By: Tim Haran -
Two of Jemeel Powell's biggest games this season have come against Southern California opponents. But for the Los Angeles native, UCLA and USC just happened to be the two teams that Cal was playing at the time, and Powell says his performance would have been the same no matter who was on the other side of the football.
"They were just normal games for me," he says. "I take every game the same. I'm tense at the beginning, but then I loosen up and do as much as I can to help our team win."
That explains Powell's tendency to finish strong when the game is on the line.
Three weeks ago against USC, 12:05 remained in the fourth quarter and the Bears clung to a narrow 22-16 lead. Cal was about to get the ball back following a Trojans punt when Powell motioned he wanted to sit out the play and catch his breath. The 6-foot-1 punt return specialist, who doubles as a cornerback, decided to stay in the game.
"Honestly, I didn't think I'd run that kick back," Powell told reporters after the USC game. "I was too tired."
Evidently he had enough energy to find a seam up the middle, break several tackles and make a few key cuts en route to an 83-yard return for a touchdown to give the Bears a commanding 28-16 advantage.
"I wasn't really thinking about anything while running it back," Powell says of the fourth longest punt return in Cal history. "I just wanted to get to the end zone and after it was over I just thought about what else I needed to do so that we could win the game."
What he needed to do, it turned out, was intercept a Trojans pass with seven minutes left to play. Powell did just that and sealed Cal's victory and a season sweep of the Southern California teams. For his efforts, he was named Pac-10 Player of the Week.
"It really caught me off guard," Powell says of the honor. "I was excited for a second, but then it just made me say I want to do it again the next game. I don't want to be satisfied."
Interestingly, Powell logged a couple more big plays against UCLA two weeks earlier in Berkeley. This time he helped Cal as a cornerback picking off two passes including one that set up the Bears offense at the Bruins 20-yard line and another at the end of the third overtime that locked up Cal's 44-38 homecoming win.
Entering today's game against Stanford, Powell has racked up 206 punt return yards in just eight games and his 25.8 yards-per-return average leads the nation. While on defense, the cornerback recorded 30 total tackles, including 22 unassisted and intercepted four passes.
Up until his junior year in high school, Powell lined up on the offensive side of the ball as a receiver. That year, he moved to safety and played well but realized that he couldn't compete at that position at the collegiate level.
"I weighed 169 pounds and was really scrawny," Powell says. "I knew cornerback was for me. I just needed the opportunity to prove myself."
Throughout the first half of this season, Powell shared Cal's left cornerback position with LaShaun Ward, Harold Pearson and James Bethea. Now Powell regularly lines up at corner and says his success this year is due to a changed attitude.
"I've got a different mentality," Powell says. "I just want to have fun and win games instead of being scared. I have a different perspective of the game because last year I was hurt (groin) and now I really appreciate playing football."
It's a world of difference between the grass of Memorial Stadium and the streets of Los Angeles, where Powell first played football while in kindergarten. But it's still the atmosphere surrounding the game that gives the redshirt sophomore his biggest thrill.
"The one thing that gets me most excited about football is my surroundings," Powell says. "It can be the other team, the other team's crowd or our crowd. If there are a lot of people there, it automatically makes me think this is college football, this is what I've been waiting for a long time."
Powell is currently majoring in sociology at Cal and has his eyes set on the NFL, but right now the 20-year-old is keeping his options open.
"I'm just taking it one step at a time," Powell says. "I really don't have any specific plans for the future. I just want to get my degree so whatever path I end up taking, I can make an honest living and live a relaxed life."
Even though the record doesn't show it, Powell recognizes how much the Bears have improved throughout the course of the season. And he hopes that when his time at Cal is through, he'll be a reason for the team's continuing success.
"I want to be part of something great," Powell says of his legacy at Cal. "I want to get a degree to make my parents happy. I also want the coaches to be able to say that they were right in offering me a scholarship and that I contributed to the team."