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, having mentored six quarterbacks who have been selected in the first round of the NFL Draft. But, as Tedford will be the 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, the Golden Bears have produced a 1,000-yard rusher. The names in the backfield may change, but the results are always the same.
Or to put it another way, the smooth-running machine that the Cal ground game has become uses the same engine year in and year out. It simply replaces the wheels it runs on.
Five years ago, Joe Igber became the Bears' first back to rush for 1,000 yards in eight years. The next season, after Igber's graduation, Adimchinobe Echimandu stepped in to the marquee back role and evaded tacklers for 1,195 yards in 2003.
Following Echemandu's departure to the NFL, J.J. Arrington exploded onto the national scene with 2,018 yards on the ground in 2004 - the most recent 2,000-yard rusher in the country. Then he made the move to the NFL and highly-touted Marshawn Lynch, an Oakland product, seamlessly slid into the starting tailback role and promptly rattled off the first back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons by a Bear since Russell White in 1991 and 1992.
Once Lynch was selected with the No. 12 overall pick in the 2007 NFL Draft, it would not be a stretch to expect the Bears to suffer a drop-off in its running game. However, recent history 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 three years, I have the experience, and I have worked very hard this summer to prepare myself physically and mentally to be the starter."
"I don't have any concerns whatsoever," Tedford said of Forsett's ability to carry the starter's load. "Justin's a guy who has his own style. He is very gifted and he can handle all the things we ask him to do."
When Tedford accepted the head coaching position at Cal in 2002, the Bears had suffered through eight seasons without a winning record, as most Old Blues are well aware. However, the team had also endured an eight-year drought of 1,000-yard rushers. Since then, Cal has produced five straight winning seasons - and five straight 1,000-yard rushers - and the establishment of a hardnosed running 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 defenses off-balance and honest, and we've been fortunate to have good backs and productive backs."
"The run game sets the tone for the offense," running backs coach Ron Gould said. "We want to establish ourselves as a physical team, we want teams to look at us and take notice they better pack a lunch, because it's going to be a long day. With the balanced system that coach Tedford has brought in, it has opened up the run game and allowed our backs to have greater success."
The effectiveness of a strong run game was evident quickly in 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 games with more rushing yards than their foes. Over the last five years, Cal has registered a 24-3 record when rushing for over 200 yards and led the Pac-10 in rushing yards twice.
While much has happened with the Cal football program since '02, including advancing to bowl games for four straight years for the first time in history and earning Top 10 national rankings in each of the last three seasons, 2007 will feature some parallels to 2002 in regards to the offensive backfield.
In addition to Tedford's arrival, another huge difference from 2001 to 2002 was the health of tailback Joe Igber. The Hawaii product broke his clavicle as a junior midway through 2001. The following season, he was fully healthy and produced 1,130 rushing yards, the third-most in Cal history to that point.
The 2002 Bears relied on Igber, a 5-8, 190-pound senior, in the backfield. As a sophomore, Igber had rushed for 901 yards, but then injuries cut his junior season short, giving him something to prove as a senior. In 2007, Cal plans to hand the bulk of the rushing duties to the 5-8, 200-pound Forsett, who rushed for 999 yards as a sophomore before logging a 626-yard campaign last year.
"It has been a three-year stint of learning," Forsett said. "I have had some great running backs 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 experienced being the starter for the full season, but I have some good insight on it."
Despite his previous reserve status, Forsett is not your typical backup. In his first three seasons, the Florida native (who played his final two years of high school ball in Texas) has recorded 1,674 rushing yards and six 100-yard games. Against New Mexico State in 2005, with Lynch out of action due to injury, Forsett stepped up with 235 yards, the fourth-best rushing day in Cal history.
Last season, with Lynch battling an injury against nationally-ranked Oregon, Forsett took control of the game, tallying 146 yards in the second, and 115 in the fourth quarter alone, in the Bear victory. He capped his junior season with a memorable performance in the victory over Texas A&M in the Holiday Bowl - 124 yards on just eight carries, an average of 15.5 yards per carry.
