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A twist as the season nears

The last day of practice before the start of the season came with a bizarre twist Thursday. It appears the battle to handle kickoff duties is now a three-way race after the Bears welcomed walk-on Giorgio Taveccio to the team.

 

Cal knew it had Taveccio coming to Berkeley but wasn’t able to bring him to training camp because there were no spots available (A team can only have so many players in camp). He joined the team Wednesday and kicked the past two days. As unique as it may seem, it appears Taveccio has a chance to win the kickoff job in time for Saturday’s opener despite only being with the team a few days.

 

“I’d say he’s in the mix,” Cal special teams coach Pete Alamar said. “He had a nice day today. We’ll sit down and talk about it. He showed well.”

 

Both Alamar and coach Jeff Tedford said there’s a chance Taveccio will kick against Michigan State. Taveccio kicked the ball deeper than both Jordan Kay and David Seawright on Thursday.

Alamar said he discovered Taveccio at Cal’s kicking camp last summer. He said Taveccio was under the radar because he’s a top soccer player and didn’t attend many of the kicking camps and combines.

 

“If you’re not a guy who’s on the kicking camp circuit, you don’t necessarily get noticed,” Alamar said. “You’re not as high-profile. Giorgio is an elite level soccer player, so he wasn’t going to all the camps and combines. You look at his tape his senior year, he’s every bit as good as the guys you see.”

 

Meanwhile, there was good news and bad news for Cal on the injury front. Cornerback Syd’Quan Thompson (sprained shoulder) practiced in full capacity and is ready to go for the opener. But wide receiver Michael Calvin (sprained toe) missed another practice. Tedford said Calvin’s availability will be a gametime decision, but he hasn’t practiced all week and it doesn’t appear likely he will play.

 

That’s obviously a big blow to the Bears with all of the uncertainty surrounding their receivers. Even though he has yet to play in a college game, he’s as close as Cal has to a sure thing, simply based on his talent and how he’s performed in practice since he’s been with the Bears.

 

Tedford said Marvin Jones and Nyan Boateng would pick up Calvin’s reps if he can’t go.

Not surprisingly, Tedford also said left tackle Mike Tepper wouldn’t play Saturday. Tepper still has yet to do much in practice as he continues his recovery from pectoral muscle surgery and a hamstring pull.

 

Another notable development on defense: Brett Johnson took the first team reps Thursday at free safety instead of Bernard Hicks. Defensive coordinator Bob Gregory said no decision has been made who will start, but added that he expects both players to get about the same reps in the game. Still, it’s a significant bit of news because Hicks seemed to be a lock to play free safety through the spring and much

 

 

  

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The season cometh

There are a few ways to tell the start of the season is now just a matter of days away. Billboards of players are being hung around Memorial Stadium (Linebacker Zack Follett and fullback Will Ta’ufo’ou are featured at the Prospect lot entrance. Maintenance workers were spraying down all the bleachers the other day. Other workers were installing power and phone lines in the press box, not to mention the all-important televisions. Oh, and of course, I wrote my Cal and Pac-10 previews.

A full scouting report of Cal will appear in tomorrow’s paper, along with capsules of all Pac-10 teams. AFter that, it’s simply time to get ready for Michigan State.

Wednesday’s practice was fairly uneventful. Quarterback Kevin Riley continues to play well. His accuracy during the last several practices has been impeccable. Wide receiver Michael Calvin continues to be held out of practice with his sprained toe, but coach Jeff Tedford said he hopes to get Calvin reps on Thursday. Cornerback Syd’Quan Thompson is doing more and more each day at practice and it looks as though he’ll be ready for Saturday.

Tedford was asked once again about the receivers after practice, and he continues to stress that six or seven guys will be rotated in and out. He said there will be new receivers on the field on practically every play. “It doesn’t matter who’s starting,” he said.

Tedford also said the coaching staff still hasn’t decided on who will handle kickoffs. Tedford previously announced that walk-on freshman David Seawright won the placekicking job over senior Jordan Kay, but the two are battling for kickoff duties as well. For the record, Seawright has been kicking with the first team in practice.

I haven’t been able to post links the past couple days so here’s a little catching up:

–As always, ESPN.com’s Ted Miller has some good stuff, some of it pertaining to Cal in his Pac-10 blog.

–A couple of experts attempt to predict this season’s bowl matchups, with Cal getting picked for the Holiday Bowl by one and the Las Vegas Bowl by another.

