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Spring practice begins

Injured players who are to avoid contact always wear red jersies at practice. As I settled into my bleacher at Memorial Stadium today for the first day of spring practice, I couldn’t help but notice a familiar face wearing a red jersey during drills with the running backs.

It was none other than Jahvid Best, who was supposed to sit out the entire spring as he recovers from his hip injury. Turns out Best is well enough to participate in individual drills, a welcome sight for a team that recently lost fellow tailback James Montgomery, who is transferring.

That was the biggest news on the first day of spring drills. The quarterback competition got off to a quiet start as the Bears focused on the running game during team work. Best isn’t expected to get any reps this spring, but the fact that he is practicing at all can’t help but get Cal fans excited.

“I was just told to come out here and go as hard as I can and see how my hip responds,” Best said after practice. After today, I feel pretty good. The only thing I felt is that I’m a little bit out of shape from not doing too much in a long time. But I felt fine.”

Best may say he’s out of shape, but he looked like the blur he usually is during individual drills. The speed was there, and I saw him cut definitively a few times and it looked like the Best of last season.

“They basically just wanted to see how it responds if I act normal, and then go from there to see how it plays out,” Best said.

Coach Jeff Tedford said there are no plans for him to do anything but individual drills during the spring. But it will give the Bears a great dose of comfort if Best tests everything out physically during the next month and he comes out of it unscathed.

Best said today was the hardest he’s gone on the hip yet, and he felt no restrictions.

Some other significant news Monday was that cornerback Syd’Quan Thompson has been suspended for breaking a team rule. Tedford wouldn’t say how long Thompson would be out, other than to say ”he’ll be out until I deem he can come back.” That has to be a disappointment for Tedford and defensive coordinator Bob Gregory, who has said he expects Thompson to become a team leader this season.

Tedford also spoke more about the departure of Montgomery and provided some insight. Although he said he was surprised Montgomery left the program, he did say “things weren’t going well for him.” He not only was referring to the fact that Montgomery was  coming off knee surgery, but that he had “been in the doghouse a little bit.” Tedford said Montgomery was late to a couple of workouts. ”

Tedford also said he wasn’t aware Montgomery wasn’t happy in Berkeley.

“That was the first I ever heard of that,” he said. “We wish him well. He’s a good kid.”

When it was pointed out that the team probably has the depth to weather Montgomery’s departure, Tedford said: “We have quality depth there. I don’t know if that played into his decision or not. You hate to see that. You wish he would have given himself a chance to go through spring and see where he ended up. I thought it was a little premature.”

As far as the quarterbacks go, Nate Longshore and Kevin Riley took most of the reps while a few were sprinkled in for Brock Mansion. Each quarterback had his share of good throws and bad throws, but again, neither had much of a chance to throw at all Monday. Tedford’s only comment on the quarterbacks was “I was really happy with everybody. I thought they handled the huddle really well and did a nice job.”

As Tedford said would happen, Longshore took the first team reps and Riley ran with the twos.

The Bears did a lot of mixing and matching during team drills so the difference between first and second team was marginal at times. But for one day it appears, not surprisingly, Michael Calvin and Jeremy Ross are the first team wide recievers, with LaReylle Cunningham and Drew Glover on the second team. Cunningham is the team’s most experienced receiver, but is also coming off knee surgery.

Wide receiver Nyan Boateng, the transfer from Florida who was suspended from all team activities last fall as he dealt with some legal problems, got minimal reps.

Running back Shane Vereen also was limited because of a nagging hamstring problem. That meant Tracy Slocum and incoming freshman Covaughn DeBoskie got all the reps.

On defense, the Bears went exclusively with the 3-4 look Monday, but Gregory said not to draw any grand conclusions from that. While admitting again that it’s something the team is looking to do more of, he said spring practice is the time to try new things, so they decided Monday was a good time to just go with it.

“We started with it today because we thought it was a good place to start, but we’ve always had both in the package,” Gregory said. “If you’re going to put new stuff in, then you want to look at it now and not wait.”

