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By Rusty Simmons
Do yourself a favor. The next time Cal coach Jeff Tedford calls a running play, don't follow the ball. Instead, keep your eyes fixed on center Alex Mack. You'll witness a true technician of offensive line fundamentals, and, moments later, you'll see an unbridled passion for the game. It's a combination that makes the 6-foot-5, 300-pound junior an All-America candidate and a leader of a unit that paves the way for nearly 200 rushing yards a game while allowing less than a sack a game. "It's so fun to watch him on film," backup center Chris Guarnero said. "He's always blowing someone up and immediately looking for somebody else to blow up." Mack is part of a group that lost three starters to the NFL last season and two more starters this year, seemingly without missing a beat. Despite what LSU coach Les Miles says about previously pass-happy West Coast football, he's also the mainstay of a corps that is changing that soft reputation. "I think we have a reputation for playing through the whistle, and I think Alex has a lot to do with that," offensive coordinator Jim Michalczik said. "I think teams are starting to realize that they better not relax when they're playing Cal, because we're a team that plays aggressive and physical."
En route to clearing the path for 230 rushing yards and a 45-31 win over Tennessee in the season-opener, Mack provided as close to highlights as an offensive lineman can. He took out three players on Justin Forsett's 13-yard touchdown run, and, on a clock-eating, fourth-quarter drive, he fell while trying to make one block only to take down two other players with his backside. "One thing he really does that I don't think people see is that he really sets the tone for our work ethic and how we play," Michalczik said. "He's a very aggressive, physical guy who is always attacking." In the film room: "He really is a technician," Guarnero said. "He'll pancake somebody, but he'll be watching film and say, 'I could have taken a better step here or there.' " At practice: "He's a guy who we really have to keep an eye on, and we have to slow him down sometimes," Tedford said. "That's hard to do, because he goes at one pace all of the time." Even 20 yards downfield in games: "I have to run down there for the next snap anyway," Mack said. "I might as well hit somebody on my way."
ESPN draft expert Mel Kiper Jr. ranks Mack as the No. 4 junior lineman in the country, one spot behind Ole Miss' Michael Oher, the subject of Michael Lewis' 2006 book "Blind Side: Evolution of a Game." Mack possesses the perfect grouping of brains, hands, flexibility, power and agility to play center - or any other position along the line, as he demonstrated during spring ball and training camp. Mack played just about every position along the line, and there was serious thought about moving him to left tackle, where he could protect quarterback Nate Longshore's blind side. Having him in the middle, however, so he could be the quarterback of the line, proved paramount. "He's a guy who is so important to everything we're doing," Tedford said. "He's a guy who is a leader and who directs traffic. Not only that, but he allows you to do so many things offensively, from pass protection to run schemes, because he makes it all work so easily."