This is the first installment of a series of previews I will be conducting over the next week, leading up to the beginning of spring practice. Spring practice begins next Monday.
Each day, I will examine a different position. Today, we start off with what surely will be the most closely followed area of the team — quarterback.
Coach Jeff Tedford has said all positions are open heading into spring. That’s probably not entirely true. Center Alex Mack probably has nothing to worry about, nor does cornerback Syd’Quan Thompson.
But Tedford has not been shy about the fact that the quarterback position is no exception, despite the fact incumbent Nate Longshore is a two-year starter and will be a senior in 2008.
Nobody would question, including Longshore himself, that 2007 was a disappointment. Even before suffering an ankle injury that triggered a real tailspin to the rest of his season, Longshore wasn’t exactly setting the world on fire as the Bears got off to a 5-0 start. He was proficiently managing the team and letting running back Justin Forsett carry much of the workload for the offense.
Certainly, the ankle injury suffered against Oregon threw Longshore off. Already not a mobile quarterback, he was even more limited doing things like stepping up in the pocket or eluding the rush. Longshore was victimized by untimely interceptions, especially late in games as the Bears finished the regular season losing six of their final seven games.
There’s no question Longshore never was able to capture the effectiveness of the 2006 season, when he became just the second Cal quarterback ever to throw for over 3,000 yards in a season. I’ve written before that I don’t believe Longshore was quite as bad as some of his harshest critics believe, and I still believe that. Some of his apparent mistakes weren’t always his fault. Some of his interceptions were the fault of receivers running the wrong routes or making the wrong reads. But neither Longshore or Tedford would ever say this publicly because it sounds like excuse-making or calls out another member of the team.
That being said, it’s clear Longshore was nowhere near the quarterback he was in 2006. He enters the spring in a much different position as last spring. At this time last year, he was the only quarterback in the program who had ever played in a game and was the hands-down starting quarterback, no questions asked. This year, Longshore finds himself in a fight for his spot, not to mention his future. He entered last year ranked as the top junior quarterback in the nation by ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. By the end of the year, he was nowhere to be found.
Now, Longshore finds himself being pushed by Kevin Riley, and probably by a lesser extent, Brock Mansion. This could be the best thing that ever happened to Longshore. By nature, Longshore is the laid-back type and didn’t have anybody pushing him last spring or fall. In 2006, he found himself in a heated three-way battle with Joe Ayoob and Steve Levy for the starting job and came out on top. Perhaps Riley’s breathing down his neck will give Longshore the kick in the pants he needs to recapture his performance of 2006.
Actually, Riley may not be breathing down his neck. He may be standing side-by-side with Longshore. Riley’s amazing performance in the Armed Forces Bowl left Cal fans salivating for more, and the way his teammates reacted hinted that he could be in a good position going into next season.
Let’s be clear about a couple of things, though. Riley’s performance came against a subpar defense, especially in the secondary. And it’s not as though Longshore was playing poorly before he came out of the game. In fact, Longshore had played quite well in the first quarter and was victimized by a crucial dropped pass by Sam DeSa. Longshore also didn’t have the services of starting wide receivers DeSean Jackson or Robert Jordan, who were suspended for the first quarter. Jackson and Jordan entered the game at the same time as Riley.
Could Longshore have done the same thing as Riley had he been left in the game? It’s hard to imagine anyone matching Riley’s efficiency in that game. The Bears scored touchdowns on six straight possessions after Riley entered the game (not including the short drive at the end of the first half that ended with a Hail Mary pass). Plus, Riley did a couple of things Longshore simply hasn’t demonstrated he can do — eluding pressure and throwing on the run on his first touchdown pass to Jackson, and scrambling for a crucial first down.
Obviously, Longshore has a much larger body of work, and with a larger sample size, more shortcomings can be exposed. We’ve only seen Riley play in two games, and have to be impressed with what we saw when you factor in his inexperience. Indeed, perhaps the most impressive thing about Riley’s performance in the Armed Forces Bowl is that he was that efficient despite not taking a snap in a game for almost three months.
So what will happen this spring? Well, Tedford likely won’t make any final decisions until the fall, but certainly one of the candidates could start separating himself or get some momentum heading into fall camp. If Longshore can’t get back to the level of 2006, he could be in trouble.