Sept. 21, 2005
BERKELEY, Calif. (AP) - Justin Forsett and Marcus O'Keith could find plenty of reasons to feel frustrated. They both went to California expecting to be the next 1,000-yard running back in the Golden Bears' long line, only to see Marshawn Lynch cut to the head of the queue.
But even though they're behind Lynch on the 13th-ranked Bears' depth chart, Forsett and O'Keith remain committed to Cal. Both would rather be reserves on a winning team than stars on a losing one - and while Lynch has struggled with a broken finger in recent weeks, the backups have shown their stuff.
"It would be tough if you were behind a bad guy," said Forsett, a sophomore who chose Cal after Notre Dame backed out of a scholarship offer. "Sometimes you get a guy that has a lot of ego, but all the guys we've got at our position are great guys. We're all friends, all really tight. That makes it so much more fun to go out and practice and play."
All three tailbacks have taken turns rushing for more than 100 yards in each of the Bears' three victories this season, which continues at New Mexico State on Friday night.
Cal has had a 100-yard rusher in 15 straight games dating to the opener of last season, when J.J. Arrington had the first of 12 straight 100-yard games. Much of that success is due to the Bears' powerful offensive line, but even the linemen realize the talent in the backfield.
"We just keep rolling out running backs," right tackle Ryan O'Callaghan said. "We see Marcus or Justin in practice, and we think they look better than the running back we're playing against on Saturday."
Lynch, a sophomore who had an impressive freshman season behind Arrington, ran for 147 yards in Cal's season-opening victory over Sacramento State, but broke his finger against Washington a week later.
O'Keith, a junior with just 350 yards rushing entering the season, finished off the Huskies with 103 yards on just six carries. Forsett got his chance to be the featured back last week against Illinois - and he didn't disappoint, rushing for 187 yards and two touchdowns on just 16 carries.
With O'Keith also chipping in for two scores on the Illini, Lynch's backups accounted for all four of the Bears' offensive touchdowns.
Forsett's impressive speed and O'Keith's knack for big plays have put them in the spotlight until Lynch returns, which might be this week. After that, both say they don't mind going back into a supporting role - even while wondering what they might do with the chance to be No. 1.
"It's crossed my mind," acknowledged O'Keith, who chose Cal for its academics after being heavily recruited. "It crosses everybody's mind, but I just like to make a difference on whatever team I'm on. If I've got responsibilities for special teams, that's what I'm going to do so we can win."
O'Keith rushed for a score and caught a 26-yard touchdown pass against Illinois, but he got the most satisfaction and praise for a crushing block that sprung Tim Mixon for a 79-yard punt return for a touchdown in the fourth quarter.
"When I came in, I was thinking more about playing running back," O'Keith said. "When things weren't going well, I just decided that to be part of the team, I needed to find a way to contribute. When I started (playing special teams), I wasn't really sure what to do. When I started making plays and started feeling good, the momentum in my mind might have shifted."
Now O'Keith has begun to consider the possibility of making it to the NFL as a backup running back and special teams standout similar to San Francisco's Terry Jackson and other veterans with long careers.
Just how deep have the Bears become? Terrell Williams, who rushed for 688 yards as a freshman in 2001, is the fourth-stringer - but there's no dissension at Cal. Lynch and O'Keith are road roommates, while Forsett and Williams bunk together.
"We know we've all got a job to do together," Forsett said. "We've got to get that ball down the field. Whoever is doing it, the rest of us have got his back."