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These NFL backs are on the run from Berkeley

Four former Cal running backs will be in the spotlight in NFL playoffs this weekend

Ron Gould received a package this week that left a knot in his throat.

It was an autographed Denver Broncos jersey, the No. 22 of running back C.J. Anderson, who led the NFL in rushing in November and in touchdowns in December.

"It brought tears to my eyes," said Gould, the head football coach at UC Davis, who was Anderson's running backs coach at the University of California. "He signed the jersey, and a sent a picture that said, 'I love you, Coach G.'"

As the NFL postseason heads into the divisional round this weekend, Gould has to spread the love around. Four of the running backs still alive in the playoffs were under his tutelage at Cal: Seattle's Marshawn Lynch, Baltimore's Justin Forsett, New England's Shane Vereen, and Anderson.

Like a parent of quadruplets, Gould is pulled in four different directions, with a personal rooting interest in three of the four games. Saturday afternoon, Vereen's Patriots play host to Forsett's Ravens. On Saturday night, Lynch and the Seahawks face Carolina. And Sunday afternoon, Peyton Manning will be handing off to Anderson against Indianapolis.

"I don't watch it like a fan," Gould said. "I'm watching to make sure he's reading it the right way, whether or not he picked up the protection, if he keeps his feet running after contact. If the camera scans on him, how is he running his routes? Are his shoulders over his knees? Is he pumping his arms? Is he selling the route? I watch it from that perspective."

Forever the coach, he expects to have some more common thoughts and emotions too.

"I'm excited, I'm nervous — I want to make sure those guys are always healthy — and I'll be praying a lot," said Gould, who will have a vested interest in the Dallas-Green Bay game, too, with Cal alum Aaron Rodgers now the star quarterback for the Packers.

These backs answered a lot of prayers at Cal, where the Golden Bears had some good teams under Jeff Tedford but weren't phenomenal. Those weren't the only Cal running backs coached by Gould to play at the next level, either. First-rounder Jahvid Best and second-rounder J.J. Arrington played for him too, as did current Jacksonville fullback Will Ta'ufo'ou.

"There's a common thread that runs through all these guys and it's toughness," said Kevin Parker, a longtime recruiting assistant at Cal who's now the football team's director of player development. "They've all put in the work to get to where they are, and put to use what Coach G taught them."

Parker said Arrington "kind of passed the torch to Marshawn, and Marshawn ran away with it. Then, [Lynch] set the bar for the other guys. He kept the torch burning, and it still burns today."

Meanwhile, these four backs are burning their way through NFL defenses.

Anderson, a junior college transfer who played at Cal from 2011-12, led the NFL in November with 709 all-purpose yards, following that with an NFL-high seven touchdowns in December. His ability to gain yards on the ground took pressure off Peyton Manning, whose passing numbers had dipped.

"His legs are always moving," Colts Coach Chuck Pagano said of Anderson. "We have to play very disciplined against him. He can create his own yards when nothing's there."

Forsett, who played at Berkeley from 2004-07, rushed for 1,266 yards — more than doubling his next-best season — and scored a career-high eight touchdowns.

"I look at this game the way I've looked at this whole season, as a chance to show what I can do when there's an opening," Forsett said this week, according to the Baltimore Sun.

"I've been around long enough to know that opportunity doesn't always come. I don't plan to let this one slip away."

Vereen, who played at Cal from 2008-10, had a team-high 96 carries for the Patriots this season, gaining 391 yards and scoring two touchdowns. He was a threat as a receiver out of the backfield too, catching 52 balls for 447 yards and three touchdowns.

The unquestioned star of the group is Lynch, who was at Berkeley from 2004-06 and was a first-round pick by Buffalo in 2007. Nicknamed "Beast Mode," he has scored an NFL-best 56 touchdowns since 2011, beating Dallas receiver Dez Bryant (50), New Orleans tight end Jimmy Graham (46), and New England tight end Rob Gronkowski (45) during that span.

Gould gets more frequent text messages from Anderson, Vereen and Forsett, but he occasionally gets one from Lynch, who famously says next to nothing to the media.

"The thing I remember about Marshawn was, he was just a physical freak," Gould said. "He was so strong. He could have started for us at safety, corner, linebacker, wherever. Pound-for-pound, he's still the strongest player in the country."

That said, even Lynch wouldn't have the strength to pull his old coach away from the TV this weekend.

sam.farmer@latimes.com

Twitter: @LATimesfarmer

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