Defensive tackle Derrick Hill worked out with the second team as he also recovers from knee surgery. The Bears used Rulon Davis and Tyson Alualu on the ends with Mika Kane in the middle. But again, there was a lot of subbing going on so take position groups with a grain of salt.

Just a reminder: All practices are closed to the public.

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Spring practice preview: special teams

This was a problem area for the Bears last season. Things went sour before the season even started when kicker Tom Schneider suffered a season-ending injury while warming up for the opener against Tennessee. His replacement, Jordan Kay, was inconsistent. He was just 7-for-14 on field goal attempts beyond 30 yards. He’ll need to improve on that mark this season.

Andrew Larson didn’t quite reach the level of his junior year, but Cal still has lost a potential NFL punter. The Bears feel comfortable inserting redshirt freshman Bryan Anger into the lineup. Anger was a prep All-American coming and Jeff Tedford has called him one of the best young punters in the country.

The Bears’ kick coverage was a problem last year, and it didn’t help when Schneider went down. Larson, who had a stronger leg than Kay, ended up handling kick duties. With Larson gone, the kick duties fall to Kay, Joe Robles, or perhaps walk-0n David Seawright, who reportedly has a strong leg.

After his electrifying punt return for a touchdown against Tennessee, DeSean Jackson didn’t make quite the impact some expected as a returner. Much of that is because opponents didn’t give him many chances, and at times Jackson looked like forced the issue on punts that weren’t very returnable. The Bears plan on giving Syd’Quan Thompson and Shane Vereen the first opportunity in replacing Jackson. It could be a nice way to start getting Vereen on the field.

James Montgomery likely would have been a top candidate to replace Lavelle Hawkins as the No. 1 kick returner. Now that he’s transferred out, Vereen could be a good candidate there as well. Jahvid Best handled part-time kick return duties last season, but now that he’s likely the No. 1 running back, the Bears may not want him back in that role.

One thing the Bears know they have going for them is long snapper Nick Sundberg, considered one of the best in the business. Sundberg is back for his senior season.

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Quarterbacks follow-up

One of the things that was really striking as I worked on the story that ran today to preview the spring competition at quarterback is the difference in personalities between Nate Longshore and Kevin Riley. As you could probably tell by the tone of each guy’s comments, Riley views it more as a competition against Longshore while Longshore seems to perceive it more as a competition within himself. Riley acknowledges the competition with Longshore, that he knows he is in a battle with him to get playing time. Longshore, on the other hand, says he’s basically challenged himself to do a better job, and that if he does that, everything will take care of itself.

 

Here are some leftover comments from each player that didn’t make it into the story:

 

LONGSHORE:

 

–On how this spring is different than last, when he was the hands-down starter: “It’s the same offseason. I’m just trying to get better and work on the things I need to work on. To me, it’s about improving and doing the best job I can.”

 

–On what it was like in the aftermath of the Armed Forces Bowl, when he spent most of the game on the sidelines while Riley put on a show: “I was happy for the seniors, to have the nice finish to their careers, for everything they had done for the program. I was definitely happy to get the win.”

 

–On what he’s worked on during the offseason: “Technique and fundamentals, getting back to the basics. It’s definitely one of those things when you get caught up in the season and you’re trying to concentrate so much on winning this week, you lose track of the little details.”

 

–On dealing with a brand new crop of receivers: “We have some good receivers. We had some great receivers last year. I expect these guys to be great, also. In some aspects, I expect them to be even better than last year’s guys. They don’t have the speed and the flair of the guys last year but there are some things they do better than those other guys do.”

 

On how much he reflected on last season: “For a month right after, but since then I’ve been just moving on. What improvements can you make? You try to put it behind you and forget about it. You can use the results as motivation, but you can’t look back and dwell on it. It’s just going to repeat itself. There are things you can take from it, but at the same time you have to move on.”

 

RILEY:

 

–On what it was like for him immediately after the Armed Forces Bowl: “At first when I went home, it was kind of different. There were people I had never talked to before that never paid that much attention to me that kind of went out of their way to talk to me.”

