Media day-Oregon

It was just two years ago that Oregon went 10-2 and was ranked in the top ten near the end of the season. But an utter collapse late last season has some people in Eugene grumbling about Mike Bellotti, who has navigated the Ducks through their finest 12-year run in school history.

Oregon was 7-2 after beating Washington on Nov. 4 last season and ranked No. 21 in the Associated Press top 25. But the Ducks proceeded to lose their final four games, by an average of 21 points, including a 38-8 setback to BYU in the Las Vegas Bowl.

Then, instead of staying in Eugene to work out with the team during the summer, starting quarterback Dennis Dixon elected to play minor league baseball for the Atlanta Braves.

Dixon is back as the Oregon opened fall camp earlier this week, and the Ducks seem eager to erase the memory of last season’s late-season failures.

“The team is hungry after going out like we did,” tailback Jonathan Stewart said. “We’re ready to get the bad taste out of our mouths. This year is about going out and being hungrier than the other team. I think that’s what was lacking last year.”

Oregon definitely has talent, led by Stewart, who is one of the top returning running backs in the conference and is a dynamic kick returner.

“We’re as excited about this season as we were disappointed by the end of last season,” Bellotti said. “We’re excited as we’ve ever been simply because when you don’t put your best foot forward, you’re really looking for that next chance to play football.”


The season is here

The 2007 season got going Monday afternoon with Cal’s first practice of the fall. There wasn’t too much news to report but it was nice just to see the players out there with their helmets on and running through drills. One thing that did strike me was how fit and athletic the team looked. Many of the players have been talking about the conditioning they did during the summer. Of course, all players and all teams always talk about how much work they did during the offseason. But it really does look like it paid off for the Bears. Many of their young offensive lineman looked especially impressive.

Other than that, no real news to report. Syd’Quan Thompson missed the practice to attend a funeral. A handful of other players either missed some or all of practice because of class.

You can expect updates about practice regularly. Most practices start in the late afternoon and end in the early evening, so I will either post later at night or the next day, depending on my schedule. Friday is the first day the team is scheduled to go in pads.


Media day-Arizona State

The thing that struck me the most about Arizona State’s time at the podium during Pac-10 media day was new coach Dennis Erickson. I had never dealt with him before professionally. I only saw what everybody else saw through television sound bites. He always struck me as being dull and boring.

Not so. Maybe he’s just more comfortable in college, but Erickson actually has a engaging and witty personality. His college accomplishments speak for itself, although there always were rumblings that everything he did at Miami and Oregon State weren’t always on the up and up. But if his personality was as likable as it was at media day, that can only further enhance his recruiting efforts.

A few samples from his press conference:

“We just got our press guide. I started reading my bio and it started reading like an obituary.”

“I know two fight songs in the Pac-10. I have to learn my third” (Erickson also coached at Washington State)

When center Mike Pollack was asked about his reaction to playing for Erickson, he gave a glowing response. That prompted Erickson to say “Good answer.”

It remains to be seen if Erickson can make the Sun Devils a player on the national scene. Erickson believes all the pieces are in place to do just that.

“We’ve got a great university, a great town, great stadium, great fans and obviously the weather is very good. So we have an opportunity to recruit the very best athletes in the country,” Erickson said. “Do I think it can happen? Without question, or I wouldn’t have taken the job. It’s going to get done.”

Erickson also said he expects big things from quarterback Rudy Carpenter, who showed great promise as a freshman but had an inconsistent 2006. Erickson said Carpenter put too much pressure on himself after former coach Dirk Koetter’s controversial decision before last season to name him the starter two days after tabbing Sam Keller as the No. 1 guy.

“I don’t know what happened last year. It was very unfortunate,” Erickson said. “All the things that went on last year, there was added pressure, no question. He’s a different guy now.”


