- Ivan Maisel, ESPN Senior Writer
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BERKELEY, Calif. -- If Marshawn Lynch gained yards with as much flash as he talks, he'd be playing flag football in an Oakland park. You've heard of three yards and a cloud of dust? With Lynch, it's five yards and a cone of silence.
"I'm just trying to play," the California tailback said. "If it was up to me, I wouldn't do interviews."
Lynch is pleasant, friendly and so unruffled he makes James Bond look like Dick Vitale. And he has only himself to blame. As a freshman in 2004, playing behind All-American J.J. Arrington, Lynch still managed to gain 628 yards on a freakish 8.8 yards per carry. Last season, Lynch rushed for 1,246 yards despite missing two full games with a broken pinkie.
He is 5-foot-11 and 223 pounds of downhill, which can be a magnet for people with microphones and notepads.
"I stay out of that," Lynch said, referring to anything that may be construed as hype. "I just chill."
Chill? If Lynch chilled any more, his skin would turn University of California blue. Every day, Lynch makes the five-minute drive to his Oakland home to visit his mom. Lynch may have been a nationally prominent recruit in 2004, but the chance to stay close to home lured him to Berkeley.
That's pretty much where the stereotype of a mama's boy ends. There's nothing soft about Lynch, except his hands (34 career receptions). He's got powerful legs and a big motor. His versatility is ideal for coach Jeff Tedford's desire to spread the field.
"The thing about him," Tedford said of Lynch, "is that he's the best athlete on the field, by a long shot. He can run with it. He can catch it. He can throw it. He can pretty much do it all.
"We're able to put him in so many positions and he's so smart," Tedford continued. "One of the things you really have to be careful with asking guys to do too much is you're putting them in all these different positions. They have to understand what they're doing. They have to know the play. They have to know the fundamentals and technique and all the coaching points to it. He is a great learner that way. He really has a great feel for the game. He can get it in the meeting and take it on the field and have a pretty good idea of what we're looking for."
"The thing about him is that he's the best athlete on the field, by a long shot. He can run with it. He can catch it. He can throw it. He can pretty much do it all."
Cal coach Jeff Tedford on Marshawn Lynch
Lynch may have it all except for an ego. When he and his shadows -- teammates Robert Jordan and Virdell Larkins -- pick up the joysticks for their epic NCAA 2006 battles, Lynch says he never bothers to check out the dude wearing No. 10 for the Golden Bears.
That may be a first in EA Sports history.
Put Lynch on the field, however, and he drops the wallflower pose. In fact, Tedford counts it as a sign of maturity that Lynch has learned not to treat every tackler as if they were in a street fight.
"In his mind, every play's a touchdown," Tedford said. "Reality says every play isn't a touchdown. Sometimes, you need a five-yard gain. His maturity as a player has shown in knowing down and distance and the situations of the game, 'Hey, I need four yards here. I'm not going to stop and go backward and try to make a touchdown. I'm going to put my pad down and get these four yards.' That's how he's matured as a back, understanding that not every play can be sideways."
Lynch said he didn't refuse to go down out of some misplaced machismo.
"I know what you're saying," Lynch said. "It's funny that you asked that. If you go down, you don't feel like the same man? You're talking about my manhood? No, I don't feel like that. I just got to protect my body.
"I had it bad my freshman year. I had it real bad. It was a thing that I had to work on. It was more mentally -- 'OK, you got what you can get, go down.' It wasn't a macho thing. I just be running. I was just running. That's all it is."
In Tedford's mind, the best backs run smart without it affecting their quest to run hard. He noted the change in Lynch after he returned from the broken pinkie he suffered against Washington, the second game of the year. When Lynch came back, he ran with a passion and explosiveness that Tedford hadn't seen before the injury.
Part of that, Lynch said, may be because Marcus O'Keith replaced him during the Washington game and rushed for 103 yards, while Justin Forsett rushed for 187 yards against Illinois and 235 yards against New Mexico State in the two games that Lynch missed. Don't get him wrong. Lynch didn't fear for his job. He got excited.
"I was at the point where I can't wait to get back out there with my boys," Lynch said. "They're ballin'. I'm trying to see what that would be like. I'm trying to get on that." At one of the few moments in the interview that Lynch's voice filled with emotion, he said, "Yeah, man, I'm just trying to have some fun with my boys."
Just as quickly, Lynch returned to his typical unruffled state. As he has proved, he has learned to do what must be done and save himself for the next play. Lynch gives out more forearms than he does words.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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