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COLLEGE FOOTBALL / WEEK 10

Cal's Powell One Recruit Who Got Away

October 29, 2000|EARL GUSTKEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The player who had as much to do with California's 28-16 victory over USC as anyone at the Coliseum Saturday was a kid from the neighborhood who was once recruited by USC. Sort of.

Jemeel Powell, a a 6-foot-1, 190-pound sophomore cornerback from Watts and Serra High in Gardena, Saturday night broke USC's back three times in the Bears' Pacific 10 Conference victory. In order:

* Late in the third quarter, he did something that drives special-teams coaches wild. He reversed his field on a punt return, going perilously close to his goal line in the process, yet managed to bring the ball out to the Cal 46.

* With 12:05 left in the game, he fielded another punt, this one on Cal's 17, put two moves on USC defenders and ran to daylight--83 yards for a touchdown that gave Cal a 28-16 lead.

* Then with 4:41 to go, Powell closed the deal. On a deep pass by USC's Carson Palmer intended for Kareem Kelly, Powell made a leaping interception at the Cal 41.

All told, Powell had four punt returns for 138 yards--more yards than Cal accounted for either rushing or passing.

"All of Jemeel's plays were huge, but the punt return kind of broke their backs," said a happy Cal coach, Tom Holmoe.

Said Cal center Reed Diehl: "When he ran that punt back, it's unbelievable what it did for us. I was on the sideline and we're all thinking: 'OK, let's put a solid drive together and score on this drive.' "

No drive necessary.

Holmoe believes Powell, if he can avoid injury, could be an NFL-level cornerback.

"He's big, strong and fast--all he needs now is consistency, playing every week and avoiding injuries," Holmoe said.

"On the interception, we teach our corners that on a deep pass, if they're within an arm's length of the receiver, they've earned the right to turn around and look for the ball. And that's exactly what he did.

"He played offense and defense in high school, but we recruited him specifically to play cornerback."

Powell said USC showed only passing interest in him after his senior season in high school.

"I wasn't very high on SC's agenda," he said. "I actually wanted to go to Cal all the way. No, tonight wasn't about a grudge against 'SC."

Powell, whose first football was Watts street football, said he didn't think he could even run 83 yards on the scoring punt return.

"We'd [the Cal defense] been on the field a long time at that point (USC ran 78 plays to Cal's 51), and I was tired," he said.

"But I put a move on the first guy and made him miss, then I did it again--and I saw a seam, accelerated through it, and I made it."

Two punt returns before that, Powell said, he tripped over his feet and fell down after five yards.

Powell was a rail-thin 170-pounder when he enrolled at Cal in 1998 and redshirted his first season. He's put on 20 pounds since and is still trying to fight through injuries and get sustained playing time.

It's been two seasons of groin pulls and hip-pointers, but nothing was bothering him Saturday night.

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