 

–On how he felt going into the bowl game: “I felt confident. I knew the offense. We had a good game plan and we executed it.”

 

–On how his start in the Oregon State game may have helped him in Armed Forces Bowl: “In the Oregon State game, I just got continuously more comfortable as the game went on. I had been in a pretty key game before. I went through quite a bit in one game. I just started getting into a rhythm.”

 

–On his personality as a quarterback: “I am a confident guy. I think that’s sort of what makes me the person I am, as quarterback. I feel like when I go in, everyone can trust me because I am going to make plays.”

 

–On how competing for the backup job last year could help him compete for the starting job this year: “It’s a little different, but it’s kind of the same. Every day, you have to do the best you can. Every day is a competition out there. It’s only going to make everybody better. You’re going to work that much harder and study the playbook that much more.”

 

–More on the competition: “I’m just glad to be in a situation where I can compete. I’m excited. It’s why you play college football and sports in general. If you don’t like competition, you should not be playing. It’s a great situation for all of us. I’m just excited to go out there and compete.”

 

Reflecting on the final play against Oregon State: “That was a terrible play, no question. I just got stuck in the moment. I threw the ball away like five times the previous two drives. I wanted to score a touchdown. I looked at all three receivers and nobody was open. I just kept on continuing, and I just forgot what I was doing. I just messed up.

“People would come up to me and say, ‘why the hell did you do that?’ That’s a good question. But I got a lot of calls from people saying they were proud of me, and that kind of picked me up a little bit. I was disappointed in myself and felt like I lost the game. But the team was all behind me.”

   

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Spring practice preview: defensive backs

Thomas DeCoud was the heart of the secondary and arguably the heart of the defense, and his presence will be hard to replace next season. The likely best scenario to do so is to break up the competition at rover between Bernard Hicks and Marcus Ezeff and move Hicks to free safety. Hicks started the final nine games at free safety in 2006 after DeCoud got hurt. Hicks and Ezeff had a spirited year-long competition at rover last season and it will strengthen the defense to have them both on the field.

 

It will be interesting to see where Brett Johnson fits in. Johnson started the Armed Forces Bowl because DeCoud was suspended, and DeCoud himself said he thought Johnson was a good candidate to replace him.  Sophomore Charles Amadi, who brought some pretty big press clippings with him to Berkeley, also could be someone to watch at safety during the spring.

 At cornerback, junior Syd’Quan Thompson is back on one side after starting the past two seasons. Thompson wasn’t great last year, but steady. Defensive coordinator Bob Gregory said Thompson could be a candidate to emerge as a team leader this season. Chris Conte, who started three games last year, is the leading candidate to be the other corner. It could be an important spring for Darian Hagan, who started becoming a better practice player at the end of last season. Hagan’s physical tools have never been in question. He could use the spring to really put himself in the conversation along with Conte at the other corner spot.

As most of you know, spring practice starts Monday. I’ll come back with a look at special teams and some general thoughts about spring tomorrow, then provide notes on the first practice Monday night. Should be fun!

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Spring practice preview: linebackers

The reason Cal is seriously looking at using more of a 3-4 system isn’t just because the success it had against Air Force in the Armed Forces Bowl. Indeed, that was an adjustment to specifically stop the Falcons’ offense.

But it did provide food for thought. The Bears recognize the linebackers are the strength of their defense, so it makes sense to try to get more of them on the field.

Cal returns all three starting linebackers from last season, although Worrell Williams and Anthony Felder didn’t start the final two games of the year. Williams was a bit of a work in progress last season making the move from the outside to the middle, while Felder played better during the first half of the season. Still, having those two guys returning, along with all-conference outside linebacker Zack Follett, must allow defensive coordinator Bob Gregory to sleep well at night.

