If the Cal football team is going to have success this season, the Bears will need a big contribution from senior cornerback Jemeel Powell. And if the Bears do show marked improvement, no one will better symbolize the ups and downs of the last four years than Powell.
Powell’s Cal career began in earnest in 2000, when as a sophomore he showed tremendous skills as both a defensive back and punt returner. He intercepted a team-high four passes, including a third-overtime, game-clinching pick over huge UCLA wideout Brian Poli-Dixon. Against USC, he returned four punts for 138 yards, including an 83-yard touchdown, and grabbed an interception to help seal a win. He earned all-conference honors as both a cornerback and return man, and it seemed as if the Bears had at least one spot on the field covered for the next two years.
But 2001 was a far cry from the glory of the previous season. Powell was nagged by groin and hamstring injuries all year, missing spring practice and four games. He also suffered a complete disintegration of his confidence after being burned early in the season and was eventually benched.
“I hate to get beat, I just hate it,” Powell said Tuesday. “When it happens I’m real disappointed. I was getting down on myself, and wasn’t playing with the same intensity. Last year we were just getting smashed, and it takes away all your confidence.”
During 2002 spring practice, Powell was the fourth option at cornerback, and it looked as if he would be an afterthought in the defensive scheme. But when fellow corners Atari Callen and Ray Carmel were ruled academically ineligible, it became apparent that Cal would be depending on Powell for more than just punt returns for the upcoming season.
A starter once again, Powell has looked good in fall camp, blanketing receivers in defensive coordinator Bob Gregory’s new defense. It helps that Gregory’s scheme doesn’t leave defensive backs in one-on-one man coverage nearly as much as last season’s, which relieves some of the pressure to be perfect. Powell said it also helps that he is now allowed to vary his techniques from time to time to keep opponents off-balance.
“When you do the same thing over and over and over, the opposition knows what to expect,” he said. “These coaches don’t restrict what I can do, and that makes a big difference.”
With Powell and junior James Bethea the only cornerbacks with any college experience, they won’t be looking over their shoulders if they make a bad play. Two young safeties have been converted to corner to cover for the loss of Bethea and Carmel, but until they get up to speed, it’s Powell and Bethea for better or worse.
Head coach Jeff Tedford knows what Powell has gone through the last two seasons; as Oregon’s offensive coordinator since 1999, he watched tape of Powell in preparation to play Cal. It was like watching two different players, and Tedford is glad to see the Powell of 2000 back in place.
“I think Jemeel is back to his old form, I really do,” Tedford said. “The big key is if something bad happens, can he bounce back? You never go through a game without setbacks, so it’s up to him to react the right way.”
The theme of this year’s Cal team is a new start, and Powell is no exception. He has nothing but praise for the new coaching staff, especially defensive backs coach J.D. Williams, who has been demanding of his new charges. He is especially tough on Powell, who Williams says has the potential to play in the NFL.
Powell knows he’s down to his last chance, as are all of the Cal seniors.
“A lot of us are nervous to get the season started,” Powell said. “If we lose this year, it’s not on the coaches. It’s on us as players, with no debate about it.”
When asked for a prediction about what the upcoming season holds for the Bears, Powell was short and to the point.
“I just don’t want what happened last year to happen again,” he said. “That’s the bottom line.”