Spring practice preview: offensive line/tight ends

The Bears have done a terrific job recently of plugging the holes in their offensive line when they lose players to graduation, and it looks as though this year should be no different.

For the second straight season, Cal will have to replace the left side of its offensive line. Tackle Mike Gibson and guard Brian De La Puente have moved on. Mike Tepper will move from right tackle to left tackle to replace Gibson. Tepper showed substantial improvement between his sophomore and junior year and will need to be even better as protects the quarterback’s blind side.

Mark Boskovich, who was pushing Noris Malele for playing time at right guard at the end of last season, gets the first crack at left guard. Boskovich started taking some first team reps away from Malele during practice at the end of last season.

With Tepper moving over from right tackle, that position becomes open, and Chet Teofilo is slated to fill in. Teofilo played pretty well for Gibson in the last couple of games of last season when Gibson was forced out with a concussion.

Of course, any transition in the offensive line is made easier by the presence of Alex Mack, who will be one of the top returning centers in the country last season. Mack’s decision to stay in school for his senior season ensured the offensive line will once again be a strength of the Bears.

Over the last two seasons, Cal has allowed just 24 sacks, the third-best mark in the nation.

Cal also is high on several young offensive linemen which should provide some quality depth. Sam DeMartinis was a scout team MVP last season and Justin Cheadle is another top young prospect. Chris Guarnero is Mack’s heir apparent at center, while Richard Fisher and Mitchell Schwartz could also be in them mix to become a backup.

Plus, dont’ forget a couple of wildcards: Kevin Bemoll, a well-regarded lineman who was suspended last season, has returned to active duty. And Matt Summers-Gavin, one of Cal’s top recruits in 2007, has finally enrolled in school after taking last year off because the effects of a bad concussion.

Cameron Morrah has big shoes to fill at tight end, but he showed glimpses of being an accomplished pass-catcher last season. Morrah has to improve his blocking. Coach Jeff Tedford seems intrigued by Tad Smith, who has made the switch from defensive line. Skylar Curran is listed No. 2 on the spring depth chart behind Morrah. In the fall, the Bears will welcome highly recruited tight end Spencer Ladner.

We’ll switch to the defense next, but with the beginning of spring practice being pushed back, I plan on holding off on those previews until we get closer to March 31.


Spring practice delayed

Word just came in from Cal’s athletic department that the beginning of spring practice has been delayed until March 31. Instead of going from March 17 to April 19, the spring sessions will go from March 31 to April 26.

According to Cal’s media relations representative for football, John Sudsbury, “Coach Tedford thought it would be most beneficial for the team to delay the start of spring practice. It will give some players some time to recover from injuries so they can participate fully in spring ball.”

The original schedule had the Bears starting next week but practicing just three times before taking 10 days off for spring break, returning on the 31st. Tedford said earlier in the week that running back James Montgomery, who is recovering from knee surgery, would be limited during the first week of the spring but would be 100 percent by the 31st. So this will give the Bears a chance to see Montgomery at full strength for all of the spring.

The extra time also will give defensive tackle Derrick Hill more chance to be at full strength during the spring. Tedford originally said Hill would practice, but be limited. This may give Hill a chance to be closer to 100 percent for spring ball.


Spring practice preview: running backs

Much has been made about the depth Cal has at running back. It’s a good thing, because the Bears need it, at least in the spring.

As most of you know, Jahvid Best won’t participate this spring as he continues to recover from a hip injury. Also, James Montgomery is going to be limited during the first portion of spring practice because he is still recovering from minor knee surgery.

That leaves plenty of reps to go around for Tracey Slocum, Shane Vereen and Covaughn DeBoskie.

The Bears are confident Best will be healthy by the beginning of fall camp. If so, he and Montgomery would be the leading candidates to replace Justin Forsett as the featured tailback in the program. It’s hard to believe Best won’t get a lot of touches next season with the type of potential he offers, but Montgomery has been around the program longer and was the No. 2 guy last year (although Forsett carred the overwhelming chunk of the workload).

Still, there is playing time to be had, and without Best and a fully healthy Montgomery, spring will be a chance for Slocum and Vereen to make an impression heading into the fall. Perhaps one of them could put himself into position to become the backup running back.

Slocum is an interesting study. He spent the first half of last season buried on the depth chart but started getting some second team reps near the end of the year. When he did, he looked very explosive. And Cal coach Jeff Tedford has said Slocum has grown a lot both physically and mentally since the end of the season.

Cal is very high on Vereen as well. Tedford said Vereen probably could have contributed as a true freshman but his services weren’t needed. If nothing else, Vereen may get a lot of looks this spring as a kick returner. And he also has a chance to move his way up the running back depth chart with some of the other guys being limited.

Spring will also be a chance for incoming freshman Covaughn DeBoskie to make an impression. DeBoskie graduated from high school early and is eligible to compete in spring drills. He comes to Cal as a highly regarded prospect who picked the Bears over a handful of other major programs.