The gloves are off

You may notice a new release on Cal’s website detailing what has been reported, that two government agencies concurred with the studies done on the proposed site of the Student-Athlete High Performance Center. What struck me about the release was the verbage, and the Q&A section afterward. It’s the most aggressive tone the university has taken yet on the issue. I know many in the athletic department that are understandably upset and frustrated by the lawsuit against the project, but many of them have been taking the high road. I know the athletic department made a commitment before the summer started to try to reach out to the City of Berkeley, to try to get a dialogue going, to put out some good PR, and try to be proactive on reaching some kind of settlement.

This release has a “we’re fed up” tone to it. It encourages people to write the Berkeley City Council. It promises to “set the record straight.” It discloses that the City of Berkeley has allocated a quarter of a million dollars for the legal proceedings. And it encourages folks to let “your elected representatives know where you stand” if you have an opinion about the issue.

The trial is set to begin on Sept. 19. Who knows what effect this new tone will have? But to me it’s a sign that the university means business and now may not be as nice about it as it has in the past.


In shape

Cal’s players are raving about the physical condition they are in. Recently, the players went though tests on such things as the 40-yard dash, bench press, etc. and linebacker Zack Follett said strength and conditioning coach John Krasinski told them they were the most explosive and strongest group he’s coached in his six years at Cal.

Running back Justin Forsett said Cal’s offensive linemen, whom he will depending on to open up holes this season, are doing things with weights “I’ve never seen before.”

“When you see offensive lineman putting up stuff like that, it’s exciting,” Forsett said. “This is the fastest and strongest we’ve ever been.”

Free safety Thomas DeCoud has noticed the difference, too. And he knows why.

“We had a lot of unity meetings in the spring to lay down the foundation of what we needed to do this year, how we needed to work, what commitments needed to be made,” he said. “Every person got up in front of the team and said, ‘I’m going to be there in the spring and the summer. If you’re here, I’m here.'”

DeCoud said the team had similar type meetings before the 2004 season, which worked out pretty well for the Bears.


Media day-Arizona

What struck me most about Arizona’s time at the podium at Pac-10 media day was coach Mike Stoops repeatedly lamenting the inconsistency and lack of maturity in his program. Stoops didn’t say it as though he was taking the blame for it, but who else would be responsible for such shortcomings?

One of a coach’s primary duties is to achieve consistency. If a team continues to make the same mistakes, that’s coaching. If a team fails to maintain its level of focus, no matter the opponent or situation, that’s coaching. In general, if a team’s performance of level has its ups and downs instead of a measure of steadiness, that’s coaching.

“There’s a lack of consistency in our program,” Stoops said. “When you look at the fluctuation in the way we play, what are you going to get? We can’t have those lulls and accept some of the things we’ve accepted in the past of ourselves. It shows a lack of maturity and consistency in our program. It’s something that we have to overcome.”

It was hard to tell if Stoops was blaming it on his players or perhaps some arbitrary force at work, but if it happens again this season, Stoops may be looking for another job.

The Wildcats went 6-6 last season. They lost at home to Washington and Oregon State. They also won on the road at Washington State and Oregon. And, of course, as we all know, they beat Cal at home.

Arizona has 10 starters back on defense and nine on offense, and Stoops seemed encouraged his program could take the next step this season. One major change is with the offense, as Stoops brought in new offensive coordinator Sonny Dykes, architect of Texas Tech’s potent spread offense. The Wildcats had one of the better defenses in the conference last season but ranked ninth in total offense and scoring offense.

Cal opens its Pac-10 season against Arizona at home on Sept. 22. A marquee matchup in that game will be Cal wide receiver against Arizona cornerback Antoine Cason. Both players are preseason All-Americas.

Cason is a potential NFL first-round draft pick who decided to return for his senior season rather than entering the pro ranks this year.

“The decision was tough for me,” Cason said. “I felt like I was two semesters out of graduating college. I always said to myself that you can’t duplicate the college experience. There’s nothing like being around the guys in the locker room and on the field. You can’t trade that for anything.”

Cason recounted a funny story about his recruitment. When Stoops was still at Oklahoma as the defensive coordinator, he came to Los Alamitos High School in Southern California to recruit Randy Estes, regarded as the top safety prospect in the country. As he watched who he thought was Estes, he told Los Alamitos coach John Barnes that he thought he looked great. Barnes told Stoops that it was Cason, not Estes.

