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Notes, insights and perspective

There obviously have been a lot of storylines heading up to tomorrow’s game and a lot has been said. I will cover some of them here.

–Cal went 10-3 last season, crushed Texas A&M in the Holiday Bowl and finished the season ranked No. 14 in the country. So what was the lingering memory from the season? The Bears say the loss to Tennessee.

“We won ten games last season, and the question that gets asked the most is Tennessee,” Cal coach Jeff Tedford said. “Maybe you’ll get an ‘oh, by the way, good job in the bowl game.’ That’s what comes out of last year.

“That’s the worst we’ve ever played, I think. In five years, I don’t ever remember looking up and being down 35-0. We deserved it. We didn’t play very well.”

–Tedford was asked if he gets especially nervous for a game like this. “Every game is the same. I’m a wreck, no matter what,” he said.

–An out-of-town writer asked right tackle Mike Tepper what his impression was of DeSean Jackson when he first arrived at Cal. Jackson came in as a top prospect but isn’t exactly an intimidating physical presence.

“I went on youtube and checked out highlight film, and it kind of proved to me that he’s a really good player,” Tepper said. “Then playing with him, he makes unbelievable catches all the time, even in practice.”

–When Justin Forsett was asked about the nickname he gave to Jahvid Best, “Jahvid the Jet,” he was quick to point out he also nicknamed fellow freshman running back Shane Vereen: “Shane the Train.”

–Forsett said Marshawn Lynch is attending the game tomorrow.

–Wide receiver Lavelle Hawkins is one of the more engaging guys on the team. Earlier this week he lamented the fact that his locker is no longer next to quarterback Nate Longshore’s.

“I”m mad at Coach Tedford. He moved my locker away from Nate,” Hawkins said. “When Nate was next to me, I caught 46 balls.”

Hawkins joked about the depth of the team’s running backs, especially the emergence of freshman Jahvid Best. Hawkins took a few reps at running back during the spring. “Jahvid messed my hopes up,” Hawkins said. “Me and Jahvid have to have a talk because he messed my whole plan up.”

–One of the big questions will be whether Cal’s defensive front can contend with Tennessee’s offensive line. The Bears have only one starter back on their defensive line.

One day during training camp, linebacker Zack Follett got the defense together after watching film of the defensive line getting blown off the ball by the offensive line. “There was no bounce to our steps and we were going through the motions,” he said. “I tried to make the defensive line remember that feeling from Tennessee last year. I told them Tennessee is bigger and stronger than what we were facing and the guys really stepped up.”

–Saturday’s game will feature two of the best punters in the country. Tennessee’s Britton Colquitt is a preseason first team All-American, and Cal’s Andrew Larson isn’t far behind.

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New methodology

Coach Jeff Tedford has said the major difference in preparation for Tennessee this time around is that the Bears are focusing more on themselves. Tedford said he probably had his players thinking too much about the environment they’d encounter at Neyland Stadium last season. He did his best to prepare them for the hostile greeting they would receive there, but in the process the team may have lost sight of its own identity.

“We probably got caught up too much on them and the environment there,” Tedford said. “This year through practice we’ve really just focused on ourself.”

One of things you really have to respect about Tedford is his honesty and straightforwardness. He took the blame for his method of preparation against the Vols last year, essentially saying he had to look in the mirror afterward to figure out what went wrong. A lot of coaches have too big an ego to admit such things, at least publicly.

“I took lessons away from it,” Tedford said. “Not getting our guys so wound up to go play a team or in an environment, but mostly focus on yourself.

“I kind of looked at myself and asked what I did I emphasize the most. I emphasized who we were playing, the environment, that it was going to be loud. As I look back on it, it’s more about us. Let’s not worry about going to Tennessee and worry about the guys in orange jersies.

“As I try to find things of why we didn’t play our best, the first place I need to look is in the mirror to find out if I could have done a better job of motivating the team.”

Of course, the task of focusing more on yourself is easier when you are home. Tedford doesn’t have to worry about preparing his players for the kind of atmosphere they encountered at Tennessee.

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Kyle Reed

I can’t say I’m surprised that Kyle Reed has decided to leave Cal. The Bears obviously have a logjam at quarterback and Reed may never have seen the field, at least in meaningful situations, during his career.

It was kind of surreal to walk into the stadium Wednesday and see Kyle sitting in the bleachers watching practice. Just a few days earlier, he said he wasn’t considering transferring. But I think the reality set in after a couple of days passed, and Reed had to think long and hard about his future.

I didn’t get to know Kyle all that well, but I did get a chance to speak with him a handful of times during the past month. He strikes me as a sincere, good-hearted kid who is well-liked by a lot of people. I think it was sincerely a tough decision for him to leave, but one that makes the most sense.

You could see how visibly disappointed Kyle was last Thursday when coach Jeff Tedford named Kevin Riley the backup to Nate Longshore. He walked off the field off after practice with his head down, and politely declined to be interviewed. But after an off-day Friday, he spoke to me and Rusty Simmons of the San Francisco Chronicle on Saturday, and did so with poise and eloquence. He was candid, but not critical. That’s when he said he wasn’t considering transferring, but admittedly he didn’t say so with great vigor. That’s another reason I’m not surprised he ultimately made this decision.

Reed’s situation is a reflection of one of the good problems Tedford has now that his program has reached such an elite status: Great players want to come to Cal, and sometimes you wind up with too many quality players at the same position. Reed was sought after by a lot of major programs, but so was Longshore, Riley and true freshman Brock Mansion. Next season, Beau Sweeney, who received offers from several Pac-10 schools, will also be at Cal.

