Same Engine, New Wheels
This story originally appeared in the Fall 2007 Issue of Cal Sports Quarterly.
By John Sudsbury, Cal Media Relations
Jeff Tedford is an acknowledged quarterback guru, havingmentored six quarterbacks who have been selected inthe first round of the NFL Draft. But, as Tedford will bethe first to say, the key to his team's success is a balanced attack,and having a strong running game is vital.
During each of Tedford's five previous seasons leading the California program, theGolden Bears have produced a 1,000-yard rusher. The names inthe backfield may change, but the results are always the same.
Or to put it another way, the smooth-running machine that theCal ground game has become uses the same engine year in andyear out. It simply replaces the wheels it runs on.
Five years ago, Joe Igber became the Bears' first back to rush for1,000 yards in eight years. The next season, after Igber's graduation,Adimchinobe Echimandu stepped in to the marquee back roleand evaded tacklers for 1,195 yards in 2003.
Following Echemandu's departure to the NFL, J.J. Arrington explodedonto the national scene with 2,018 yards on the ground in2004 - the most recent 2,000-yard rusher in the country. Then hemade the move to the NFL and highly-touted Marshawn Lynch, anOakland product, seamlessly slid into the starting tailback role andpromptly rattled off the first back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons by a Bear since Russell White in 1991and 1992.
Once Lynch was selected with theNo. 12 overall pick in the 2007 NFLDraft, it would not be a stretch to expectthe Bears to suffer a drop-off inits running game. However, recenthistory suggests otherwise. And the presence of ultra-dedicated,fan-favorite Justin Forsett backs up that faith.
'I am definitely ready,' Forsett said. 'I've put in work for threeyears, I have the experience, and I have worked very hard this summerto prepare myself physically and mentally to be the starter.'
'I don't have any concerns whatsoever,' Tedford said of Forsett'sability to carry the starter's load. 'Justin's a guy who has his ownstyle. He is very gifted and he can handle all the things we ask himto do.'
When Tedford accepted the head coaching position at Cal in2002, the Bears had suffered through eight seasons without a winningrecord, as most Old Blues are well aware. However, the teamhad also endured an eight-year drought of 1,000-yard rushers.Since then, Cal has produced five straight winning seasons - andfive straight 1,000-yard rushers - and the establishment of a hardnosedrunning game has helped pave the way for the Bears.
'In our offense, it is critical to establish the run game,' Tedford said. 'It's important to be productive in the run game to keep defensesoff-balance and honest, and we've been fortunate to havegood backs and productive backs.'
'The run game sets the tone for the offense,' running backscoach Ron Gould said. 'We want to establish ourselves as a physicalteam, we want teams to look at us and take notice they betterpack a lunch, because it's going to be a long day. With the balancedsystem that coach Tedford has brought in, it has opened up the rungame and allowed our backs to have greater success.'
The effectiveness of a strong run game was evident quicklyin Tedford's tenure. In six of Cal's seven victories in 2002,the Bears out-gained their opponents on the ground. In 2001,when Cal won just one game, the Bears had just three gameswith more rushing yards than their foes. Over the last fiveyears, Cal has registered a 24-3 record when rushing for over200 yards and led the Pac-10 in rushing yards twice.
While much has happened with the Cal football programsince '02, including advancing to bowl games for four straightyears for the first time in history and earning Top 10 nationalrankings in each of the last three seasons, 2007 will featuresome parallels to 2002 in regards to the offensive backfield.
In addition to Tedford's arrival, another huge differencefrom 2001 to 2002 was the health of tailback Joe Igber.The Hawaii product broke his clavicle as a junior midwaythrough 2001. The following season, he was fully healthyand produced 1,130 rushing yards, the third-most in Cal historyto that point.
The 2002 Bears relied on Igber, a 5-8, 190-pound senior,in the backfield. As a sophomore, Igber hadrushed for 901 yards, but then injuries cut hisjunior season short, giving him somethingto prove as a senior. In 2007, Cal plans tohand the bulk of the rushing duties to the 5-8,200-pound Forsett, who rushed for 999 yardsas a sophomore before logging a 626-yardcampaign last year.
'It has been a three-year stint of learning,'Forsett said. 'I have had some great runningbacks ahead of me that I could learn from.They taught me some things, and I was also able to see from behind the scenes what it's like. I have not experiencedbeing the starter for the full season, but I have somegood insight on it.'
Despite his previous reserve status, Forsett is not your typicalbackup. In his first three seasons, the Florida native (who playedhis final two years of high school ball in Texas) has recorded 1,674rushing yards and six 100-yard games. Against New Mexico Statein 2005, with Lynch out of action due to injury, Forsett stepped upwith 235 yards, the fourth-best rushing day in Cal history.
