With Jahvid Best physically unable to participate in Cal's spring practices while rehabbing from foot and elbow surgeries, running backs coach Ron Gould thought up a solution to keep his star tailback sharp: visualization.
"At the beginning, I didn't really understand it," Best said.
Gould gave Best a script of each day's practice and asked the junior to mentally put himself through the same drills and snaps his teammates were performing. "I started doing it and I saw that it was helping me be mentally prepared," Best said, "so when I physically can go I'll be there mentally and physically."
Even if he initially thought it was all mumbo-jumbo, Best has learned that when Gould talks, he's wise to listen. In 12 years in Berkeley, Gould, the running backs guru, has developed a laundry list of NFL draftees, tutoring the likes of J.J. Arrington, Adimchinobi Echemandu, Justin Forsett, Marshawn Lynch and Tarik Smith.
When Gould discusses what separates his latest star pupil from the Bears' backs of the past, that track record gives his words a certain gravitas. "The one thing that stands out is exceptional quickness and speed," Gould said.
That quickness and speed helped the 5-foot-10, 200-pounder turn his first high school touch into a 67-yard touchdown and later helped him win the California high school 100-meter title. That quickness and speed turned his Yale Blue and California Gold uniform into a shade of green last season when he rattled off 10 touchdowns of at least 20 yards and six of at least 60 yards. That quickness and speed make him one of the best bets to crack the returning Heisman Trophy finalists' quarterbacks' party. That quickness and speed make it fairly certain that, unlike last season, he'll be impossible to ignore in 2009.
Chalk it up to East Coast bias, or the fact that Pac-10 teams aside from USC rarely make news unless they make it against the Trojans, but Best largely operated under the radar during his spectacular sophomore season. As a first-year starter, Best led the nation with 215.5 all-purpose yards per game, ran 194 times for 1,580 yards and 15 scores while averaging 8.1 yards per carry and even ran back a kick 54 yards for a TD.
"He plays fast all the time," Gould said. "We always talk about in the film room how you want to play like the film is being sped up. I've been fortunate to watch him and actually see that come to fruition. When you look at the film you see his turnover is second to none."
It wasn't until the end of the 2008 regular season, when Best ran for 311 yards and four TDs in two-and-a-third quarters against lowly Washington and then piled up 186 yards and two touchdowns in an Emerald Bowl victory over Miami (Fla.), that the nation seemed to notice. That attention deficit explains why Best didn't appear on the AP All-America teams as either a running back or an all-purpose player and why he finished behind Oregon State's Jacquizz Rodgers in the Pac-10 Player of the Year race despite running for 327 more yards and four more touchdowns. (Rodgers, however, did reach that one plateau for Pac-10 stardom by running for 186 yards and two TDs against USC, while Best managed just 30 yards against the Trojans.)
Not everything about Best's season escaped notice, of course. An infamous YouTube clip surfaced after Cal played Maryland, and we're not talking about the Benny Hill parody highlight reel. Best vomited after Maryland cornerback Kevin Barnes' vicious (and legal) hit -- a lowlight made even lower considering the game was nationally televised. Two versions of the clip have combined for over 70,000 views, and he's had a hard time living down the hit and its aftermath. "If I haven't seen a friend in a while he'll come up and just mock me and act like he's throwing up," Best said.
Best tends to shy away from watching himself spew green Gatorade and instead spends his viewing hours watching his "idol," Reggie Bush. Best often watches tape of the dynamic former USC Trojan and current New Orleans Saint to "watch what he does and try to get into his mind." The admiration is fitting, consider Best has been compared to Bush since he was a sophomore in high school for his ability to turn a sliver of daylight into six points. Former Cal star DeSean Jackson went so far as to nickname him "Little Bush."
But while he's open to drawing inspiration from Bush, Best isn't trying to live up to Bush's legacy. "I don't want to follow in anybody's foot steps, I want to make my own way," Best said. "But there are a lot of things that you can learn from other people that can help you get to where you want to be."
Best, of course, wants to be on the same ground his idol walked when he won the Heisman in 2005. Best is open about his desire to win the stiff-armed trophy, but maintains that desire stems from a team, not individual, mindset. "It's obviously a goal of mine ... If I win that, it means I'm really helping my team," he said.
It's that very approach which makes Gould gush. When Best arrived in Berkeley as a four-star prospect out of Salesian (Richmond, Calif.), Forsett was already entrenched as the featured back, so Best became a special teams maven, recording a team-high 12 tackles and recovering a fumble.
"The one thing that stands alone is his humility and his work ethic," Gould said. "Those two things you couldn't ask for in a young man of his magnitude and his talent. Coming in he told me 'Anything I can do to help the team.' You don't find that many guys with the accolades that he received, the notoriety, [the] publicity. He's extremely unselfish."
If there's a knock on Best, though, it's his durability. As a freshman he suffered a hip injury that sidelined him for the last three games of the season. In '08 he missed a game with a dislocated elbow. He required two surgeries in an eight-day span in January, which kept him out this spring. He said he began running nearly two weeks ago and is "about 85 percent." He expects to be back to full health by the time preseason camp opens.
"I know a lot of people say I'm not durable and things like that," Best said. "That's something I have to work on and actually pray on because sometimes it's not in your hands, just freak accidents happen. Sometimes you don't have control of it. I just have to put myself in position to not get hurt again."
In an attempt to make it through the entire '09 campaign, Best has added bulk, putting on seven pounds (he played at 193 pounds last season) and working on his flexibility with a daily course of stretching. But don't expect to see Best carry the ball 400 times this season, not with fellow speedster and rising talent Shane Vereen, a redshirt sophomore who ran for 715 yards and four TDs in '08, in the backfield.
Gould, for one, isn't worried about pinpointing a magic number of carries to keep Best healthy, but rather with simply finding ways to get the ball into his game-changer's hands.
"It's our [job] to come up with creative ways to try and get him touches and that's what we try to do," Gould said. "I think in a lot of ways you get excited about having a kid of his magnitude and his talent and knowing he has the ability at times to take a game over."
If there's one thing Gould knows, it's running backs, so when he talks, we'd all be wise to listen.