he then contacted Beam, a friend of Turner’s, about playing for Laney. “Coach Beam just said, ‘You can come play for me,’ he’ll take care of me, and that’s what he’s doing right now,” Anderson said.
Laney’s first five games this season were against non-conference opponents, during which Anderson racked up 812 rushing yards—more yards than he gained in all 10 games in 2009. With some of his biggest performances coming against lesser competition, the rushing yards could have been expected to be tougher for Anderson to come by then when conference play started, since Laney plays in Northern California’s toughest conference. Anderson proved otherwise against Laney’s first conference foe, Foothill College, on October 17, rushing for 195 yards, followed by his impressive performance against San Francisco.
While Laney lost to San Francisco, 21-17, dropping its season record to 4 wins and 3 losses, it was overall an impressive outing by Anderson and his teammates. San Francisco is the top-ranked junior college football team in Northern California and, heading into Friday’s game, was ranked second in the state in most points scored per game and first in allowing the least amount of points per game. On Friday, Laney’s offense scored more than San Francisco’s defense is accustomed to allowing, and Laney’s defense allowed less than half the points San Francisco’s offense is used to scoring.
Potential suitors at the next level are now showing interest in Anderson for his offensive abilities rather than his defensive abilities. Earlier this month, recruiters from Pac-10 school Washington State University and national champion contender Boise State University visited Laney to check out Anderson, said Beam, the Laney offensive coordinator. Scout.com lists the universities of Arizona, Oregon and Nebraska—all major college football programs—among the schools showing interest in Laney’s star. “He’ll definitely have a shot” of playing Division 1 football, Beam said. “It’s just a matter of where.”
Anderson said he isn’t concerning himself with his football future during the football season. If the recruiters are interested, “I don’t want to know. I just want to focus on winning.”