Jamaal and I met a few weeks back and talked about being a DE on this Cal team, and about his sack total at the time. It was maybe 1.5 or 2.5 sacks, he wasn't too sure. Good, but not what Jamaal has been working for.
"So often, I've been just half-a-step slow, just behind one of my teammates, in reaching the QB. I've realized that I need to work on footspeed and technique to step up to the next level."
I asked if he had done any work with Andre Carter, known for studying martial arts to hone his skills. Jamaal said that he had spent several sessions with Andre, getting introduced to skills and ideas that could help his game. "The problem is", he said, "you have to really stick with that stuff - you have to work at it every day if you want it to become part of your game." Jamaal said that while he tried to use some of those ideas, he was also working to find his own way.
"I know that my strength has been my main skill, that I can use the bull rush to try to beat the other guy. But I also know that's not enough, that I have to add other parts to my game. That's why footspeed is so important - it makes everything else work better."
Today at Arizona State, Jamaal got that next sack, and I celebrated for him because I knew how much it meant to him. It was late in the game, maybe not a big deal in the overall picture, but it was his. Good stuff.
Jamaal is a serious young man. When we first began talking, he was quiet, reserved. But as I asked him about the way he works with his teammates, he loosened up and began to talk more animatedly about the game. "We talk a lot, all of us guys on the D-line. As soon as we get off the field, we huddle and talk like crazy, exchanging ideas on what skills we've tried, what worked, what didn't. Me and Gus especially talk a lot (Josh Gustaveson) - we swap in and out to the same position - we try to learn something from every down."
I asked if the strategy of building top-level fitness within the deep D-Line unit was paying off. "Definitely", Jamaal said. "We can really see the benefits on the field when we keep on running in fresh guys near the end of a game."
I recalled for him the closing moments of the UCLA game at Memorial, when the defense made two near-heroic stands deep in Cal territory to hold on to victory. (Jamaal got the field goal block to ice the game.) He was one of the guys repeatedly raising his arms, asking the crowd to get involved. I've heard other journalists criticize the Berkeley fans for not being more pro-active, for not knowing in advance when more noise was needed, and while there may be some merit to those criticisms, that was not Jamaal's take on it.
"I loved it. The response was great - it was very loud down on the field." I asked if it really made a difference. He said, "It was huge. Compared to the offense, our defense calls are simple, and even our calls were hard to do with all that noise. It had to be very hard for the UCLA QB to do any signal changing at the line - and that's what we want to make them have to do."
So now Jamaal's ongoing work has paid off - he's got another sack to add to his total. And without asking, I know he's looking forward to the last two games at Memorial this year. Looking forward to that crowd noise to help him and his teammates, and looking forward to the support of Cal fans to help him drive forward to that next sack. And I know nothing would make him happier than to lay one on a certain red-colored QB soon to be within his field of view.
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