Summer Debate: The greatest running back in Cal history?

You have Heisman finalists, future hall of famers, and All-Americans to choose from, but only one gets the title.

Cal football has been blessed with more than a few great running backs over the years. Jackie Jensen garnered Heisman consideration before becoming an MVP baseball player with the Red Sox. Chuck Muncie should have won the Heisman, then made three pro bowls in the NFL. Russell White was a consensus All-American and star of perhaps the best Cal team since the 50s. Then came the Tedford years that saw an absurd SIX running backs drafted into the NFL across seven seasons. One of those six will be an NFL hall-of-famer if there is any justice in the universe.

And I’m here today to argue that the greatest Cal running back of all time is Jahvid Best.

I’m not going to pretend that there is actually a true and correct objective answer to this kind of question. I’ll fully admit that I have certain aesthetic biases that come in to play here. But when news broke this week that Jahvid Best was named the head coach of Saint Mary’s high school in Albany, it led me to fall into a Jahvid Best YouTube highlight video vortex, and it got me thinking:

It’s time to give the people what they will tolerate!

***Obligatory pre-argument disclaimer***

It’s true that I’m still on the younger side of Cal fandom, and so my subjective opinion is necessarily impacted by who I’ve actually been able to watch with my own eyes. Russell White was the first great Cal running back I was able to watch, but I was 7 and 8 at the time, so my scattered memories aren’t worth a whole lot.

If this were an argument about who was the greatest within their era, the title would perhaps go to guys like Jackie Jensen or Johnny Olszewski - All-American-level players who led Cal to conference titles back in the 50s.

But it’s also true that if you had a time machine and transported 20 year old Marshawn Lynch or Jahvid Best to the 50s and handed them a leather helmet, either one of them would run for a kerjillion yards. I guess I can’t know for sure, but I’m pretty sure nobody on the Cal football roster in 1953 could run a 100m dash in 10.3 seconds, or weighed 215 pounds with speed. Let’s be real - the kind of specialization, practice, conditioning, and preparation in the 50s as compared to the last 20 years is lightyears different, and modern players are vastly superior, and that’s what I’m focused on right now.

The Objective Argument

Let’s just go ahead and get the obvious point out of the way first: the statistical argument is clear and obvious. Jahvid Best has the highest average yards/rush in school histoy:

Best: 364 carries for 2668 yards, 7.3 yards/attempt

JJ Arrington: 396 for 2635, 6.6 yards/attempt
Marshawn Lynch: 490 for 3230, 6.6 yards/attempt
John Olszewski: 416 for 2504, 6.0 yards/attempt
Justin Forsett: 567 for 3220, 5.7 yards/attempt
Chuck Muncie: 549 for 3052, 5.6 yards/attempt
Russell White: 663 for 3367, 5.1 yards/attempt
Shane Vereen: 556 for 2834, 5.1 yards/attempt

That’s a pretty big advantage, over both 2nd place and over some of his illustrious competition at the position,

But let’s try to put these numbers into context. It’s hard to compare different eras of football. Is 7.3 yards/carry in the late 00s better than 6.0 yards/carry in the 50s? That’s a hard comparison to make. But I think comparing Jahvid’s production within his own offense is very telling.

Jahvid’s most successful season at Cal was 2008, when he was mostly healthy and entirely lethal all year long, putting up an insane 8.1 yards/carry. But, to play devil’s advocate - perhaps Jahvid’s success is more about the team and talent around him?

I think it’s entirely fair to point out that Jahvid spent the 2008 season running the ball behind an offensive line that featured Alex Mack and Mitchell Schwartz, two dudes who are still active in the NFL and have made multiple all pro teams. Schwartz was only a redshirt freshmen at the time, so I’m not sure if he was MITCHELL SCHWARTZ yet, but the point stands.

