BERKELEY — Nobody truly knows what Cal tailback Jahvid Best will accomplish this season. That's partly why there is such anticipation of his return to the field.
Best gave fans a taste of his game-breaking potential last season as a true freshman. He gained at least 10 yards on 21 of his 57 touches (36.8 percent), scored two touchdowns rushing and one receiving, and ranked second in the Pac-10 in kickoff returns (27.0 yards per return).
He is expected to be a focal point of Cal's offense this season, and that has minds' wandering about the type of numbers he can put up over the course of the season.
But there are unknowns, as well. Best is coming off a serious hip injury that knocked him out of the final three games last season. Partly because of that, the Bears are limiting his reps during training camp — he is semi-regularly held out of practice as a precaution and missed the team's first scrimmage last week. And even before the injury, some questioned if Best was durable enough to carry a heavy workload on offense.
The answers will start coming in the season-opener against Michigan State on Aug. 30, but the Bears are brimming with confidence that Best will be the impact player so many expect him to be.
"He gives us the flexibility to do a lot of different things," Cal running backs coach Ron Gould said. "We have a lot of backs, so we're not going to have one guy take 500 reps in a game. We're going to spread the wealth, but we'll definitely find ways to get him the ball. He will have his touches."
There was a buzz about Best as soon as he set foot on campus last season. It took only a few days of training camp for observers to start gushing about his speed, explosiveness and work ethic. And Best demonstrated flashes of his game-changing ability during the season, starting with a 34-yard run against Tennessee in the opener and a 64-yard touchdown run the following week at Colorado State.
But what will Best accomplish if he gets a heavy dose of touches? We're going to find out soon. Cal coach Jeff Tedford said recently that he plans on getting the ball in Best's hands 25 times per game. Best will be the starting tailback and could return kicks and punts. He also could be used in a variety of ways within the schemes of the offense.
"Everybody has talent, but not everybody has a gift," Gould said. "He has a gift. God blesses everybody with some kind of ability, but everything he does is effortless."
It didn't take long after Best arrived at Cal for him to draw comparisons to former Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush. Both are explosive players who can serve multiple roles on the field and change the complexion of the game in a couple of nanoseconds.
Best acknowledges the similarities in their games and says he's modeled his style after Bush, but he isn't buying the comparison.
"Honestly, I can't see it," Best, who graduated from Salesian High School, said. "I can see how we're similar, but I haven't proved myself. This is still like a rookie season to me. I can't be put in the same sentence as a guy like that. Hopefully, I can one day. I take it as a compliment, but I think it's a little bit of a stretch right now."
Best knows there are doubters about his ability to run between the tackles and assume a heavy workload on offense. The good news about the hip injury is it forced him to spend plenty of time in the weight room, and he's added about 10 pounds of muscle. Although he's been held out of practice at times, he's still taken his fair share of hits during training camp without incident.
"I feel the same, if not better," Best said. "I definitely feel a lot faster than last year. I think I'm a lot stronger in my legs. My expectation is to be on every part of the field, just being a versatile back."
The Bears could use Best a lot like USC used Bush — give him a chunk of carries but also get him the ball on special teams and as a receiver. Cal has depth at running back, so redshirt sophomore Tracy Slocum and redshirt freshman Shane Vereen can allow the Bears to keep Best fresh and exploit his versatility.
"I feel very good about the other guys," Tedford said. "Those other guys are going to spell (Best) at some point. He's not going to play the whole game."
Notes: The Bears held their second and final scrimmage of training camp Tuesday night, and afterward Tedford said "we're getting close" to naming a starting quarterback. ... Tedford said tight end Anthony Miller and linebacker Mychal Kendricks will play as true frsehmen, and defensive coordinator Bob Gregoery said nose tackle Kendrick Payne also will play as a true freshman.
Contact Jonathan Okanes at firstname.lastname@example.org.