Rusty Simmons, Chronicle Staff Writer
Cal is going to try to get DeSean Jackson the ball as often as possible. Opponents are going to try - sometimes at all costs - to keep the ball out of the hands of the dynamic receiver/returner. OK, this isn't exactly breaking news, but it is one of the most important factors to the Bears' success or failure. It will be a recurring story that provides new players and ever-changing strategies each week. Coach Jeff Tedford, new offensive coordinator Jim Michalczik and special-teams coordinator Pete Alamar will try to outwit opposing coaches, who will try a variety of ways to ensure that Jackson doesn't single-handedly beat them. Of course, leading up to each game, coaches from both sides of the teeter-totter will try to make it impossible for anyone to know exactly how they plan to achieve either goal. First, there are the punt returns. Jackson returned four punts for touchdowns last season and has five for his career. The Division I record for career punt-return scores is eight, shared by Wes Welker of Texas Tech and Antonio Perkins of Oklahoma.
Welker had 152 career punt returns, Perkins had 113. Here's the wow stat: Jackson's five touchdowns have come on 26 returns. "When he hits a crease, you've just got to hold your breath because he's got such great speed," Tedford said. "It gets you kind of fired up when he hits a crease, and you look down there to see how many guys are left. If there's only one, it's probably going the distance." Still, Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer said he plans to kick to Jackson. "I think he's great," Fulmer said. "He's just outstanding. He's exciting with the football, and we don't want him to get loose with the football against us. "But we've got a good punter, so hopefully, we can hit it high enough to get it covered." Whether Fulmer is truthfully answering the game-plan question is yet to be seen. And there will be teams that won't kick the ball anywhere near Jackson.
"If we were playing against DeSean, we would probably try to keep the ball away from him somehow," Tedford said. "When we play great punt returners, we do that, and I would say that he's in the category of being a great punt returner." Then, there's the passing game. ESPN Draft expert Mel Kiper rates Jackson as the No. 1 junior receiver in the nation. He has led the Bears in receiving each of his first two seasons and has 16 receiving touchdowns in 24 games. He had 28 plays that went for more than 20 yards last year.
"He's proved himself as the most exciting player in college football," safety Thomas DeCoud said. "His breaks are instant. He'll be running full speed and break 90 degrees without slowing down. "He has a sixth sense. He can shake you without even looking at you. If you're going to make a tackle, you almost have to catch him when he's not looking. Teams are going to go to greater lengths to keep ball away." That's the logical strategy, but it's more difficult than it appears. Receivers Robert Jordan and Lavelle Hawkins are drooling about the idea of getting single coverage as Jackson gets doubled.
"Ooooh, I hope they do double him," Jordan said. "That's when I'll step up and have some fun." USC doubled Jackson quite a bit in last year's 23-9 win, limiting him to two catches for 41 yards. Jordan, Marshawn Lynch and Craig Stevens combined for 12 catches for 124 yards, and Hawkins caught a touchdown pass. "The great offenses I've been around have been able to make defenses feel like they're trying to box an octopus," Michalczik said. "If you have one great left hook, you obviously have to watch out for that all of the time. If you have eight arms flying at you, it's quite a bit more difficult." Plus, Jackson is going to get touches on reverses and receiver screens. Tedford has toyed with the idea of allowing him even to return kickoffs. "When I first looked at DeSean, I had no idea who he was," tackle Mike Tepper said. "I went on youtube.com and checked him out, and it kind of proved to me that he's a really good player. He can do anything he wants on a football field." Once he gets the ball.
1. Week 1 - Despite the ensuing eight-game winning streak, Cal's rankings never really recovered from last year's season-opening debacle. Beating Tennessee on Saturday could set the tone for a special season.
2. Six in a row - Cal has had 1,000-yard rushers five straight seasons. Even with its plethora of receiving options, Cal needs to stay grounded.
3. Pick and choose - Cal was second in the conference in scoring defense but eighth in yards allowed. Those yards can't start turning into points.
4. Stay near-sighted - Players maintain they weren't looking past Arizona to USC last year. A win might have made us believe.
5. Get DJ dancing - Cal has to win the weekly schematic challenge by finding ways to get DeSean Jackson the ball while opponents are trying to deny him.