Affable tailback surprises Cal coaches with desire to succeed in classroom
By Dave Newhouse, STAFF WRITER
BERKELEY — Everybody loves a surprise when it's positive, such as getting a promotion or winning the lottery. Well, Cal had no idea when it recruited Marshawn Lynch what was inside this most promising package.
Cal knew what Lynch was capable of in football, and the full scope of his immense talent will be known this fall. But Lynch has been a welcome surprise in the classroom, with a B average in his first semester.
He is the total student-athlete. While others are projecting All-America honors as well as Cal's first Heisman Trophy for Lynch, he has another goal: Academic All-American.
"It wasn't until I pulled them three B's, but I see it's reachable, so I'm going for it," Lynch said. "I was just expecting to pass my classes, but I did a lot better than I thought I would."
Lynch, the freshman from Oakland Tech, took two education classes and an African-American studies course, adding a 3.0 grade-point average to his 8.8-yard rushing average as a spot player behind J.J. Arrington.
"I felt Marshawn was capable of that kind of academic effort," Cal coach Jeff Tedford said. "He takes it seriously. He prides himself. Success in the classroom makes him feel good.
"When I talked to the players before spring practice about goals, not one physical thing came out of Marshawn's mouth. Not rushing for 1,000 yards or scoring 25 touchdowns. He said he wanted to get all B's. For a guy with his promise on the football field, I wasn't expecting that."
Arrington was a surprise All-American last year considering he basically was an unknown in August. Lynch offers that same potential.
"Marshawn can do everything J.J. did, and maybe finish a little better," Tedford said. "J.J. is fast, but Marshawn is faster and brings a little more versatility. Physically, he's as solid as they come, and as strong and explosive as anyone you're ever going to see. Marshawn is the most natural pure athlete I've ever been around."
Lynch inherits Arrington's No. 1 tailback responsibility, but if Lynch is asked, he still views himself as a role player.
"I don't see it as being the No. 1 tailback," he said. "I see it as being a help to the tailback position. We have three other good tailbacks, and I'm just an addition to those three — Marcus O'Keith, Terrell Williams and Justin Forsett."
Lynch can't help being humble.
One year's apprenticeship has given the 5-11, 212-pound Lynch a more well-rounded knowledge of Cal football. But even though his running back's role will intensify,
he still plans to play special teams. For Lynch is first a football player, then a running back.
The country's top freshman last fall was Oklahoma running back Adrian Peterson, a Heisman finalist. Does Lynch believe he in 2005 can match Peterson's productivity?
"I am looking forward to having a big year," he replied. "But as long as we win, I'm satisfied."
However, Peterson doesn't laugh while he's running with the football. Lynch smiles and laughs. He informed the media of this built-in joyfulness after the Big Game.
"That's my personality," he said. "The first time I strapped on my pads, I had that smile on my face. At Southern Miss, I was running a kickoff back and somebody had me wrapped up. Somehow, I got away and got tickled by it. As I'm running, I'm laughing."
He has the Cal coaches laughing, too.
"Before the Holiday Bowl, I asked him if he was ready to go," Tedford said. "He smiled and said, 'Yep.' Then he pulled a bag of Skittles candy out of his pocket and said, 'I'm ready. These are my power pellets.' He's so light-hearted. He's just a kid, an unbelievable kid."
Unbelievable is the operative word.
"The young man is very explosive," running back coach Ron Gould said. "He brings a lot of power, and he has great speed and acceleration. He's hard to bring down, to say the least. He runs, catches the ball, passes the ball. He's such a gifted guy."
Gifted is another operative word.
But Lynch, who breaks tackles with sheer strength, must learn to go down instead of fighting for extra yardage when it's not there. Gould is telling him this, and Lynch agrees it's a better choice than an ACL.
David Ortega, an outstanding Cal linebacker in the 1980s, is academic counselor to the current Golden Bears. He, too, has been blown away by Lynch's approach to academics.
"Marshawn Lynch is a kid who loves to indulge himself," Ortega said. "He engages in every class, doing everything possible. He gives more of an effort in that role than in football, which comes naturally to him. Academically, he's turning on a new light. He's exploring."