While he needs just 139 yards to crack Cal's alltime Top 10, Forsett's yards per carry is perhaps his most impressive stat. For his career, Forsett has averaged 6.39 yards every time he runs with the ball - more than any other returning tailback in the country, including the likes of Arkansas' Darren McFadden, West Virginia's Steve Slaton, Boise State's Ian Johnson and Rutgers' Ray Rice - all considered Heisman Trophy candidates.
While he has achieved a measure of success in his time at Cal, Forsett remains one of the most humble and approachable studentathletes in the country. Quick to smile and always thoughtful with his answers, he has been a popular interview over the past two seasons.
And Forsett never forgets his teammates when it comes to recognition. When asked to explain his success, without pause, he responds, "The offensive line. If the offensive line doesn't do well, I'm not going to do well. They lead the way, they open up the holes along with my fullback and tight end. And my receivers, a lot of people don't realize it, but to get those long gains, you need your receivers blocking downfield."
While Forsett has excelled on the football field in his first three seasons, it is his off-field maturity and personality which receive the greatest praise.
"Justin is an awesome guy," Tedford said. "He's the guy that you would want your son to grow up to be like; he's so well-rounded, a great teammate and a great leader. He is just a great person to have on the team."
That high praise brings up another similarity to Igber, who was also recognized as a great person as well as a great football player. "Those two have very similar personalities,"
Gould said. "They are two peas in a pod when it comes to being great kids and great individuals. They are extremely humble, they both come from great families, and you can't measure how important the game is, how important winning is, to those guys."
"Justin is a quality person," Igber said. "I really hope he does well. He is so humble.
With his talent and waiting his turn, he has done it so chivalrously. I hope he does well, but if things don't work out, I know he will do well in life. That is the point of going to Berkeley, and he understands that."
While off-field praise has dominated Forsett's accolades, he has always been recognized as a top talent by opponents and teammates, including Lynch. Now as he prepares to step into the spotlight, Forsett has been tabbed as a candidate for the Doak Walker Award as the top running back in the nation. Multiple publications have selected Forsett as their preseason first-team All-Pac-10 running back. While the recognition is finally arriving for the senior, he has taken his preparation to a new level, adding 10 pounds of muscle while maintaining his sub-4.4 speed.
"His offseason effort has been impeccable," Gould said. "His commitment, his passion, his drive, is probably the best I have had as a coach. When I tease him and tell 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's streak of 1,000-yard rushers, he does not list it anywhere near the top of his list of goals.
"Ever since that 999 season, 1,000 yards is on my mind," he said. "It is always a good mark for a running back and it's something I've always wanted to do. But if I rush for 800 yards and we go to the national championship, I'll take that any day."
The "999" season would be 2005 when he rushed for exactly 999 yards, narrowly missing the key milestone - just as Igber narrowly missed 1,000 yards in 2000 before cracking the 1,000-barrier as a senior.
"I never thought about numbers at all," Igber said. "I can remember only one time coach Gould showed me a newspaper that showed the 1,000-yard rushers in Pac-10 history, like O.J. Simpson and Marcus Allen. He told me there was no reason I could not be on that list, which was amazing."
"One of the things as a coach that you have to instill is confidence," Gould said. "I showed Joe that article to help him have higher expectations for himself. I try to do that with all of these guys. They need foresight and they need to be visionaries and realize what they can do."
The long string of rushing success is not lost on Forsett.
"We have been producing great running backs here," he said. "It gives you confidence that with this type of offense, you will have the opportunity to be productive."
The Golden Bears have their top receivers, their starting quarterback and tight end and a pair of all-conference linemen returning on offense. While the starting running back may not be returning, a confident and driven Forsett will provide the wheels for the Golden Bears in 2007, assuring that the Golden Bear engine will continue to run smoothly.
"I have one major goal and that is to be the starting tailback in the national championship game," Forsett said. "If we do that, I must have been productive for the season."