Marshawn Lynch looks to help Bears get to the top of the Pac-10
July 21, 2006
By Brian Hardy
As another Pac-10 football season approaches, there is a growing sense of optimism in Berkeley for this season about the Cal Bears, whom some point to as the team that can knock off four-time Pac-10 champion USC this year. And the reason for such optimism clearly centers on its junior tailback and Heisman Trophy candidate Marshawn Lynch.
Lynch rushed for 1,246 yards last season - the third highest rushing total in Cal's history - despite missing two full games and parts of several others due to breaking his finger. Lynch also had 10 touchdowns and 15 receptions last season, and in the final five games of the season, Lynch rushed for a whopping total of 753 yards, averaging over 150 yards per game.
"Marshawn is a very good player," Cal head coach Jeff Tedford said. "He's really improved his game to be a great all-around player. He can run inside, he can run outside, and he's got the speed to go the distance. He's very physical as a blocker and he's a great receiver. He can do it all - there is no question about it. He's really matured a lot as a player and as a person and I think he's poised for a big year if he can stay healthy." Lynch averaged over 124 yards per game last year and that number surely would have been higher had it not been for his injury.
"Obviously, last year breaking his finger held him back and kind of limited what we could do with him," Tedford said. "But, he's a very strong competitor and I think he's very anxious for the season." With all of the attention centered around Lynch and the Heisman - which includes the launching of his own website: Marshawn10.com - the Oakland, Calif. native tries to just focus on the team and winning games, but admits its hard not to recognize all the attention. "It's hard not to notice when someone has given you that recognition and has labeled me as a contender for the Heisman," Lynch said. "But I wouldn't be where I'm at right now if I didn't have the surrounding of my team. So I blame it on them," Lynch added humorously. "It's their fault that I'm in the race right now."
"I think he's uncomfortable with all the personal attention," Tedford added. "I think he'd be much more comfortable if there were people around him. He doesn't really like to be singled out and I think he's very conscious of that and uncomfortable with some of the surroundings where he gets put on a pedestal or gets special treatment or anything like that." While perhaps not wanting the attention centered on him, Lynch is humbled to be considered for the Heisman.
"Well, it's not everyday you go back to my neighborhood and talk to a Heisman candidate," Lynch said. "So I'm real thankful for that." Cal's talent at running back doesn't end with Lynch either. Joining Marshawn in the backfield is Justin Forsett, who rushed for 999 yards last year, averaging 7.6 yards per carry, as well as Marcus O'Keith, who ran for 243 yards on just 22 carries last season. "It's great to have that one-two punch that when Marshawn comes out, you can put in a quality back behind him be it Justin or Marcus, and still be able to run the ball," Tedford said. With this trio returning, the running game should be Cal's biggest strength. The Bears were second in the conference and ninth in the nation last season averaging 235.2 yards per game. Just as he credits his teammates for him being a Heisman candidate, Lynch knows that it takes a total team effort from everyone in order to be successful.
"There's no individual success in football," Lynch says. "It's a collective thing, so you can't just have one player out there making the game because it won't happen; not at all. You need all 11 working and hitting all on the same cylinder."
Lynch also enjoys the fact that there are two other proven running backs behind him in the backfield, showing that he is a true team player. "Anyone of those two guys could start right now," Lynch says. "So we all just look to each other for a spark and we all just play with passion and are there for one another. It should be interesting watching us all get after it this season."
When talking about the Pac-10 and challenging for the title, Tedford will tell you that it comes down to basics and that if they are able to have everything click - he as well as Lynch - believe they can play with anyone.
"Our goal is just to reach our full potential. And if we do that and that means the Pac-10 title, then great," Tedford said. "But we don't really go in with talking about all that. It's just how we prepare on a daily basis. And if we take care of ourselves and prepare to reach our full potential, we feel like if we do that, that we can play with anybody in the country. But it still comes down to hard work and preparation." After three straight seasons of eight or more wins, Cal might just be ready to take that next step and compete for a Pac-10 title. Tedford took over the program in 2002, and has orchestrated quite an amazing turnaround in his tenure. Following a 2001 season in which the Bears went 1-10, Cal won seven games in 2002, eight in 2003 and 2005, and had a 10-win season in 2004. But while Tedford helped make the Bears into a league-title contender, Cal, along with the rest of the teams in the conference, have had to look up at a USC team that has enjoyed conference supremacy the past four years. That might change in 2006 as Cal looks to be the top threat and a prime candidate to possibly knock off the Trojans from their Pac-10 pedestal.
At quarterback, sophomore Nate Longshore returns to the mix after a season-ending injury last year, while senior Joe Ayoob, who filled in for Longshore last season, also returns. "It's nice to have Nate back," Tedford said. "He went into last season as the incumbent who knew the offense really well and it was unfortunate to have him break his leg in the first game. So he really hasn't been proven under fire yet because he missed all last year. He's a big, strong competitive guy who really throws the ball very well. He's very smart. " And while not quite 100 percent healthy in the spring, Tedford believes Longshore will be ready come fall. "I trust through summer workouts he's the kind of kid who will work extremely hard to get back to where he was," Tedford said. "So I have 100 percent confidence that he will come into camp prepared to compete. And he'll take the first snap in camp" The quarterback position does look to be in good hands, as according to Tedford, Ayoob has had a very sharp spring. "He's played very well this spring," Tedford said. He really got thrown into the mix very early last season and had some times where he did very, very well, and then struggled at times. But, his perseverance and competitive nature were really great to see through spring practice and being a starter for nine games last year, he's got experience."
While the running game is in very good hands, so too is the receiving bunch, as DeSean Jackson, Lavelle Hawkins and Robert Jordan all return to the mix. "They provide a lot of speed on the field to be able to stretch the field and get the ball out there," Teford said. "We feel good about their talent and potential." A new spread offense has been implemented, as former Northwestern offensive coordinator Mike Dunbar has joined Tedford's staff to make some changes. "It's great to have Mike," Tedford said. "He's added the spread dimension into the offense and while we won't be 100 percent spread, we will pick and chose our spots to be able to spread the field. He brings great knowledge of it and has done a great job in the spring communicating it to our players."
While the offense looks to be in good hands, the defense may just wind up being the best in the Pac-10 this year. The Bears return eight starters to a very experienced defense. So, while the Bears bring back a ton of experience to both sides of the ball, its clear that this team has a serious shot at wining the Pac-10, and it begins with their Heisman candidate running back, who looks primed to put up some big numbers this season.