College News & Analysis

Cal RB Jaydn Ott burst onto the scene as a true freshman. Now it's about turning the program around

On a California Golden Bears football team that finished 4-8 overall and 2-7 in Pac-12 play this past season, underwhelming by most accounts, an overwhelming effort from an underclassman stood out.

And not just any underclassman. A true freshman.

Running back Jaydn Ott finished as the team's highest-graded player, racking up touchdowns, yards after contact and forced missed tackles, all while not fumbling once as a rusher and playing a significant role in the passing game.

But team success comes first for the 6-foot, 205-pounder, and 2023 is a chance for Cal to right the ship behind one of college football's most promising running backs.

“We already know how last season went,” Ott said in an exclusive interview with PFF, “and for the newcomers, they know as well that we have a goal to accomplish next year and we're not gonna have a rerun of this past season.”


Ott accounted for a significant portion of Cal’s offensive production in 2022, carrying the load for the team throughout the year. He finished with 897 rushing yards and 11 total touchdowns. That helped him earn an elite 90.1 PFF rushing grade. His best outing was a 274-yard, three-touchdown effort against Arizona — one of the highest-graded games from a running back in the PFF era.

 

As good as Ott is on the ground, he may be even more dynamic as a receiver. He loves to play out wide and catch passes, racking up 321 receiving yards last year. He also finished top five in receptions among all running backs in college football.

“When I get a swing route or a flat route and I catch the ball, and then I see that defender — whether it be a fat, slow linebacker or a DB — I either make the DB pay or run right around the linebacker,” Ott said. “I think [being involved in the passing game] opens up a lot, not just for me but definitely for our team.”

While the individual stats and accolades are welcomed, Ott's main focus is getting this Cal team back to a bowl game for the first time in four years. He came here to put this program back on the map, and he fully intends to do so.

Ott originally grew up in Norco, California, but moved between the Inland Empire and Las Vegas as a high schooler. In addition to football, he also played basketball and track as a kid but did not take those sports quite as seriously. Ott quickly realized that football was his passion and that he wanted to make it to the league someday.

He endured a unique recruiting journey and was sought after by several of college football's top programs. The former four-star recruit received offers from Georgia, USC, Wisconsin and many others. After originally committing to Oregon during his freshman year of high school, Ott ultimately flipped to California at the end.

“I really loved it there. I enjoyed all the people there and the area,” he said.

After his senior year of high school, Ott enrolled early at Cal to get a head start on the playbook and to get to know his future teammates better. He credits both his head coach Justin Wilcox and his running backs coach Aristotle Thompson as big reasons for why he chose the Golden Bears.

“[Wilcox] is not a man of many words. But when he does speak, everyone’s locked in. … Everyone is tuned in and listening to what he has to say and takes it to heart. And we’re ready to go out there and play hard — not just for him, but for our teammates,” Ott said. “Coach Wilcox, he says, ‘We got a lot of hard guys on our team who play hard, but we need to be a hardened team and we need to be hard as a unit.’”

Ott still has two years until he’s eligible for the NFL draft, yet he’s already on an impressive trajectory. He was one of 33 running backs in college football last year — out of 252 qualifiers — to earn an 85.0-plus overall grade. But right now, he’s just focused on improving himself as a player to help his team win. It's clear that Ott was not satisfied with Cal's final record at the end of last season. And he’s going to do whatever it takes to turn things around for the program.

Part of that is remembering the players who built up Cal football before him. Ott even idolized former Cal star running back Marshawn Lynch when growing up. He is reminded of the Golden Bears' running back legacy every time he enters the running back room, where there are jerseys of the former greats hung up.

“In our meetings right before practice, I look up at the wall and that’s my vision board, that’s my standard,” he said. “So I know what I need to do that day when I go out onto the field and practice and on game day.”

The team has high expectations for 2023. A 4-8 record and another bowl-less campaign in 2022 won't suffice. From Ott's perspective, early indications are that Cal's newcomers have what it takes to ensure there won't be a repeat.

“We’re in the works. We got 50 brand-new faces on our team right now. And from what I can see during these workouts, not even being in pads, everybody has a similar mindset and we’re hooked on getting our team back to the top and having some success,” Ott said. “I know we’re going to be all right.”

Winning the conference championship is the main goal for Ott and Coach Wilcox in 2023. The Golden Bears will have to make major improvements on both sides of the ball, though, as the Pac-12 will be a grueling conference. Cal will be facing quarterbacks such as Caleb Williams, Bo Nix, Michael Penix Jr. and Cam Rising. However, Ott’s confidence remains too high to be scared of any opponent.

“Honestly, at the end of the day, it is a privilege to line up on the field against them. But they’re just players. I don’t really look at them any different,” Ott said. “We also have weapons on our side of the ball, so it doesn’t worry me too much.”

If things go according to plan, the California Golden Bears could be one of the most improved teams in the country this season. And if that means Ott needs to set aside his individual goals, it's a sacrifice he's willing to make.

“If it has to be another season of below 1,000 [rushing yards] and everybody else is balling,” Ott said, “then so be it.”

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