Last season, with Lynch battling an injuryagainst nationally-ranked Oregon, Forsetttook control of the game, tallying 146 yards in thesecond, and 115 in the fourth quarter alone, in theBear victory. He capped his junior season with amemorable performance in the victory over TexasA&M in the Holiday Bowl - 124 yards on justeight carries, an average of 15.5 yards per carry.
While he needs just 139 yards to crack Cal's alltimeTop 10, Forsett's yards per carry is perhapshis most impressive stat. For his career, Forsett hasaveraged 6.39 yards every time he runs with theball - more than any other returning tailback in thecountry, including the likes of Arkansas' DarrenMcFadden, West Virginia's Steve Slaton, BoiseState's Ian Johnson and Rutgers' Ray Rice - allconsidered Heisman Trophy candidates.
While he has achieved a measure of success in his time at Cal, Forsett remains one of themost humble and approachable studentathletesin the country. Quick to smile andalways thoughtful with his answers, he hasbeen a popular interview over the past twoseasons.
And Forsett never forgets his teammateswhen it comes to recognition. When askedto explain his success, without pause, heresponds, 'The offensive line. If the offensiveline doesn't do well, I'm not going todo well. They lead the way, they open upthe holes along with my fullback and tightend. And my receivers, a lot of people don'trealize it, but to get those long gains, youneed your receivers blocking downfield.'
While Forsett has excelled on the footballfield in his first three seasons, it is hisoff-field maturity and personality whichreceive the greatest praise.
'Justin is an awesome guy,' Tedford said.'He's the guy that you would want your sonto grow up to be like; he's so well-rounded,a great teammate and a great leader. He isjust a great person to have on the team.'
That high praise brings up another similarityto Igber, who was also recognized asa great person as well as a great football player. 'Those two have very similar personalities,'
Gould said. 'They are two peasin a pod when it comes to being great kidsand great individuals. They are extremelyhumble, they both come from great families,and you can't measure how importantthe game is, how important winning is, tothose guys.'
'Justin is a quality person,' Igber said. 'Ireally hope he does well. He is so humble.
With his talent and waiting his turn, he hasdone it so chivalrously. I hope he does well,but if things don't work out, I know he willdo well in life. That is the point of going toBerkeley, and he understands that.'
While off-field praise has dominatedForsett's accolades, he has always beenrecognized as a top talent by opponentsand teammates, including Lynch. Nowas he prepares to step into the spotlight,Forsett has been tabbed as a candidate forthe Doak Walker Award as the top runningback in the nation. Multiple publicationshave selected Forsett as theirpreseason first-team All-Pac-10 runningback. While the recognition is finallyarriving for the senior, he has taken hispreparation to a new level, adding 10 pounds of muscle while maintaining hissub-4.4 speed.
'His offseason effort has been impeccable,'Gould said. 'His commitment, hispassion, his drive, is probably the best Ihave had as a coach. When I tease him andtell him to make sure to have fun, he says,`Fun is when I'm lining up on the field.''
While Forsett hopes to continue Cal'sstreak of 1,000-yard rushers, he does not listit anywhere near the top of his list of goals.
'Ever since that 999 season, 1,000 yardsis on my mind,' he said. 'It is always a goodmark for a running back and it's somethingI've always wanted to do. But if I rush for800 yards and we go to the national championship,I'll take that any day.'
The '999' season would be 2005 whenhe rushed for exactly 999 yards, narrowlymissing the key milestone - just as Igbernarrowly missed 1,000 yards in 2000 beforecracking the 1,000-barrier as a senior.
'I never thought about numbers at all,'Igber said. 'I can remember only onetime coach Gould showed me a newspaperthat showed the 1,000-yard rushersin Pac-10 history, like O.J. Simpson andMarcus Allen. He told me there was no reason I could not be on that list, whichwas amazing.'
'One of the things as a coach that youhave to instill is confidence,' Gould said.'I showed Joe that article to help him havehigher expectations for himself. I try to dothat with all of these guys. They need foresightand they need to be visionaries andrealize what they can do.'
The long string of rushing success is notlost on Forsett.
'We have been producing great runningbacks here,' he said. 'It gives you confidencethat with this type of offense, you willhave the opportunity to be productive.'
The Golden Bears have their top receivers,their starting quarterback and tight end anda pair of all-conference linemen returningon offense. While the starting running backmay not be returning, a confident and drivenForsett will provide the wheels for the GoldenBears in 2007, assuring that the Golden Bearengine will continue to run smoothly.
'I have one major goal and that is tobe the starting tailback in the nationalchampionship game,' Forsett said. 'If wedo that, I must have been productive forthe season.'