Friday, January 12, 2007

Daily Cal: Lynch's Jump to NFL Makes Sense From All Perspectives

BY Steven Dunst

Tailback Marshawn Lynch stood up on the podium to collect his hardware after a typically stellar performance in the 2006 Holiday Bowl.  The No. 20 Cal football team just crushed Texas A&M 45-10 in the Bears’ most decisive win of the bowl season, but the throngs of Cal fans in attendance had more important matters to tend to, begging Lynch to return for, “One more year! One more year!” While Lynch laughed and danced long after the game ended, he knew what everyone else would find out formally mere days later: that was his last game in blue and gold.  The Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Year wasted little time in revealing the most thinly-veiled secret since former Bears quarterback Aaron Rodgers turned pro two years ago.

“The opportunity to play in the NFL is something that I have always dreamed of," Lynch said in a statement. "Right now, it is just hitting me that my dreams are going to have the chance to come true.”   His intentions to declare for the draft have been obvious to those close to the program for awhile now, and there is no reason to second-guess one of the most prolific tailbacks in Bears history.  He had nothing left to prove on the collegiate level. Lynch fought through nagging ankle injuries, ran for over 1,000 yards in two straight seasons and helped bring Cal to national prominence.  By all estimations, Lynch will be a top-15 pick in the upcoming NFL Draft and the second running back taken behind Oklahoma’s Adrian Peterson.

Considering this is a weak year for running back prospects, Lynch’s draft stock will never be higher.  His declaration will also help the Bears maintain national relevance in the off-season. Having two first-round selections (corner Daymeion Hughes should also go in the first 30 picks) can do wonders for recruiting. Every high school player wants to go to a college that gives him a chance to make it to the NFL.  Lynch leaves Cal in good hands.  When asked after the Holiday Bowl about backup Justin Forsett’s chances to succeed as the first option, Lynch broke into a big smile.  “He’s the golden child,” Lynch said. “There’s no doubt he’ll succeed.”  There was little reason to doubt the speedy Forsett after he out-gained Lynch in San Diego despite getting 12 less touches. “Tex” showed off his burst of speed at the line and even a little downfield shiftiness, tearing through the Aggies defense en route to 124 yards on eight carries.   “A lot of people question my size, but I just need the opportunity to be a primary back,” Forsett said. “If the O-line blocks like they did (in the Holiday Bowl), I can do it every down.”  But he will be the first to admit that he has large shoes to fill.  Lynch’s success came not only in his deceptive speed but also in his unmatched strength, which allowed him to fight through tackles and make something out of nothing when the line was unable to open up any gaping holes.

Forsett has proven he can be sensational when the line is blocking well, but he still needs to quiet critics who claim he struggles against bigger defensive fronts.  Case in point: he rushed for one yard on five carries in the season-opener against Tennessee.  Luckily for the Bears, however, coach Jeff Tedford and running backs coach Ron Gould have put together some terrific recruiting classes at the tailback position.  Redshirt freshmen James Montgomery and Tracy Slocum both look capable of doing damage, and speedsters Jahvid Best and Shane Vereen are expected to join Cal next season.  It may take three or four players to fill Lynch’s shoes. While Tedford has plenty of dangerous weapons to choose from in the backfield, none will break tackles and produce the type of jaw-dropping plays that turned Lynch into a fan favorite.  Nevertheless, Lynch made the right decision. An injury next season with the Bears could have derailed his NFL career and even if he stays healthy and puts together another stellar year, he already has proven that he has all the tools scouts drool over.

Short of a Heisman Trophy, Lynch picked up just about every piece of hardware a Bears running back can dream of.  And he went out on top, with the crowd’s adulation showered upon him after one of the biggest wins of the Tedford era.  Now it’s Forsett’s turn.

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