It wouldn't be fair to say Jahvid Best could run circles around DeSean Jackson, because Jackson has little cartoon speed lines trailing behind him even when he jogs. Jackson is scare-the-nation quick. If you had to sum up the Cal Bears in one word, the word might be zippy. Jackson is Cal's poster dude for zip, and the team's Heisman hypee. But Jackson probably isn't as fast, goal line to goal line, as teammate Best, a freshman who is a special-teamer and backup tailback. Best cooks. Whatever the current hip term is for running faster than really fast, that's what Best is or does. Forget about numbers, he's got his own zip code. If it turns out that Best can also play college football, look out. Interestingly, Tennessee has a similar guy, a speed merchant with unknown Division I potential. That would be junior wide receiver Kenny O'Neal, who comes to Tennessee by way of Skyline High, Florida State and City College of San Francisco. Best and O'Neal form a juicy little subplot to this afternoon's Cal-Tennessee thriller. There is a chance that neither will play a down from scrimmage, but both will be on special teams. Watch Cal's No. 4 and Tennessee's No. 1.
Jahvid (pronounced JAHV-id) Best probably will return kickoffs, and possibly punts, although that's Jackson's world and everyone else is renting. On punt and kick coverage, Best will be the gunner, the fearless flyer who leads the attack. On the Tennessee wide-receiver depth chart, O'Neal is no higher than seventh, but that might be a trick. Look for him to line up from scrimmage at some point. Best and O'Neal are both Bay Area kids who won California prep 100-meter titles. O'Neal won the state sprint title in 2004 (in 10.34; he also won the Georgia state title in '02). Best went to Salesian High and was the state 100 dash champion last year (10.31 wind-aided). Best ran second in state (and in the nation) in the 200 meters in 20.65, the second fastest state-meet time ever. As a junior he was third in the state 100, running on a broken foot. Best first tried football as a 5-foot-7, 145-pound high school freshman, because he was a Raiders fan. He grew to 5-10 and 182 by his senior year, and could dunk a basketball with two steps. On the football field he could not be stopped - 3,325 yards and 48 TDs as a senior. Don't even get his high school football/track coach started. "He's hands-down the best athlete I've ever coached," says Chad Nightingale, a wide receiver at Cal from '85 to '89 and a prep coach since. "That's a once-in-40-years athlete ... He'll surprise people, because when college recruiters scouted him on film, he's clearly faster than everyone on the field, but what you don't see is that he's not running full speed. When you run to the end zone, you run only as fast as you need to. Jahvid's got extra gears to go to in college. I'm telling you right now, people have no idea how fast he is."
What about ego, coach? "One game last year Jahvid runs for 417 yards and eight touchdowns," Nightingale says, "and his mom's reaction was like, 'That's great, Jahvid, now take out the trash.' A very serious grounding. He's humble. Plus, that's his personality. And I've never had a kid practice harder." In fairness, Jackson might beat Best in a 40, if not in a longer race. Cal coaches claim to have timed Jackson in 4.29, just a shade faster than the speed of sound. Best claims he ran a 40 in 4.3. And both of them might be slower than O'Neal. One scout swears he timed O'Neal in a 4.26 40, and Kenny himself claims a 4.2. It's a murky area, this 40 timing, part science and part talk, but O'Neal can wheel, and he's a load of a wideout at 6-1 and 205. "He bench-pressed 300 pounds," says O'Neal's Skyline High coach, John Beam. "He worked out with NFL and college players (as a prep), and they struggled with him, because he's so strong." O'Neal moved from Georgia to Oakland as a high school junior. After Skyline he enrolled at Florida State, but that didn't work out. As a redshirt freshman O'Neal was a part-time starter and dangerous kick returner, but the next spring he was bounced from the Seminoles for "conduct detrimental to the team." Apparently no crime was involved, but O'Neal's welcome was worn out. At the next stop, CCSF, O'Neal reportedly was a changed man, and everything seems to be going smoothly at Tennessee.
Come kickoff, O'Neal and Best will be small parts of the big picture. But speed thrills and speed kills, it's the mystery element, the X factor. Cal's No. 4 and Tennessee's No. 1 have it.