No matter what system Cal decides to use, it will certainly have depth. Mike Mohamed exhibited great potential as a part-time player last year. If the Bears go to a 3-4, he would likely be on the outside along with Follett, with Williams and Felder in the middle. One stat from last season that really jumps out at you is that Mohamed recorded 46 tackles despite playing in a reserve role.

Eddie Young also played better and better as the season went along last year and should definitely be in the mix for some playing time. And then there’s D.J. Holt, who stood out on the scout team and could make a contribution as well.

The Bears also will get junior college transfer Devin Bishop off his redshirt year, as well as freshman Robert Mullins, a pretty highly regarded recruit in ’07 who missed last year recovering from an injury.

There’s no question the presence of guys like Mohamed, Young and Holt should help Williams and Felder. The competition should elevate everyone’s level of play. Williams and Felder will be seniors next season, and you can bet they aren’t too interested in anyone taking their playing time away from them. The spring may be especially good for Williams, giving him more time to get more comfortable playing inside.

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Spring practice preview: defensive line

Well, now that the delayed start of spring practice is just a few days away, I’m resuming my position-by-position preview. We finished off the offense last time so we’ll move over to the defense today and take a look at the defensive line.

There’s no question this was a weak spot on the team last year. The Bears ranked last in the Pac-10 last season with 22 sacks, and only 10 of those came from defensive linemen. Word is new defensive line coach Tosh Lupoi is already making that a point of emphasis this offseason.

The 3-4 look that worked wonders against Air Force in the Armed Forces Bowl gave the coaching staff much to think about. The Bears always have had the 3-4 as part of their package, but generally used it sparingly. Cal employed it against the Falcons specifically to stop their option offense, but the Bears will consider using it more regularly in the future.

It makes a lot of sense because while the defensive line may be a position that is somewhat lacking, the linebackers clearly are the strength of the defense. That being said, the three linemen defensive coordinator Bob Gregory lined up against Air Force provided some encouragement for Cal fans. With Derrick Hill manning the middle and Rulon Davis and Cameron Jordan on the ends (with Tyson Alualu also rotating in), the Bears featured a fast line. If Davis proves he can stay healthy for a full season and Jordan bulks up a bit, that could give the Bears a pretty good nucleus. Plus, Alualu arguably was the Bears’ best down lineman over the course of the whole season last year.

Assuming the Bears still primarily play a 4-3, Davis and Jordan (or Alualu) figure to play the ends with Hill as one tackle. The other tackle spots likely would be either Cody Jones or Mika Kane.

But there are several other young players in the mix. Solomona Aigamaua, Ernest Owusu and Scott Smith all redshirted last season and all look like promising prospects. Cal still is waiting for highly touted prospect Michael Costanzo to break out, and he’s listed on the second team on the spring depth chart. Keith Browner also could be in the mix.

Spring will be an important time for Lupoi and Gregory, as they experiment more with the 3-4 and get a gauge on the development of their younger players. Hill, meanwhile, is expected to practice but could be limited as he is coming off minor offseason knee surgery. 

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Montgomery talks

I just got off the phone with James Montgomery, and he said the main reason he decided to leave Cal is that he simply never felt comfortable there.

Coming to Cal in the first place wasn’t a slam dunk for Montgomery. He’s said it before and he told me again on the phone that his choice to attend Cal was more of a family decision. Even when he was being recruited, Montgomery wasn’t sure Cal was the right fit for him. But his family really wanted him to stay close to home, and as Montgomery put it, “they basically told me to go work hard and try to make it work.” He said he did that but “didn’t feel happy in Berkeley. I never felt it at Berkeley. It never really did it fr me.”

Montgomery also said he never made the comments that were reported by RealDawg.com that questioned Cal’s tradition or its ability to sell out games even when the team was highly ranked.

“There’s a lot being twisted,” Montgomery said. “I would never talk bad about Cal. Everybody knows I’m a team guy.”

Indeed, the comments from RealDawg.com seemed out of character from Montgomery. I can’t say if he actually made those comments or not, but just based on my interaction with him, they were surprising. But again, I’m not in position to choose to believe either side because I obviously wasn’t there for the conversation.

