David Leon Moore
The talk of the Pacific-10 Conference media day was about how a traditionally pass-happy league might take a more grounded approach to football this season. Southern California's Mark Sanchez and Arizona's Willie Tuitama, the only Pac-10 quarterbacks to throw for 3,000 yards last season, are gone.
But the league returns five 1,000-yard rushers. In order of yards gained in 2008, they are California's Jahvid Best, Oregon State's Jacquizz Rodgers, Stanford's Toby Gerhart, Arizona's Nic Grigsby and Oregon's LeGarrette Blount. A lot of people say the best of them is, well, Best. Arizona safety Cam Nelson: "He can change direction at the drop of a dime."
The 5-10, 195-pound junior is the closest thing the league has seen to Reggie Bush since Bush won the Heisman Trophy at USC in 2005. That is not by accident. While Best was a high school star in Vallejo, Calif., his father, David, would tape USC games. Best would spend hours poring over Bush's exploits.
"He was the back I tried to copy every week," Best says. "I'd see him do something, and I'd try to do it the next week in my high school game. "I wouldn't watch just highlights. I'd watch every single play. I wouldn't say I try to copy specific things necessarily, but I feel like my game has been shaped by him, just by watching him so much and trying to mirror his game."
He did quite a job of it last year. It seemed to some opponents as if they were trying to tackle the ghost of Bush. Not only is Best about the same size, he has similar speed and ability to escape. Best exploded to stardom as a sophomore last year, rushing for 1,580 yards and upholding Cal's tradition of big-play running backs such as J.J. Arrington, Marshawn Lynch and Justin Forsett. In fact, Cal has had a 1,000-yard rusher in each of the last seven years. USC has the record at 10 in a row (1972-81).
Best's rushing total last year ranked No. 3 in the country, No. 1 in the Pac-10 and No. 2 on Cal's all-time list, behind Arrington's 2,018 yards in 2004. Best set a school season record with his 8.1 yards a carry, and he tied the school mark of 15 rushing touchdowns. He also set a school record with 311 rushing yards against Washington and ended the season with 186 yards in the Emerald Bowl victory vs. Miami (Fla.). Basically, he did for Cal what Bush did for USC on two national title teams. This year, Best would like to do it to USC, which is favored for its eighth consecutive Pac-10 title. Cal was second in the preseason Pac-10 media poll and 12th in the nation in the USA TODAY preseason coaches' poll.
"We definitely feel like it's our turn to win a Pac-10 championship," Best says. Cal is considered to have nearly everything it takes to do that, except for a question mark at quarterback, where junior Kevin Riley, who ran hot and cold last year, faces a fall challenge from sophomore Brock Mansion and redshirt freshman Beau Sweeney. "We have to be more consistent in the passing game," coach Jeff Tedford says. The running game, though, should be electrifying, and Best is expected to make a run at being the second running back this decade to win the Heisman. "He's as exciting a player as we've had," Tedford says of Best, "and we've had some real good tailbacks. He brings that element of a game-breaker in there. He's very versatile, like a Reggie Bush. He can come out of the backfield and catch the ball. You can line him up at receiver. He can do it all."
Can he do it as well as Bush? "I think so," Tedford says. "I'd say they're very comparable."