Key matchup: Cal RBs vs. Vol LBs

The California Golden Bears feature perhaps the NCAA's most potent rushing tandem. The Tennessee Vols feature perhaps the NCAA's most inexperienced linebacking corps. The two groups collide Saturday at Neyland Stadium.

Welcome to the Key Matchup for Game 1.

California's Marshawn Lynch rushed for 1,246 yards last fall, despite playing just 10 games and sharing carries with Justin Forsett (999 yards). Only a junior, the 5-11, 230-pound Lynch is considered a leading Heisman Trophy candidate for 2006.

"He's got great vision," Tennessee defensive coordinator John Chavis says, "but the biggest thing is his quickness and footwork. He has tremendous feet. He can bounce a play outside, then he has the ability to really turn the speed on. Plus he's a big, physical guy."

That raises an interesting point: Can a group of 215-pound Vol linebackers bring down a 230-pound running back?

"We hope we can gang-tackle because that's not a good matchup," Chavis said. "You'd like to have it the other way around."

Because this is Cal's first game under a new offensive coordinator who has incorporated some elements of the spread option, Chavis isn't sure exactly what to expect from the Golden Bears. Thus, he and his troops will be doing a lot of reacting on Saturday. Since inexperienced linebackers take longer to react than veteran 'backers, Chavis figures some big plays could be the result.

"It's a lot easier to adjust with players who have experience playing against that type offense," he said. "We're going to be playing with some guys who haven't played against ANY offense in a live situation. But that's where we are and that's the challenge we have.

"Are we going to make some mistakes? Yeah. We may make some mistakes and make some plays BECAUSE we made mistakes."

Although Tennessee's 2006 linebackers are relatively young and inexperienced, they have plenty of ability. Chavis is on record saying they should be better than their 2005 predecessors in time. The key question: How much time?

"I think it's a little ways down the road," he said, "but we're going to expect them to play at that level. We're a work in progress, and they're making good progress. Hopefully, we'll be better by game time than they are right now."

Injury-plagued senior Marvin Mitchell (2 career starts) will start at middle linebacker on Saturday. If sophomore Jerod Mayo (1 career start) is recovered from his ankle problems, he'll start on the weakside. If not, the two outside starters will be junior Ryan Karl (strongside) and redshirt freshman Rico McCoy (weakside). Karl has never started a college game. McCoy has never PLAYED IN a college game.

"It's a talented group. It's just green as a gourd," Chavis noted. "But sometimes it's fun when you have that kind of guys to work with."

Based on preseason scrimmages, the Vols' fuzzy-cheeked linebacking corps has tremendous quickness and youthful enthusiasm. Might that offset its inexperience?

"You hope that it can," Chavis said. "Obviously, you hope for that to happen. We're going to make some mistakes and they (Golden Bears) are going to make some plays. You just hope we make fewer makes and they make lesser plays."


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