Thursday, February 08, 2007

Oakland Tribune: Recruits have Bears ready to run

BERKELEY — Jeff Tedford's Cal football program is so well-established and strategically stocked by year that the true impact of a particular recruiting class isn't often felt for a season or two.  For instance, even though Michael Calvin was part of a 26-recruit haul on signing day, it wouldn't figure that a player like the San Lorenzo High wide receiver would be counted on to step in right away, although he'll certainly get a chance to show what he's got.  After all, the Bears not only will return their top three wideouts in 2007 — DeSean Jackson, Robert Jordan and Lavelle Hawkins — but also quality backups Sam DeSa and Noah Smith.  What's more, Cal also has a transfer from the University of Florida, Nyan Boateng, who is already enrolled and will be eligible to play next season as a junior.  So while Tedford promises open competition for all newcomers against established players, it's logical some will go into the pipeline as redshirts, where they can be brought along while maintaining their full four years of eligibility. That won't be true at every spot, though.  The real position of intrigue next year, at least on offense, will be at tailback, where Cal must fill the large void left by Marshawn Lynch's early declaration for the NFL draft.

A true freshman might get the opportunity to play quite a bit, just as Lynch did behind J.J. Arrington.  Senior Justin Forsett is the lone experienced holdover, and even he has yet to shoulder the load over a full season as the featured back. With Forsett at 5-foot-8, 185 pounds, it remains to be seen if he can be a20-carry workhorse as Lynch was. Maybe, but the more likely scenario is that untested young players will augment the running attack behind him.  In addition to Wednesday's prep All-American signees, Salesian High's Jahvid Best and Shane Vereen of Valencia, two redshirt freshmen, James Montgomery and Tracy Slocum of Fresno, are in a deep mix.  Best and Vereen are smallish speedsters, Montgomery and Slocum are bigger backs perhaps more suited to replacing Lynch's inside running.  Beyond the one reasonably proven commodity, Forsett, Tedford doesn't discount any potential development in the backfield.  "Obviously, if Marshawn were still here, we'd probably be able to redshirt both those guys (Best and Vereen)," the coach said.

But without Lynch, Tedford noted, one or both true freshmen could be significant contributors right away.  "We'll just have to see how that unfolds," Tedford said.  On a videotape featuring all of Cal's recruits, Best and Vereen showed different skills, even though they enter the program at exactly the same size: 5-10, 185.  Best, who was ANG Newspapers regional Offensive Player of the Year, is an exceedingly fleet runner with exceptional vision who darts through holes and explodes past defenders in the open field.

Vereen is also very quick but seems to excel more as a pass-catcher out of the backfield.  Of Best, Tedford said, "You can't teach speed, and he has plenty of it. You can see him do things physically that are going to translate to whatever level he plays.  "He has great balance, great lateral movement, and again, great speed. I don't care what level you play at, the speed that he runs with is something that's pretty special."  It could be, though, that Vereen's talents will better fit the needs of next year's team. His film footage showed him to be a remarkable receiving talent out of the backfield, which could really add a dimension to a club with so many wideout threats.  "Vereen was put at receiver quite a bit, caught a lot of screens and had quite a few yards receiving," Tedford said. "So he is really used to catching the football and very natural. He has excellent hands."  Suffice it to say that while the backfield may be young and inexperienced behind Forsett, it isn't thin.  Tedford is very high on Montgomery and Slocum as well, who signed with Cal last year with prep accolades similar to Best and Vereen. It should be some kind of competition. As long as Tedford is in Berkeley, the Bears won't be caught short on offensive talent at any position. Cal signed five impressive-looking offensive linemen in this year's crop — two tight ends, a bruiser of a fullback and yet another quarterback, Texas product Brock Mansion, who will get in line behind Nate Longshore, Kyle Reed and last year's redshirt freshman prize Chris Riley.  If Forsett can step into the starter's role and get support from a couple of the young backs, Cal should be able to offset the loss of Lynch without too much difficulty. The drama will be seeing which ones come to the fore.

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