By Ted Miller
The question seemed doomed to failure, sure to be deflected by California coach Jeff Tedford. Coaches don't like to compare players, and comparing a college running back to Reggie Bush is like bringing Jimi Hendrix into a discussion of a contemporary guitar player. It's just not something a person of culture does. And yet, this Jahvid Best guy lining up in the Bears backfield sure is fancy. "I would compare him [to Bush]," Tedford said. "I'd say they are very comparable." That's sure to draw some snorts. Bush, the 2005 Heisman Trophy winner at USC, was the most spectacular college running back since Barry Sanders. With Bush, it wasn't about the yards, per se, it was about how he got there. The process was what left people gaping.
Best might not be as jumpy and twisty as Bush, but Best often seems like he's playing at a different speed than everyone else on the field. "He hits gears that are just different," UCLA linebacker Reggie Carter said. Best, who ran a 10.31 100 meters in high school, produced 19 runs of 20 or more yards in 2008, seven of 60 or more and three of 80 or more. He averaged 8.1 yards per carry. While some might argue he's not the nation's most explosive player, those some would be wrong. "He's as exciting a player as we have had, and we've had some really good tailbacks," Tedford said. "He brings that element of game-break in there. He's very versatile like a Reggie Bush."
Of course, not everyone knows about Best, even though he is probably the leading Heisman Trophy candidate on the West Coast. Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh mistook him for the San Jose State quarterback during the annual Bay Area college football media day this week. Perhaps it was the 10 or so pounds of muscle Best added during the off-season. That should not only help the now-200-pound Best when he runs inside -- an underrated part of his game, by the way -- but also the added weight should help him stay healthy. Best ran for 1,580 yards last season despite sitting out one game and being limited in others due to injury. He sat out spring practices while recovering from elbow and foot surgeries. He said he's close to 100 percent heading into camp, which starts Friday. Best knows that high expectations will follow both him and the Bears into camp. The school is planning a Heisman campaign, and many pundits project Cal as a top-15 or even top-10 team and the leading candidate to end USC's seven-year run atop the conference.
Cal, however, has struggled with high expectations in the past. And, of course, there's the great implosion of 2007, when the Bears were poised to be ranked No. 1 but went rear-end-over-tea-kettle vs. Oregon State and proceeded to lose six of seven games. Best was an injured freshman when that happened, but he claimed the memory is still fresh. "Sometimes we hear about how we're ranked this or we're ranked that and we start to pat ourselves on the back too much and we lose that sense of hunger that you need to win the Pac-10 championship," he said. He said his present hunger is more about the Pac-10 than about big numbers and a Heisman. "I'm not worried about statistics. All I care about is Ws," he said. "If we're undefeated, then my stats should be there."
Undefeated? A three-week stretch from Sept. 19 to Oct. 3 that includes visits to Minnesota and Oregon as well as a tangle with USC should determine the trajectory of the Bears' season and reveal whether Best has any chance to draw some votes away from the quarterback troika of Sam Bradford, Colt McCoy and Tim Tebow, each Heisman finalist a year ago. Hard to believe any of the above three will produce more eye-popping highlights than Bush, er, Best. When Best was in high school, Bush was his favorite running back. Now Best is fitting reasonably into a comparison, potentially following footsteps that once seemed impossible to duplicate.