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January 9, 2008In what has already been a busy off-season, the Cal football program received another huge lift for its offense next year as All-American center Alex Mack announced Tuesday morning that he has decided to forgo the NFL draft and return for his senior season in Berkeley. Mack, the main catalyst in the trenches for the Bears' standout rushing attack the last two seasons, will return as a legit candidate to win the Rimington Trophy next year.
Sometimes, star rankings really don't matter. At least that's the case for Cal's leader up front. The 6-foot-5, 300-pound center rolled into the Bears program as an unknown two-star offensive lineman from Santa Barbara (Calif.) San Marcos High in 2004.
Just three years later, Mack - with the tutelage from well respected o-line instructor Jim Michalczik - has transformed himself into one of the premier offensive linemen in the country. Mack helped lead the way for yet another standout offensive year on the ground for the Cal offense, as starter Justin Forsett led the Pac-10 in touchdowns, was second in rushing (118.9 yards per game) and tallied nine 100 yard rushing games, including a 164-yard performance against USC and a season-capping 140-yard, two touchdown effort against Air Force.
Ranked as the No. 1 junior center by ESPN NFL draft guru Mel Kiper Jr., there was speculation that Mack would test the NFL waters after what turned out to be a sub par regular season from a team standpoint.
"Whether we won the bowl game or not wouldn't have made a difference in my decision," Mack said Tuesday. "I thought of a lot of things when going through the process and ultimately I felt I still have a lot to do at Cal. I flip-flopped back and forth about it. The decision came down to what I would be happier with."
A finalist for the Rimington Trophy this season, which goes to the top offensive lineman in the country, Mack is sure to be in the running for the award as next September rolls around.
"The NFL will always be there but I only have only one more year of college football to play," Mack explained. "I talked to friends and family about the decision and I received a bunch of views from the Cal coaching staff as well. Instead of being biased about everything, the coaches were more focused on what was best for me personally which was really nice of them. I appreciated the coaches being up front with me."
One of the possible drawbacks of Mack heading to the NFL this year was the thought that NFL teams regard centers in a somewhat lower status in comparison to offensive tackles and guards when it comes to high round selections. The last time a center was taken in the first round was 2006 when the New York Jets grabbed Nick Mangold from Ohio State. The year before that, the Seattle Seahawks selected Chris Spencer from Mississippi.
Usually though, centers aren't taken until the second round and below.
"I received a lot of information about where I would go and all that, most of which I would like to keep private," Mack said. "But I knew that I wasn't going to be the No. 1 overall pick or anything, so there is always something I can improve on by coming back to school."
Mack returns next season to anchor what is sure to be yet another stellar offensive line for the Bears, who were about as inconsistent as a team could get this past season.
"We're really happy and excited to have Alex coming back," Cal head coach Jeff Tedford said in a statement. "There is no question that he makes us a better football team in a lot of ways, not just with his football ability, but from a leadership and work-ethic standpoint. He is a great example for every member of the team, on and off the field. Not only will this will give him an opportunity to reach his full potential as a player, but he will also be able to complete his degree at Cal."
There has also been talk of Mack moving positions from his center spot to offensive tackle with starter Mike Gibson now having graduated and pursuing a possible NFL career himself.
But, Mack said that he's going to stay front and center.
"I don't know that moving positions is going to happen," the All-American explained. "The coaches told me they are going to keep me at center. I'm happy to help the team wherever I can."
Chris Nguon is the lead football writer for BearTerritory. He's well known for his recruiting coverage in the star-studded Oakland Athletic League, plus his numerous contributions with The Daily Californian, UC-Berkeley's only independent, student-run newspaper. Nguon is also a correspondent with the Oakland Tribune.