The replay of Jahvid Best's 80-yard touchdown run against Washington State last season includes uncommon visual evidence of his ability. Best bursts through the hole and abruptly cuts to his left, leaving Cougars safety Chima Nwachukwu grasping at air. As Best plants his left foot and makes his sharp cut, a cloud of black granulated rubber rises into the air. His technique is so precise - shoulders square, quickly changing directions in one step - he literally leaves his mark right there on the field at Martin Stadium.
This lingering image illustrates why Cal enters the 2009 season with abundant optimism. The Bears still must revive their passing game and prove they can replace a trio of talented linebackers, but their hopes of challenging USC for Pac-10 supremacy begin with Best. He counts as one of the most dynamic running backs in the land, a unique blend of big-time speed (2007 state high school champion in the 100-meter dash), dazzling moves and studiousness. The result last season was 1,580 yards rushing, including seven runs of 60-plus yards, and a school-record average of 8.1 per carry.
It's not simply that Best can zoom downfield. As Nwachukwu learned on the 80-yard jaunt, he doesn't always run in a straight line. "When Jahvid makes a cut," Cal running backs coach Ron Gould said, "he's making it at full speed." Best's running style took time to evolve. He didn't play football until he was a freshman at Salesian High in Richmond, and even then he recalled his style as "all instinct" - get the ball and run, oblivious to footwork and blocking schemes and football's finer points.
Now he's fully immersed in lessons from Gould, an effervescent coach who has tutored J.J. Arrington, Marshawn Lynch and Justin Forsett in his 12 years at Cal. Gould refined Best's footwork, taught him the virtues of tempo and showed him how to use his blockers. Along the way, Best learned to save his speed for the right moment. As one of Gould's favorite sayings goes, "It's not speed to the hole, it's speed through the hole." "There are a couple of plays we have to run patiently," Best said. "As a freshman, I was still kind of in the mode of, 'Just get the ball and run.' So I'd miss my hole because I wasn't being patient. Now I'm at the point where I can control myself and remember my techniques."
Or, as Gould said, "Each run we have requires different footwork, different tempo, different speed. Jahvid understands if he's too fast on certain plays, that's going to screw up the blocking for the offensive line." The system obviously works. At least one Cal running back - Arrington, Best, Forsett, Lynch (twice), Adimchinobe Echemandu and Joe Igber - has gained more than 1,100 yards in all seven seasons under Gould and head coach Jeff Tedford. Best's backup, Shane Vereen, also ran for 715 yards last season. Vereen could become a more prominent part of the conversation this season if injuries knock Best off stride again. He missed time in each of his first two seasons because of hip, foot and elbow problems. Then, in training camp, nagging ankle and toe injuries kept him out of several practices.
If he's healthy, Best can unfurl a string of splashy highlights. Offensive tackle Mitchell Schwartz suspected as much last season, but he didn't really know - he was always occupied with blocking duties when Best took off on his touchdown runs, and in video sessions, Schwartz focused mostly on his own performance. In the offseason, finally, Schwartz watched tape of Cal's games and marveled at Best's quickness and shifty moves. The tapes also reinforced another important tool for Best - he seldom hesitates. "Jahvid is so quick to the hole and he's really decisive - he doesn't dance around back there," Schwartz said. "He makes his cut and goes. That's part of his thing, being so decisive and using his speed to his advantage." Maybe that's the lesson: Speed is nice, but knowing how to use it is another thing entirely.