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Best’s Hesiman bid could depend on game vs. USC

BERKELEY – Jahvid Best’s mother banned him from playing tackle football until he reached high school, fearful that he was too slight to compete with the bigger and stronger kids.

“I wanted to play so bad when I was little but she would not let me play Pop Warner,” Best lamented. “She said I was too small.”

That meant Best’s early football education came in two-hand touch and other games on the playgrounds of nearby Richmond, where he had to be fast enough to avoid any contact if he wanted to succeed.



Best carried that lesson of if you can’t be touched, you won’t be tackled into his college career for No. 24 California. He knows the best way to keep Lisa Best calm at games is to run past defenders and into the end zone, which he has done with alarming regularity in his career.

“Last year, she was still having trouble with it,” Best said. “This year she said she was feeling a little bit more comfortable with it and she can deal with it. She’s just getting used to it now.”



Best has grown from the 5-foot-7, 135-pound undersized ninth-grader into a muscular 5-10, nearly 200-pound back this season. He’s done all of that while maintaining his sprinter’s speed, becoming the most electric running back in the nation.

Best has 30 career runs that have gone for at least 20 yards, nine that have gone 60 or more and three that have gone for at least 80 in 26 college games. That big-play ability has made Best a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate and left teammates in awe.

“On the field, you don’t realize it,” quarterback Kevin Riley said. “But then you watch film and see people have the angles on him and he completely outruns them, it’s incredible. … You see it so much from him, you almost expect it every game. He’s a tremendous player.”

Cal (3-1, 0-1 Pac-10) has had a run of star running backs under coach Jeff Tedford, with J.J. Arrington, Marshawn Lynch and Justin Forsett among those joining Best to give the Bears a 1,000-yard rusher for seven straight seasons.

But Best has the uncanny ability to maintain his high rate of speed even as he’s making cuts, bringing a game-breaking element that those players lacked.

“Once he gets in the open field, he’s got an extra gear,” Tedford said. “Those other guys were great players. I think that’s the difference is Jahvid just kind of separates himself when it comes to his speed.”

That speed helped Best rush for 412 yards the first three games and five touchdowns against Minnesota on Sept. 19, moving him near the top of the conversation about Heisman Trophy candidates.

That was quieted following a 55-yard showing in a 42-3 loss at Oregon last week that ended Cal’s dreams for a national championship, and damaged their chances at the Rose Bowl and dealt a big blow to Best’s Heisman chances.

Oregon loaded up the line of scrimmage in order to contain Best, daring Riley and the receivers to exploit the strategy. When Cal’s passing game was unable to make the Ducks pay, Best ended up with his worst game of the season.

“When you can throw a hand grenade on that side of the line and blow up 10 of their players, because they have that many people in the box, it’s difficult to run the ball,” left tackle Mike Tepper said.

Going up against No. 7 Southern California (3-1, 1-1) on Saturday might be even tougher. The Trojans are allowing only 59.5 yards rushing per game and are second in the county with 1.7 yards per carry against.

But it might take a big performance against an opponent as respected as USC to overcome last week’s debacle in Oregon for both Best and the Bears. With the possibility that Cal might not play another ranked team the remainder of the regular season, there are few more opportunities to impress the voters.

“This is a redemption game for him,” said 1991 Heisman Trophy winner and ESPN analyst Desmond Howard. “This means a lot more than what he does against Washington State or anyone else in the Pac-10. I believe this is his last chance to show what he can do. This is his time to shine.”

The lack of marquee games on the West Coast may be one reason why Pac-10 players outside of USC gave fared so poorly in Heisman voting. While the Trojans have had three winners this decade and seven overall, only three other players whose schools are in the Pacific time zone have ever won the award.

Stanford’s Jim Plunkett was the last to do it in 1970, following UCLA’s Gary Beban in 1966 and Oregon State’s Terry Baker in ’63.

Best says he hears complaints about the lack of attention he gets from those close to him but is more focused on how the team performs than how he is perceived.

“It frustrates my family more than it frustrates me because I don’t really pay attention to the media,” Best said. “It doesn’t really frustrate me at all.”

Best has had no problem drawing the attention of opponents. Oregon coach Chip Kelly called him the best running back in the nation, other coaches and defenders have just marveled and how he performs.

USC coach Pete Carroll said Best was as fast as his former Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush, the only Pac-10 running back to win the Heisman Trophy since Marcus Allen in 1981.

“There was something about Reggie that he could make things happen in an extraordinary fashion,” Carroll said. “I think Jahvid is a more consistent guy out of the back field as a receiver. He’s maybe a better route runner, running routes as a wide receiver than Reggie. And he’s got the magic because he’s got that great speed.”

Best has taken all the praise that started before fall camp even began in stride. His stock answer to questions about the Heisman is that he is only focused on team goals and if the team does well, accolades will follow.

That is not an act, as Best is widely considered by teammates to be one of the most humble players on the team despite his immense talent. That humility is the main reason why Tedford was not concerned about how all the Heisman hype would affect his star running back.

“I just know what kind of kid he is,” Tedford said. “He’s a team guy, a well-rounded guy and I’m confident that his goals are team oriented. He has respect for his teammates and his teammates respect him. I don’t think he separates himself, which would be the concern, somebody separating himself from the team but that’s not a concern with him.”

Best only separates himself from opponents, running past defenders on his long touchdown runs.


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