Montgomery also said the competition with Jahvid Best for playing time had nothing to do with his departure.

“People keep asking me about the competition with Jahvid. It was never about that,” Montgomery said. “The best guy plays wherever you go. We’re such a tight group, we didn’t even care who played. People think there is a rivalry, but we did everything together, on and off the field. There were never any malicious thoughts.”

Montgomery said even though his heart told him he wasn’t comfortable at Cal, it was still a tough decision because of the friendships he had made.

“Everybody knows I love (my teammates),” Montgomery said. “It was never about them. They’re my guys. We’ve been through a lot together. It was my decision.”

Montgomery said he plans on finishing the semester at Cal and is “checking out a couple of schools right now.” I asked him specifically about some of the schools that have been speculated (Washington, Oregon, Florida, Fresno State), but he declined to get into specifics.

Although Montgomery said he never was really comfortable at Cal, he said he went in with an open mind and sincerely tried to make it work.

“I went in and worked hard,” Montgomery said. “I didn’t come here to not make it work. I came here and worked hard. It’s just more how I felt.”

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Unanswered questions

Obviously, the news that running back James Montgomery is transferring out of Cal was a little startling. It’s not often you find a guy who is listed No. 1 on the depth chart at any position that wants out.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to reach Montgomery today so I can’t provide a whole lot of insights regarding his motivation for leaving. The only comments he has made so far were published by RealDawg.com, a fan site for the University of Washington.

Montgomery told RealDawg.com that “it never felt right, really” at Cal. Those who know Montgomery’s history are aware that he initially made an oral commitment to Washington but later changed his mind and came to Cal. But he was quoted publicly near the end of his redshirt freshman year that he was happy at Cal and was happy with his decision to come to Berkeley.

 “Cal was never my first choice,” Montgomery told RealDawg. “I didn’t feel (Cal) was a (football) school that had a lot of tradition. They were ranked sixth in the country and yet couldn’t sell out that week’s game.”

Based on these comments, the simple interpretation is that Cal just wasn’t becoming the right fit for Montgomery. I am not going to speculate about other possible reasons because I simply don’t have enough information that would support anything else.

I exchanged a few e-mails with the editor of RealDawg.com today. Her latest one to me this evening said it was her understanding that Montgomery was planning on contacting Washington, Oregon and Florida today. She also said that Montgomery told the RealDawg reporter that “Today I feel like there is a big weight off my shoulders.”

I will say that the handful of times I talked with Montgomery last season, I found him to have a real enjoyable personality. He seemed bright and always had a good attitude.

So what does this mean for the Bears? Well, the first thing it means is Jahvid Best better be healthy this fall. Yes, there are other talented running backs in the program, but none of the others have a carry to their credit in their careers. Plus, it is evident that nobody’s potential is as great as Best’s. One school of thought is maybe that is a reason for Montgomery’s departure, that he can see that, when healthy, Best is going to be the featured back. But that is purely speculation.

If nothing else, Montgomery’s exit will make things a little easier on the coaching staff to sort out the running back situation. Suddenly, Tracy Slocum and Shane Vereen are very much viable candidates to see meaningful playing time next season. That will make spring practice even more vital for them while Best sits out, recovering from his hip injury. And that’s not even mentioning incoming freshman Covaughn DeBoskie, whom the coaching staff seems very high on.

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Montgomery leaving Cal

Cal coach Jeff Tedford confirmed this morning that running back James Montgomery is leaving Cal.

“James Montgomery asked for his release and I granted it. He felt like there would be a better situation for him somewhere else. Fortunately for us, running back is a position with a lot of depth. We feel great about our talent at that position with Jahvid Best, Shane Vereen, Tracey Slocum and Covaughn DeBoskie.”

Montgomery was listed as the Bears’ starting tailback heading into spring practice. But the competition for the spot figured to be fierce, especially if Best is completely recovered from a hip injury, which the Bears fully expect. Vereen and Slocum also are in the mix.

I’ll have more on this story later today.