Isi Sofele grew up in Salt Lake City, not far from the University of Utah campus. He often attended Utah games and camps as a kid - hey, wearing his Pop Warner jersey meant free admission to the games - and became a full-fledged Utes fan.
Now, to punctuate his first season playing college football, Sofele would like nothing more than to torment his onetime favorite team. Maybe weave his way downfield for a long kickoff return, or take off at typical breakneck speed and deliver a crunching hit on Cal's punt-coverage unit.
Make no mistake, you noticed Sofele (so-FELL-ay) if you watched the Bears at all this season. He wears No. 20 and races around the field like a runaway gnat, 5 feet and 7 inches of pent-up energy, quickness and tenacity, zooming this way and zipping that way.
Sofele doesn't need much reason to get excited about playing football, but next week's Poinsettia Bowl against Utah offers special incentive. Many people back home will watch the game on television, loyal to their Utes but fully aware of Sofele.
Plus, two of his Cottonwood High teammates, linebacker Matt Martinez and offensive lineman Percy Taumoelau, are freshmen at Utah. So the texts and friendly Facebook trash talk already are flying between Berkeley and Salt Lake City.
"I told them to watch out for special teams, because I'll be out there," Sofele said.
His role expanded in Cal's regular-season finale. Sofele spent all year in the "gunner" role on punt coverage - lining up outside and running like mad toward the return man - but he made his kickoff-return debut against Washington. (Shane Vereen was busy as the starting tailback and Jeremy Ross was nursing a strained quadriceps.) Sofele took one 65 yards, breaking into the open field and flirting with a touchdown.
His big-time speed prompted Cal's coaches to make him one of only three true freshmen to play this season, alongside placekicker Vince D'Amato and offensive lineman Brian Schwenke. Beyond the "gunner" duties, offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig also found a spot for Sofele in the so-called Wildcat formation.
The Bears have had mixed success with the formation, on which Vereen (or Jahvid Best) takes a direct snap from center. Sofele is the guy who lines up in the slot and furiously races parallel to the line of scrimmage before the snap; Vereen typically fakes a handoff to him.
"I'm kind of a decoy just to get the guys to flow with me," Sofele said. "Sometimes, I get tempted to steal the ball and run with it."
Sofele, 19, comes from a Polynesian family of eight kids. He's third in line, so he absorbed much good-natured grief from his older sister, Kaelissa, and older brother, Bryson.
Their dad, Hui Sofele, also merits mention. He coaches running backs and speed training at Cottonwood High, and he knows all about speed - Isi insisted he still hasn't beaten his dad (now 41) in one of their customary summertime races.
That qualifies as astonishing, given the younger Sofele's swiftness. He has only one gear, as Cottonwood head coach Cecil Thomas learned long ago. Thomas recalled one high-school play on which Sofele did a 360-degree spin, caused the defender to fall down and then fled for a touchdown.
"Isi was 100 mph all the time, from the time he put on his helmet to the time he left," Thomas said.
Sofele's effort showed on a play earlier this season, when two taller defenders shoved him out of bounds on a punt. Sofele doggedly dashed through opposing coaches and players, on the sideline, before finding his way back to the field and making the tackle.
In some ways, Sofele's size - which could prevent him from becoming an every-down tailback - actually helps him on punt coverage. As special teams coach Pete Alamar said, "It's a lot easier to hit a big target than a small target - especially a small, fast target."