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Stars aligning for Cal RB Jahvid Best to make serious Heisman run

Sure, it took an injury to Sam Bradford, an iffy half by Colt McCoy and a bit of Tim Tebow tedium, but suddenly Cal running back Jahvid Best is on everyone's Heisman trophy short list.

"I am?" Best said Wednesday evening. "I didn't know that."

Check the eye-roll. The lightning-fast running back is so humble and grounded, it's possible to believe he isn't tracking his ascendance in Heisman polls.

"Jahvid puts the team above self," said Cal coach Jeff Tedford.

His team is doing pretty well, too. The Bears are ranked eighth and travel to Minnesota on Saturday in a nationally televised game. The Big Ten matchup is a chance for the Bears -- usually relegated to late-night Pac-10 time slots -- to show the rest of the country who they are.

And an opportunity for Best to show voters he's not just the other guy in the Heisman race.

Best has run for 281 yards in his first two games. Already considered the best non-quarterback in Heisman contention, his long-shot odds improved when reigning Heisman winner Bradford went down with a shoulder sprain in Oklahoma's opener. The competition in front of Best is still daunting: Florida's Tebow and Texas' McCoy, who quarterback the top two teams in the country.

In addition to the power quarterback duo, there's also a lot of history to overcome. A Cal player has never won the Heisman. The last non-USC player from the Pac-10 to win the award was Stanford's Jim Plunkett in 1970. And Best's best work comes when many Heisman voters are in their jammies.

Despite the long odds, Tedford doesn't mind the Heisman talk. Not this time around. While turning the Bears into a West Coast power, Tedford has coached some other Heisman candidates: running back Marshawn Lynch, who shunned the spotlight, and receiver DeSean Jackson, who earned the nickname "MeSean."

Tedford, without mentioning the former players, has let it be known Best is well-equipped to handle a Heisman campaign.

"If it's someone who is not a team guy, it can be a distraction," Tedford said of the trophy hype.

Best is a team guy who also happens to be one of the fastest runners in the country. A former California high school sprint champion, with a 100-meter time of 10.31, Best was recruited in both sports.

He chose Cal over USC and Oregon in order to be close to his family in Vallejo, Calif. He had hoped to run track at Cal, but nagging football injuries forced him to give up the sport he has called his passion.

"I do miss it," he said. "I've kind of pushed it into the past."

Except when he's on the field, where he treats every snap as the starter's gun, and the daylight beyond every hole as the finish line. He said track taught him how to completely lock into the moment.

"Track is one of those sports where there's such little time, but so much to do," he said. "You can get distracted by thousands of things. I learned to focus on those 30 seconds."

Best spoke as he stood in the fading light at Memorial Stadium. Behind him construction cranes beginning work on lavish stadium renovations loomed, the symbol of Cal's recent focus on football. The last one on the field, Best was still not quite done with a long list of media requests.

That's a new development. Though many consider Best the running best back in the nation, he's remained relatively incognito, even to his opponents. At a preseason press conference, Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh misidentified him as a different player. Odd when you consider Best ran for over 200 yards against the Cardinal last season (perhaps Harbaugh could have identified him better from behind).

What Best might be best known for is losing his breakfast after sustaining a wicked hit against Maryland last season. The unfortunate moment was captured on camera.

But the junior cared less about the YouTube ignominy than the loss to Maryland, in which he was bottled up for just 25 yards, his lowest rushing total of the season. He got revenge in this season's opener, running for 137 yards.

He'd like to have the same turnaround against USC on Oct. 3, in a game that could decide the Rose Bowl. If Cal is to finally break through and unseat the Trojans, Best will be the reason. Last year the Trojans held Best to 30 yards.

"That's something that fuels me," he said.

But not the Heisman talk. He doesn't even know what's being said.

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