–Here’s the very latest on the student-athlete center. It looks like another appeal is imminent.

–Cal has made some changes in their home game operations. Some good information for fans, especially those attending Saturday’s game.

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Catching up on a Tuesday night

Hey, folks. Sorry about the lack of presence on the blog today, but this is a busy time for us college football writers. I spent most of the day working on some season-preview stories that will appear in the paper over the next couple of days, and of course attending the first Cal weekly press luncheon of the season. I know many of you have posted comments recently and I will respond to them as soon as possible.

You know the season is in full swing when the first luncheon comes around. Media coverage is light during training camp, with only a handful of print and internet writers attending practices and an occassional appearance from a television camera. The weekly luncheon is a chance for everyone to get into the act, and Tuesday’s first installment was a well-attended affair.

This one didn’t have the same level of excitement as last year’s season-opening luncheon to get folks ready for the Tennesee game. Obviously, there were major storylines about that game because of what had happened the year before, and the Bears started the season highly ranked. Jeff Tedford only spoke for 12 minutes today, substantially shorter than usual.

Tedford touched on a handful of topics, commenting further on his decision to choose Kevin Riley as the team’s starting quarterback, evaluating Michigan State tailback Javon Ringer, expressing his satisfaction with the receiving corps and reminiscing about the Bears’ big win over the Spartans in 2002, in just his third game at Cal.

Tedford praised Nate Longshore for how he’s handled losing out to Riley in the quarterback competition.

“Nate has been awesome,” he said. “Obviously, the first meeting I had with him, was very disappointing to him. But there is no other person on this team that is dedicated like Nate to team success. He still provides great leadership to Kevin and the offense.

“He has a great attitude. It’s really impressive to see a guy take that approach of not going into the tank and feeling sorry for himself but really, really dedicated to the success of this football team.

Tedford said it was tough having to inform Longshore of his decision.

“You never want to disappoint anybody,” Tedford said. “It’s hard when you disappoint somebody. It’s emotional for them. It’s not easy to do. But he understood what I was saying.”

The highlight of a conversation with linebacker Zack Follett came after he was asked about the big hit he laid on Tennessee quarterback Erik Ainge last season, one that led to a fumble return for a touchdown by Worrell Williams.

“At Fan Appreciation Day, I think every person I saw wanted another hit like that,” Follett said. I told them I’d do my best.”

Williams talked a little about Ringer, the third-leading returning rusher in the country. Cal linebackers coach Kenwick Thompson compared Ringer to former Cal back Justin Forsett, and Williams said he can see the resemblance.

“He’s a great back,” Williams said. “He resembles Justin Forsett a little bit. I think he’s a little bigger, but he’s fast, he can make all the cuts and all the moves. He has the physical tools to get the job done. We have a huge task.”

Follett added: “We have experience going against a guy like Forsett (in practice). We’ve had great running backs here every year since I’ve been here. I don’t think it will be that big of a challenge, but you definitely have to respect him because he’s a great back.”

Riley hung around the luncheon for quite awhile talking with several different members of the media. He said it’s definitely different preparing for a game taking the first team reps.

“I’m focusing a lot more, watching more film,” he said. “You get more reps at practice, which is good because you get more looks.”

There’s a dose of sincerity about Jahvid Best which is refreshing considering all the talent he possesses. You get the feeling he isn’t totally comfortable with all the attention he is receiving this preseason, but he’ll politely answer every question thrown his way (“Yes, the hip is fine.” “Yes, I am fast.”). You get the feeling Best is going to get very used to all the attention.

Tuesday, he talked about how excited he is to return to the field after sitting out the final three games of last season and spring practice.

“I’m anxious, a little bit nervous,” he said. “I’m ready.”

Best was rested a lot during camp becasue the coaching staff wants to keep him fresh for the start of the season. Best wasn’t exactly thrilled with that approach but learned to deal with it. He found himself trying to sneak in reps when running backs coach Ron Gould wasn’t looking.

“It bothered me,” he said. “They’re looking out for my best interest, but I feel like I need the reps and I need the drills to make myself better, so I tried to get in there as much as possible.”

Best said he’s definitely going to be returning kicks and still could return punts as well. The Bears hope to get Best the ball in a variety of ways this season.

“I want to do all of it,” Best said. “If I had my choice, I’d still be playing gunner (on punt team). I’m just excited about it. Any way I can help the team, I’m ready to do it.”