The thing is . . . the rest of the offense wasn’t really very effective. 2008, you might recall, was the year of the great QB shuffle, with Kevin Riley and Nate Longshore sharing reps throwing the ball to a receiving core that didn’t really have a stand out target. Cal’s leading receiver by both yards and catches was Nyan Boateng, with just 29 catches for 439 yards, only narrowly ahead of Jahvid himself (27 catches, 246 yards).

Here’s a better way to contextualize Jahvid’s offensive impact:

2008 Cal offense when Jahvid didn’t touch the ball:
611 plays, 3062 yards, 5.0 yards/play

2008 Cal offense when Jahvid DID touch the ball:
221 plays, 1,826 yards, 8.3 yards/play

Since 2008, exactly two college football offenses have managed to average better than 8 yards/play - two different Oklahoma teams playing in the wild and wacky Big-12. If Cal had a way to make their offense 100% out of Jahvid Best, it would have been one of the greatest offenses in college football history. The problem is that you can’t give one player ~800 carries, and when Cal didn’t give Jahvid the ball, their offense was significantly below average. A team that averages ~5 yards/play is typically pretty bad - like, say, the 2018 Cal offense that averaged 4.9 yards/play en route to Cheez-It Bowl infamy.

Cal football 2008: Give it to Jahvid, look like the best offense in the country. Don’t give it to Jahvid, look like the Cheez-It Bowl.

In 2008, if you needed to beat Cal, you game planned to stop Jahvid Best. He was by far the most dangerous offensive weapon the Bears had. Very few teams were able to slow him down.

The Subjective Argument

Do you prefer a running back that goes through defenders, or around them?

There’s no wrong answer to that question. A Barry Sanders shimmy and a Derrick Henry stiff arm are both beautiful things. But for me, a running back who can make a guy miss, either with shiftiness or pure speed catches my eyes ahead of a guy who can break a bunch of tackles.

If I’m looking for a guy to tote the rock in the NFL, maybe I lean towards the tackle breaker. Jahvid’s speed was absolutely still a weapon in the NFL, but the advantage wasn’t as pronounced, and he mixed huge plays with lots of short gains in his brief time with the Lions. Marshawn’s tackle breaking ability, however, translated quite well and earned him a long and fruitful pro career.

But at the college level? It’s obvious why Jahvid Best is my guy, right? He’s probably the fastest player to ever put on a Cal uniform (though watch out for J Michael Sturdivant!) and that speed translated into plays that made college defenders look comically overmatched.

That’s because it wasn’t just that Jahvid was fast - it was that he combined that speed with elite vision and balance in a way that made him the most dangerous open field runner and deadliest big play runner in Cal history.

Take this play for example:

Sure, once he breaks free, nobody was going to catch him. But he had to ID the cut back lane, shed a couple of arm tackles, and juke a cornerback out of his shoes. Those 93 yards required way more than just track speed.

Or go to the 3:32 mark of this video:

Jahvid is approaching top speed, has to suddenly jump cut to his left on a dime to avoid a linebacker, then immediately speeds up again and more or less starting from a standstill manages to make a linebacker (#3 on Miami) look like a defensive tackle.

But the thing that always stands out watching his runs is how unprepared college defenders are for his pure speed. You can watch as he hits the hole and a defender goes for an arm tackle, but Jahvid is by him before he even had a chance. You can watch linebackers and safeties take comically bad angles that might have worked against a normal running back.

It’s that speed that made him the greatest big play threat in Cal history, and it was those constant huge gains that left him as the greatest per/play runner in Cal history.

High on my list of ‘what if?’ fantasies, is the idea of a 100% healthy Jahvid Best, playing in an offense with a more consistent passing threat. As is, he was pretty consistently playing through injuries and didn’t have a well balanced offense to keep defenses from keying in on him, and he still was the most consistent home run threat I’ve ever watched.

In short, Jahvid Best is the greatest Cal running back ever to put on the blue and gold. Go ahead, tell me I’m wrong in the comments.