The Bears are set at fullback with their top three returning. If Will Ta’ufo’ou can stay healthy, he could become the premier fullback in the Pac-10. Brian Holley and Zach Smith are still around to provide depth.

Coming next: Offensive line/tight ends

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Strength in numbers

On Monday night, Cal held a special weightlifting session in which players attempted to max out and set school records. According to quarterback Nate Longshore, redshirt freshman defensive lineman Ernest Owusu broke the school record by squatting 585 pounds. He also reported that wide receiver Jeremy Ross did 525 pounds in the squat, defensive back Marcus Ezeff benched 360 pounds and center Alex Mack did a power clean of 358 pounds.


Tedford presser follow-up

In addtion to pro day, Cal held its press conference with Jeff Tedford to preview the beginning of spring practice. Here are some of the highlights:

–Running back James Montgomery, who is recovering from minor knee surgery, might be limited during the first week of spring practice. But the Bears then take 10 days off because of spring break, and Tedford said Montgomery should be 100 percent when the team returns to the field afterward.

–Projected starting defensive lineman also had minor knee surgery and will be limited throughout the spring. Tedford stressed that it wasn’t anything serious.

–I will have much more on the quarterback situation in an upcoming story, but one revealing comment is that Nate Longshore will enter the spring taking the first team reps. That doesn’t mean Longshore is the favorite or the frontrunner, but it makes sense if the competition is truly even to begin the spring, the guy who is a returning two-year starter begin with the first team.

–Tedford has continually said that Brock Mansion also will be part of the quarterback competition, but admitted Tuesday that his lack of experience likely puts him behind Longshore and Kevin Riley. But you can tell Tedford is very high on Mansion’s potential — as he should be. Mansion is as talented as any quarterback in the program. Tedford said he still believes Mansion will push Longshore and Riley simply based on his talent alone. “As he gets better and better with the mental part of the game, then he definitely would be in the mix,” Tedford said.

–Tedford said running back Tracey Slocum has come a long way, both physically and emotionally. With Montgomery and Jahvid Best backing up Justin Forsett last season, Slocum became somewhat of a forgotten man. Tedford hinted after the season that Slocum has to get in better shape, and he apparently is doing so. Spring practice could provide Slocum an excellent opportunity to get into the running back conversation, since Montgomery will be limited and Best is out while he continues to recover from his hip injury.

–Former defensive lineman Tad Smith has moved to tight end, and Tedford seems intrigued by his potential there. “He gives us that physical presence,” Tedford said. “He’s a guy who’s very tough at the line of scrimmage. He’s shown it as a defensive lineman. He’s athletic and catches the ball, and he’s physical. I’m really anxious to see what he can do because I think he’ll bring some of that physical part of the game that we could always depend on from Craig (Stevens).” Cameron Morrah is the projected starter at tight end, but his backup is anybody’s guess. Skylar Curran is listed No. 2 on the depth chart.

–Tedford said he thought Stevens was the Bears MVP last season. “Craig has been kind of an unsung hero around here,” Tedford said. “He’s kind of a guy that nobody ever noticed.” Tedford said out of all of Cal’s pro prospects, Stevens has the best chance of being a surprise in the NFL. Stevens did very well at last month’s NFL combine. “I think his toughness is going to take him a long way.”


Pro day tidbits

Memorial Stadium was bustling with activity today as a handful of Cal’s potential pro prospects went through drills for NFL personnel. All 32 NFL teams were represented, including Kansas City Chiefs coach Herm Edwards and new Raiders wide receivers coach James Lofton.

Wide receiver Robert Jordan arguably had the biggest day. Depending on who you ask, he ran anywhere between a high 4.3 and a low 4.4 in the 40-yard dash. This was big for Jordan because he wasn’t invited to the NFL combine. Jordan said he thought there was a perception that he was more of a 4.6 receiver, and scouts there certainly took notice. Jordan seemed to create the most buzz of any Cal player working out. There seemed to be some question going in if Jordan would be drafted at all, but it seems to me that he is a solid second-day pick.

Fellow receiver Lavelle Hawkins also helped his cause with what was reported to be a 4.48 40. Hawkins had a disappointing 4.53 at the NFL combine and had hoped to improve on that Tuesday. Mission accomplished. Hawkins had really increased his stock at the Senior Bowl in January but his 40 time at the combine may have set him back a bit. Tuesday’s performance may have gotten him back on track. It looks like Hawkins could go in the second or third round.

Wide receiver DeSean Jackson didn’t run the 40 Tuesday. You wouldn’t either if you ran a 4.35 at the combine, the fastest of any receiver. He did go through some agility drills. Jerry Rice, who has become Jackson’s personal trainer in preparation for the draft, was on hand.

Rice, whose work ethic as a pro has been well-documented, said Jackson has been receptive to his teachings so far.

