All-American junior center a gentle giant who menaces DTs
By Jonathan Okanes
BERKELEY — Cal right tackle Mike Tepper says teammate Alex Mack is a gentleman, that he opens the door for everybody. Well, that is, except for defensive linemen. Mack may be polite and respectful off the field, but he isn't quite so courteous to opposing defensive tackles. The Cal junior is one of the best centers in the country, and anchors an offensive line that should lead the way for one of the nation's best offenses this season. "He's an all-around gentleman. He's polite to everyone, respects everybody," Tepper said. "Every parent he meets, he'll shake their hand and introduce himself." As for his treatment of defensive linemen? "He'll open (the door), then slam it real quick in their face," Tepper said. Mack has been named a preseason All-American by multiple publications and is on the watch list for a handful of postseason awards. He was an All-Pac-10 first-team pick last year as a sophomore and is on pace to leave Cal as one of the school's best offensive lineman in recent memory. "He's a special guy," Cal coach Jeff Tedford said. "He's an All-American center. Anytime you have a guy like thatwho has that experience and can direct traffic and play as well as he does, it's very important."
As a redshirt freshman in 2005, Mack played behind Marvin Phillip, one of just five Cal offensive linemen to be named first-team All-Americans since 1976. Mack could join that list before he's done. “It's kind of nice but you can't really think about it too much," Mack said. "I feel really honored, but it's secondary. It's more important for the team to do well. If the team does well, the players on the team will get recognition. It's exciting, but I have to prove something." As good as Mack is at center, the Bears experimented with him playing tackle during spring practice. Cal has another highly regarded center in redshirt freshman Chris Guarnero, and the Bears wanted to make sure they get their five best offensive linemen on the field.
"You want to see combinations," Tedford said. "He's so smart, he can play all the positions. He understands the whole picture. You have to do that when you're directing traffic. You really have to have a pretty good feel of what's going on out there. If something were to happen, you want to be able to choose the combination that gets your best guys on the field." Ultimately, the Bears decided that it was best to keep Mack at center. Tepper and left guard Brian De La Puente are improving, and with left tackle Mike Gibson and right guard Norris Malele recovered from injuries that kept them out of spring ball, the offensive line is taking shape. "We have our own personal goals, of what we can really control," Mack said. "We have the most power over the run and protecting the quarterback. We can't really work on the most yards possible, but we can work on having no sacks per game or leading the Pac-10 in rushing. We are working to get those goals. When we perform as an offensive line, our team should do well." What makes Mack unique is his flexibility. Tepper said he can "get in the craziest positions to block somebody." Mack also reportedly can do the splits, something that is rare for anyone, let alone someone who is 6-foot-5, 300 pounds. "It's rare for most men, period," Cal offensive coordinator Jim Michalczik said.
Although all five of the Bears' starting offensive linemen started games last season, Cal lost two regular starters in Andrew Cameron and Erik Robertson. Tepper, who started two games last year, said Mack's experience and ability has a trickle-down effect to the rest of the players up front. "When Alex does a great job, which is pretty much on every snap, it makes our job so much easier because it's very clear and crisp what we are executing, how were going to execute it and how fast we're going to execute it," he said. "He sets the tone for our offense. He's an amazing athlete."
NOTES: Tedford said starting fullback Will Ta'ufo'ou will be out 3-6 weeks with a sprained medial collateral ligament in his left knee. Ta'ufo'ou suffered the injury during Thursday's scrimmage after being tackled by strong safety Bernard Hicks. Tedford said Brian Holley or Zack Smith will replace Ta'ufo'ou. ... Cal is ranked No.12 in The Associated Press preseason Top 25 that was released Saturday. The Bears also are ranked 12th in the USA Today preseason Top 25.