With that in mind, I’m interested to see what happens to Cal’s running backs over the next year or two. Justin Forsett will be gone next season, but James Montgomery, Tracey Slocum, Jahvid Best and Shane Vereen will all be back. All were top recruits and highly regarded. Only one will see the majority of the reps in 2008.

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Stadium upgrades

There’s been a lot of action the past couple weeks as the university polished off some changes to Memorial Stadium. A lot of work has been done to improve the concession stands, and new signage is being put up around the stadium. The food court areas have been opened up with better lighting. Also, some bleacher boards were replaced in the south end of the stadium.

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Gate closures

The athletic department asked me to pass along the notice that Gates 2, 3 and 4 will be closed Saturday, due to the situation with the tree sitters. Fans are advised to go to the North or South entrances and arrive early.

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Can you feel it?

The season-opener has always felt so far away. I got such in a training camp mode that actual games seemed like an abstract concept. Most of the issues and storylines over the past month have focused on general team stuff, not necessarily competition against an opponent.

As this week has progressed, I’ve found myself getting more and more geared up for Saturday. I think it really became present today, not only because the game is a mere two days away, but because of the vibe at Memorial Stadium this afternoon.

I was just about to leave for practice when I received a phone call that practice would be closed today, a decision by coach Jeff Tedford. Normally, practice is open to local media that regularly cover the team, as well as invited guests, many times who are family members.

But nobody was allowed today — no media, no family, nobody. There may be a couple reasons for this. There are a lot of Tennessee folks already in town and Tedford may not have wanted any unauthorized people sneaking in. Also, there is a lot of action around the stadium leading up to the game, with last-minute improvements being made and ABC’s television crew setting up shop. Tedford simply may have not wanted more distractions.

Whatever the reason, it reflects the seriousness of where we are — two days away from a game with incredibly high stakes.

We were allowed in at the end of practice to talk to Tedford — and when I say “we”, that includes some media members from Tennessee already in town. Tedford seems at peace with his team’s preparation. He said the team is excited and focused, but not “giddy”, as he put it. If Tedford is concerned his players will be too tightly wound because they can’t wait to exact revenge on the Vols, he isn’t showing it. My guess is the Bears will be sharp, because Tedford will make sure they are.

Tedford said he has no doubt Tennessee quarterback Erik Ainge will play. Ainge broke the pinky on his throwing hand Monday but is expected to start.

Some good news for Cal: Starting fullback Will Ta’ufo’ou participated fully in practice Thursday and Tedford said he will play Saturday. Tedford said Ta’ufo’ou might not get every rep, but he’ll play. There really is no reason for Tedford to limit Ta’ufo’ou’s snaps. If he is practicing fully in practice without incident, that usually means the green light is on for full participation in a game.

It’s a pretty amazing recovery by Ta’ufo’ou. He sprained the MCL in his left knee exactly two weeks ago today. The original estimate was Ta’ufo’ou would be out 3-6 weeks. At the time of the injury, Tedford predicted Ta’ufo’ou would be back sooner because of his work ethic. He was right.

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Questions about Tennessee

One of my counterparts in Tenneesee, John Moorehouse of the Kingsport Times-News, have decided to do a blog exchange. From now until Friday, post questions on this blog entry about the Vols. About middday Friday, I will be forward the questions on to him and he will respond. I am doing the same with readers of his paper. So fire away!

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Risk vs. Reward

One of the compelling questions about Saturday’s game is whether it’s worth it to play such a highly regarded opponent in your season opener. Obviously, a win can create a boost of momentum moving forward and establish the Bears as a legitimate BCS contender. But just one loss can be so damaging in the current landscape of college football, even if it is to a quality opponent.

Of course, last year’s loss to Tennessee didn’t hurt Cal too much. The Bears rebounded with eight straight wins and were in position to reach the Rose Bowl had they taken care of business at Arizona. But teams who consider the national championship a realistic goal can’t afford a loss at any time, against any opponent.

Here’s Jeff Tedford’s take:
“It’s high risk, and I don’t know that there’s that much reward because the risk probably outweighs it. There’s still a long season there ahead of you. It’s definitelyi a different approach playing a top-20 team like Tennessee, who is a traditional top-10 team. It really tests you right out of the game.
“I think if you win and then you weren’t successful the next week, they would forget about that. If you don’t win, that stays with you for a long time. At least it did last year. Even if you win this game, you still have to win next week. If you don’t win next week, they’re going to forget about this week.”

A couple of other opinions:
–Right tackle Mike Tepper: “There is a risk and there’s a reward. It gives us a peak at what top-20 teams are all about. I wish we could play opponents that are a little easier for us to give us that confidence. But it’s definitely a challenge and it’s exciting.”
–Linebacker Anthony Felder: “It doesn’t really matter to me. I’ve been playing football my whole life. You can’t really put more emphasis on Tennesee because they are a top-15 team than you put on Colorado State or Louisiana Tech (the next two opponents). You have to respect your opponent equally because on any given day you can get beat by any team.”

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The Tepper Diet

Right tackle Mike Tepper said he dropped his weight from 335 pounds to 307 in June, and now is up to 311. He said he wanted to play at 307 but the coaches wanted him more like 315. 311 became a middle ground.

So how did he lose the weight?

“Not eat…as much,” Tepper said. “I eat, but I don’t eat as much. Portion contorl. I was a big steak guy. I’m more of a chicken guy now.”

Is he hungry? “Always.”

The decreased weight has improved Tepper’s movement. You can tell just by watching him in sprints, where he’s been motoring down the field better than any offensive linemen.

“I came in (to camp) with a little hamstring injury. I feel like I could have maybe ran with those speed guys, maybe DeSean (Jackson) to the 100.”