Stoops was later hired at Arizona and brought Cason on board.

“I still ask him to this day why he didn’t recruit me at Oklahoma,” Cason said.

“I’m glad we didn’t,” Stoops says.


Summer camp

Most football players begin the season talking about the commitment the team exhibited during the summer. It was no different for Cal on Wednesday during Bay Area media day.

But linebacker Zack Follett offered an inside look at how a few of the Bears went the extra mile. Follett, fellow linebackers Greg Van Hoesen and Tyler Morrow and safety Thomas DeCoud took a trip to Fresno, where Follet and Morrow are from, for a short boot camp to start off the summer.

Follett said the quartet put themselves through 10 vigorous workouts in a four-day span. They then went camping near Shaver Lake in the Southern Sierra Nevadas.

“We were running hills with boulders over our heads,” Follett said.

Follett said the focus the players gained during the trip carried over to the rest of the summer.

“It was like our kickoff to summer,” he said. “We’ve kind of kept that attitude going. When we got back to Cal, we just installed it in everyone else. It’s really paying off.”

One note on DeCoud: He has been invited to the East-West Shrine Game in January.


Media day-Washington State

Here’s a trivia question for you: Michigan’s Chad Henne is the nation’s leader in touchdown passes among active quarterbacks. Who is No. 2?
Believe it or not, it’s Washington State’s Alex Brink, with 50. Brink has been one of the Pac-10’s better kept secrets in recent years, but he’s continuing a tradition of strong quarterbacks to play for the Cougars.

Brink also seems to have conidence in his wide receivers. He said the Cougars’ group of pass-catchers is the best in the conference, led by Michael Bumpus. Of course, Cal’s corps of DeSean Jackson, Lavelle Hawkins and Robert Jordan might come up with a pretty good argument.

WSU coach Bill Doba also lauded kicker Romeen Abdollmohammadi, a walk-on who took over duties late last season and made all three of his field goals. His 31-yarder during a win over UCLA was the first field goal he had ever attempted in a game, even in high school.

“He was a walk-on. He’s going to be on scholarship soon,” Doba said.


DeSean to get his kicks

Cal coach Jeff Tedford confirmed that he was going to take a look at DeSean Jackson returning kickoffs this season.

Jackson was a first team All-American as a punt returner last season and is a top Heisman candidate this year as a wide receiver/punt returner. With the new rule in place this season moving kickoffs back five yards, Tedford may not be able to resist getting Jackson on the field in that capacity as well, especially considering opponents likely will do whatever they can to keep the ball out of Jackson’s hands on punts.

“We’re going to take a look at it,” Tedford said. “With the kickoffs being moved back five yards, there is going to be a lot more returned balls. We’ll give it a shot and see how he looks back there doing it. You have to let him play. We’re not going to play scared.”


Cal’s new Ziger

The text message that Cal assistant media relations director Chris DeConna received was like none other he had before.
“Um…my hair is like a tiger. Is that cool?”
The message came from junior linebacker Zack Follett, who was scheduled to appear at Bay Area college football media day on Wednesday. It seems Follett had teammate and team artist Greg Van Hoesen paint his hair to look like tiger stripes.
“I told him the idea. He was kind of skeptical about it at first,” Follett said. “I gave the guy a paintbrush and he went to work. It came out all right. During camp, I’m going to be experimenting.”
For the record, it was “cool” for Follett to still show up to Wednesday’s festivities. Follett, running back Justin Forsett, safety Thomas DeCoud and coach Jeff Tedford were on hand at Tres Agaves in San Francisco.
Follett said he bleached his hair during the summer “just to bleach it. I get bored during the summer.” He gave Van Hoesen some black dye and the job was done in about a half-hour.
Follett said his teammates are now calling him “Ziger,” a spoof on the “Liger” from the movie, “Napolean Dynamite.”
“The first three weeks of camp, I’m going to experiment. There are no girls around the first three weeks, so I can afford to.”
Follett said a leopard hairdo may be in the works.