BY ERIC GILMORE
Knight Ridder Newspapers
BERKELEY, Calif. - (KRT) - It was early in the third quarter of the Big Game last year, and Cal freshman running back Marshawn Lynch was 20 yards downfield, preparing to cut back when he saw what he thought was a hilarious and stunning sight.
It was quarterback Aaron Rodgers throwing a block.
At first, Lynch wondered what in the world his quarterback was doing so far downfield, impersonating a wide receiver or fullback.
Then Lynch started laughing_in mid-stride_and he didn't stop until he was in the end zone at the end of an amazing 55-yard touchdown run.
"I'm laughing at A-Rod," Lynch said Friday before a spring football practice. "I just like having fun. That's all it is for me.
"There have been a couple of runs where teammates heard me laughing on the field while I was running. I'm just having fun."
Lynch had a blast during his freshman season, backing up J.J. Arrington, the nation's leading rusher,
Lynch rushed for 628 yards on only 71 carries, averaging 8.8 yards per carry, best in the Pac-10. He rushed for eight touchdowns, one every 8.9 carries. He caught two touchdown passes.
Lynch produced those numbers as a secret weapon of sorts, coming off the bench to punish unsuspecting defenses with his combination of speed, power and pure will.
Lynch might as well have an "X" on his back. He's still finishing his freshman year at Cal. He turns all of 19 on Friday. But he's gone from being a dangerous part-time player to being the face of Cal's offense_OK, other than coach Jeff Tedford_and the key to the Bears' hopes.
Rodgers and Arrington are gone, waiting to see which NFL teams draft them next week. The Bears also lost senior wide receivers Geoff McArthur and Chase Lyman, as well as tight end Garrett Cross.
Granted, starting offensive linemen Ryan O'Callaghan, Marvin Philip, Andrew Cameron and Aaron Merz return. But offensive linemen work in near anonymity while the spotlight shines on players who touch the ball.
The pressure will be on Lynch to lead a Cal team that ranked No. 9 in the nation in the final polls last season but is retooling this year.
Well, at least you'd think it would be.
"I don't really let stuff get to me," Lynch said. "I don't really worry about anything too much."
That's good news for Cal. So are the facts that Lynch has bought into Tedford's team-first approach and has continued to play the role of humble freshman.
Ask Lynch about his goals for 2005, and you'll hear nothing about rushing yards, touchdowns or honors.
"I just want to win a championship, and I don't care how we do it," Lynch said. "I wouldn't even care. I just want to win a championship."
What type of championship would that be?
"We can start with the Pac-10," Lynch said, smiling. "We'll work our way to the national."
Most likely, the Bears will go as far as Lynch and their running game carry them next season.
Tedford has vowed to have a balanced attack, but he'll be breaking in a new starting quarterback, either junior college transfer Joseph Ayoob or redshirt freshman Nathan Longshore. What's more, his quarterbacks will be throwing to a crop of inexperienced receivers.
The Bears, though, are loaded at running back with Lynch, Terrell Williams, Marcus O'Keith and Justin Forsett, among others.
In Cal's first spring scrimmage, Lynch and Forsett each rushed for more than 100 yards. Lynch scored on a 95-yard run.
Lynch showed us his immense potential last season as a raw freshman.
"I was surprised because there aren't too many freshmen that come in and play," Lynch said. "The 8.8 (yard average), that's great.
"I mean, I shocked myself, but a lot of my teammates, they'd seen me play. It didn't really shock them because they thought I could do it."
The rest of the Pac-10 teams are now well aware of Lynch, too. They'll gear their defenses to stop him.
"My linemen are going to take care of me," Lynch said. "Marv, A.C., O.C., Aaron. They're going to take care of me.
"I'm not who they have to watch out for. It's the team and our linemen."
Give Lynch a few more points for humility. But consider this: If Lynch averages 20 carries per game (Arrington averaged 24 last season) and 8.8 yards per carry again, he'll rush for 2,112 yards, assuming Cal gets a bowl bid and plays 12 games.
Wouldn't that be a laugh riot for Lynch?