All-American center Alex Mack closed down the luncheon with some pretty entertaining stuff. He said the offensive line’s goal is to not allow a sack all season. When asked if that was realistic, he said: “Probably not. Set the bar high and see where you can go. As an offensive line, that’s our job, to protect the quarterback. To me, it sounds kind of obvious.”

Mack’s on-field persona has changed substantially this fall. He’s become one of the more vocal players on the field, something he set out to do as the Bears tried to solve their leadership problems from a year ago.

“Last year I tried a little bit but I don’t think I did a good enough job,” he said. “I’m much more of a quiet guy. I’m growing into it.”

And when talking about the progress nose tackles Derrick Hill and Kendrick Payne have made, Mack said: “I hope I gave them a good look and they’ve got used to going against me. Hopefully I’m still a good center and not just a bunch of hype.”

Uh, yeah, he’s still pretty good.

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Game week is here

There was something different about practice Monday night. With a game now imminent, there seemed to be a renewed focus, but still a lot of enthusiasm.

The Bears are getting healthier. Tight end Cameron Morrah returned to practice, and right guard Noris Malele was back taking reps with the first team. Cornerback Syd’Quan Thompson has graduated to a yellow jersey.

Wide receiver Michael Calvin still isn’t practicing, but coach Jeff Tedford said he expects him and Thompson to be ready by Saturday.

Cal’s media relations department released the first depth chart of the season and there were a few notables. Darian Hagan is listed as the starting corner opposite Thompson over Chris Conte, but Tedford said after practice that the position is still being evaluated. It’s hard to tell anything from practice because, with Thompson limited, both Hagan and Conte are running with the first unit.

As expected, Calvin, Sean Young and LaReylle Cunningham are listed as the starting wide receivers.

Derrick Hill is listed as the starting nose guard over Mika Kane, and Tedford confirmed that Hill is the man. Tedford said Kane isn’t ready because he’s missed most of camp with an ankle sprain.

Tedford said kick and punt returners are still up in the air.

The Bears voted on team captains for the season and they chose center Alex Mack, fullback Will Ta’ufo’ou and linebackers Zack Follett and Anthony Felder. Tedford said there are four or five others that will rotate as team captains throughout the season.

Tedford said the status of junior college transfer Kamaron Yancy is still up in the air. Yancy has been working to get his coursework in order before he joins the team. Tedford said defensive back Gary Doxy still could return to the team. Doxy was dismissed early in camp to focus on his studies.

Cal will hold its first weekly press luncheon of the season tomorrow. I’ll have a lot from the session afterward.

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Monday

Does the calendar deceive me, or is there actually a game this week? Things are going to heat up now. Let’s get the week started:

–ESPN.com’s Ted Miller says Cal’s Jahvid Best will be the Pac-10′s Offensive Player of the Year this season. He also has some other good stuff, ranking the conference’s toughest schedules (He puts Cal eighth) and highlighting some of the Pac-10′s best games of the season.

Here’s the latest on Saturday’s season-opening opponent, Michigan State, with a look at how some of the Spartans’ young players are coming on.

–ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit released his annual “Herbie Awards,” recognizing just about everything in college football. Cal is pretty well-represented. Herbstreit picks Zack Follett as the third-best outside linebacker in the country.

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What did we find out?

The Bears have spent just a little over one practice preparing for MIchigan State, so game week begins in earnest tomorrow (Cal had today off). Truth be told, it still felt like training camp up until yesterday.

Now that game week is finally here (finally!), it’s time to examine training camp and find out what we learned.

We ran a story in the paper right before training camp started, posing the top five questions that faced the Bears. Let’s look back and determine what answers we received:

1. Who will be the starting quarterback?: Obviously, we now know that Kevin Riley is the Bears’ starter. But we also know that Nate Longshore will play in the season-opener against Michigan State. The lingering question is just how fluid this situation will be. Coach Jeff Tedford has said the competition between the two is extremely close and that the position will continue to be evaluated. Does that mean Riley will be looking over his shoulder? It will be interesting to see how quickly Tedford decides to make a change if Riley were to be ineffective, or if we will see quarterback shuffling all season. My hunch is that Riley will play well and remain the starter.

