Cal RB Patrick Laird takes meteoric rise up depth chart

              FILE - In this July 25, 2018, file photo, California running back Patrick Laird speaks at the Pac-12 Conference NCAA college football Media Day in Los Angeles. Laird has come from seventh-string walk-on to leading man on California's offense during his time with the Golden Bears. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)

BERKELEY, Calif. (AP) — Patrick Laird has come a long way since arriving at California four years ago as a walk-on running back at the bottom of the depth chart for the Golden Bears.

“I was seventh,” he said. “It was a list of running backs and I was at the bottom. It wasn’t in alphabetical order.”

Laird enters his senior season as a leader of Cal’s offense, coming off a breakthrough season that saw him rush for 1,127 yards, score nine touchdowns and catch more passes (45) than any Bears running back since 1988.

It has been a meteoric rise that few other than Laird himself saw coming.

“I wouldn’t say I was surprised,” Laird said. “I was confident in what I could do. My teammates, if you ask them, would say they weren’t surprised but I think they were just being a little gratuitous to their past opinion of me. … But I knew I could play at a top level.”

Laird played sparingly as a freshman and then redshirted in 2015 after moving to wide receiver. He went back to running back the following season and rushed for 59 yards in three games but appeared to have little future as a key contributor for a Pac-12 team.

That all began to change after Justin Wilcox was hired to replace Sonny Dykes as coach in January 2017. Wilcox said Laird stood out during winter workouts, finishing near the top of weekly competitions for various skills and eventually earning his scholarship.

“He has really good skills and you saw it in spring football,” Wilcox said. “Then the summer was the same and then fall camp. We put him on scholarship. We knew he was going to play.”

But he played more than anyone expected. He went from third string to starter after injuries to Tre Watson and Vic Enwere and made his mark on Cal’s offense.

He rushed for 191 yards and three TDs in a Week 2 win over FCS-level Weber State and was a solid contributor the next few weeks. Then his game hit an even higher level down the stretch, averaging 145.4 yards rushing per game over the final five contests. He ran for 214 yards in a win over Oregon State and gained 200 yards from scrimmage in a loss to rival Stanford.

“I knew if I ever had the opportunity, I could produce,” he said. “I decided if I would work, I would take advantage of the opportunity and that’s what happened last year.”

Laird has even bigger goals this season, saying he wants to do a better job of making moves on second-level defenders to generate more big plays, become a more reliable pass blocker and expand his route tree so he can be an even bigger threat as a receiver.

“The level of detail, that’s the difference between average and good, good and great,” Wilcox said. “There are a lot of talented people out there but the level of detail is what separates people.”

Laird has separated himself off the field as well, creating a summer reading challenge to get kids more interested in books. First- and second-graders who read four books this summer got four tickets to Cal’s opener Sept. 1 against North Carolina; third- through sixth-graders got four tickets by reading six books.

Laird said he was motivated to do it after learning about how much some kids are set back in the summer without school. He designed his own website, got the athletic department to donate the tickets and has been amazed at the response. About 3,600 kids signed up for the program.

Laird plans to meet with the kids to deliver a message and pose for photographs after the game and has been encouraged by the response after hearing from parents happy that their children found motivation to read books over the summer.

“I really had no idea how many kids would sign up,” he said. “I told myself if 100 or 200 kids signed up and completed the challenge it would be awesome. After a month or so I had 1,000 so I was really encouraged. Then I wanted 2,000 and 3,000 and it’s kept going.”