“I told him, ‘You come on board, you’ll have to work’,” Rice said. “His attitude is all about working, going out there and putting the time in and making the sacrifices. I want to teach him that he has to be a professional off the football field, that there is a certain standard that you have to go by. If he doesn’t listen, I’ll just have to work him a little harder.”

Running back Justin Forsett seemed a bit disappointed with his 40-time of 4.59. Forsett isn’t considered a speed burner but he said he had been running under 4.5 in personal workouts. Still, Forsett seemed optimistic about draft day, and singled out Philadelphia as one team that seems especially interested.

Among others who participated Tuesday were offensive lineman Mike Gibson and Brian De La Puente. Gibson reportedly opened some eyes at the NFL combine and Tedford said many teams are looking at him as a guard. Tight end Craig Stevens, who also had a strong combine, was believed to have another good workout Tuesday. Safety Thomas DeCoud, who ran a 4.5 at the combine, didn’t run the 40 Tuesday but participated in some of the other drills.

Another guy who worked out was defensive lineman Matt Malele. It was nice to see Malele out there, despite the fact that he’s probably a long shot to be drafted. But if Malele can get completely healthy, he could hook on somewhere as a free agent. If nothing else, it was nice to see Malele up and running again after missing the last three games of last year with knee problems, something that bothered him all year.

Many of Cal’s current players were on hand to watch and support their former teammates. A couple of the players I talked to, including linebacker Zack Follett, said the chemistry of the team has never been better. Of course, many of them said that before last season as well. But Tedford said the team has been spending more time off the field talking, holding meetings, getting things out in the open, etc. It became apparent by the end of last season that the chemistry wasn’t optimal, and it appears everyone in the program recognizes the need to get on the same page.

A bit of very good news for Cal fans — running back Jahvid Best was running drills with Shane Vereen and Michael Calvin up in the concourse with a ball machine. The trio was taking turns running pass routes while another ran the machine. The fact that Best was running and cutting is a good sign as he continues to recover from his hip injury toward the end of last season.

I chatted briefly with Alex Mack, who said he was looking forward to the battle for the two open spots alongside him on the offensive line. He seemed encouraged by the depth the Bears have on the line. He also modestly said he is going to compete for his job, although he joked “but I don’t plan on losing it.”


Spring practice preview: wide receivers

Perhaps no position will be more important this spring than wide receiver, where the Bears are trying to sift through a collection of players that includes just one that has ever caught a pass in a game (LaReylle Cunningham, 8 career receptions).

Despite his inexperience, redshirt freshman Michael Calvin appears to be etched in stone at one wide receiver spot. Calvin came to Cal as one of the top prep prospects in the country and didn’t disappoint in 2007, opening eyes on the scout team and setting himself up nicely to be a major contributor immediately in 2008. Calvin stood out as early as fall camp, where his potential to become a star was almost immediately evident. Calvin may not have the speed that the Bears’ recent crop of receivers had, but he’s a 6-foot-3, 200-pound, athletic player that catches everything.

Who plays alongside Calvin becomes a more murky question. Cal has listed sophomore Jeremy Ross as a starter opposite Calvin. Ross, who will be a redshirt sophomore, was a part-time player on special teams last season who obviously lacks experience. Ross didn’t come to Cal with headliner credentials but is an athletic specimen and the Bears seem high on his potential. A couple of days ago, the Bears held a special weightlifing session where players really tried to max out and possibly set some school records, and Ross reportedly squatted 525 pounds.

The x-factor in the receiving corps could be Nyan Boateng. Boateng has rejoined the team after being suspended for the fall semester because of his role in a domestic dispute in Florida. Boateng, who transferred to Cal from Florida, had to sit out last season anyway because of the NCAA transfer rule, but it would have been nice if Cal could have had him around to practice. In spite of that, the Bears really are counting on Boateng to be a contributor. Coach Jeff Tedford said Tuesday that Boateng is doing well and he was looking forward to watching him this spring (the legal charges against Boateng for the incident last summer in Florida were dropped).

“Nyan is doing fine,” Tedford said. “Nyan is a guy who we’re anxious to see how he responds in the spring time. He’s worked hard in the classroom and he’s worked hard in winter conditioning.”

Boateng may be behind the curve a little bit because he wasn’t around last year, but there’s no questioning his talent. He went to Florida as one of the nation’s top recruits. When he participated in spring practice for Cal last year, he sometimes looked like the most talented athlete on the field.

Cunningham should also be in the mix, although his status this spring is unclear because he recently underwent arthroscopic knee surgery. Tedford said Cunningham will at least miss the first week of the spring. The team breaks for 10 days after that because of spring break, and Tedford said Cunningham may return then, but wasn’t sure.

Tedford said it was almost a sure thing that at least one of the incoming wide receivers will have to make an immediate impact. Recognizing that is where they were hit the hardest by departures this year, Cal brought in five new pass-catchers as part of its 2008 recruiting class. None of them will be on campus until the fall.


Spring practice preview: quarterbacks

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.