2. Have the Bears cured whatever ailed them during the second half of last season? It’s easier to have enthusiasm and get along during training camp, when the pressures of a game aren’t lingering and the team hasn’t experienced any losses. We’ll find out about the character and chemistry of this team once adversity hits. Last year at this time, the players were all talking about what great chemistry the team had, and that didn’t prove to pan out. But it does seem like there is more enthusiasm and leadership on the field so far. Center Alex Mack has become much more vocal, and he’s a player that commands respect on both sides of the ball. Linebacker Zack Follett has improved as a leader — on the days he was injured during camp he was very involved standing next to defensive coordinator Bob Gregory trying to aid with instruction or signal plays in from the sideline. Defensive end Rulon Davis has been full of energy and praise for teammates.

3. Do the Bears have any productive receivers?: This is a question yet to be answered. About midway through camp, I was convinced Cal’s receivers would get it done. Michael Calvin and Nyan Boateng had emerged as the hands-down top two pass-catchers. But Boateng fell off during latter stages of camp and won’t start the opener. LaReylle Cunningham had an excellent camp, but it remains to be seen how productive he can be in a game. Sixth-year senior Sean Young is a great story. He has earned a starting role and has always had talent — injuries have just got the better of him over the yeares. If Boateng re-emerges, and true freshman Marvin Jones is as productive in a game as he is in practice, Cal will be all right.

4. Is sophomore Jahvid Best healthy enough to be an every-down back?: Best may not carry the ball 20 times a game, but the Bears hope to get the ball in his hands a lot. That could come running the ball, catching the ball out of the backfield, lining up at receiver, returning kicks and returning punts. The Bears have been extremely cautious with Best during camp; especially recently when he’s been held out of several practices. But the team insists there are no lingering complications from his hip injury, and Tedford said Best should practice every day this week in a full capacity.

5. Will the defense improve in the 3-4 alignment?: It sure seems that it will. The schemes allows Cal’s fast, playmaking linebackers to get more involved all over the field, and that works to the Bears’ advantage. And the Bears’ are getting strong play from their defensive linemen — Tyson Alualu and Rulon Davis had tremendous camps.

 

Following up on the top five questions, I also posted here on the blog a list of further questions. Let’s go back and look at those:

–How will Jahvid Best respond to the first practice in pads?: Best doesn’t appear to have suffered any complications from getting hit, although he has been rested a lot during camp. But he’s taken his share of hits and popped up each time, and says he feels fine.

–How will Nyan Boateng practice?: Boateng’s camp got off to an excellent start. But a few dropped passes and moving back down on to the second team appeared to demoralize him a bit. Near the end of camp, his body language looked a little more like it did during the spring, which wasn’t always good. Boateng says he’s motivated that he’s not running with the first team anymore and it’s going to make him work harder. If that turns out to be true, it will be good news for Cal.

–Will Tad Smith continue his impressive development at tight end?: After an eye-opening spring, Smith was solid in the fall. He didn’t make as much of an impact as he did during the spring, but he he still is solidly the No. 2 tight end behind Cameron Morrah. Perhaps Smith was overshadowed a bit by the emergence of Anthony Miller, who is expected to play as a true freshman.

–Was Richard Fisher a flash in the pan?: The walk-on redshirt sophomore impressed in the spring and improbably worked his way up to the first team. He began camp as the starting left guard but couldn’t hold off highly regarded redshirt sophomore Chris Guarnero, who converted from center and moved into the starting lineup. Fisher still can back up at either guard or center, although offensive line coach Jim Michalczik says Guarnero still is the backup center to Alex Mack.

–Who will play nose guard in the new 3-4?: This competition got messy during camp because both Mika Kane and Derrick Hill suffered sprained ankles and missed time. Kane only in the last couple of practices has come back to do just individual drills. Considering Hill’s camp got off to a strong start before he was injured and he returned faster from the injury, he has to be considered the starting nose guard right now.

–junior Tyson Alualu or sophomore Cameron Jordan? Alualu had too good a camp and is too proven a player to yield his position to Jordan, although Jordan may be more physically gifted. Alualu simply is the Bears’ most reliable defensive lineman. Case closed.

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In the books

Saturday marked the end of 2008 training camp. The Bears held a two-hour full-pad workout in the morning, followed by the annual Fan Appreciation Day.

Truth be told, camp really came to an end Wednesday when the Bears held their “mock game.” Cal broke into scout teams Thursday, the sign that it’s a regular season practice, and began preparing for the season-opener against Michigan State.

The biggest news to come out of Saturday’s practice is that Michael Calvin, Sean Young and LaReylle Cunningham appear to be penciled in as Cal’s starting wide receivers. That came from fellow wideout Nyan Boateng, who expressed disappointment that he won’t be in the starting lineup. Boateng may be the most talented receiver on the roster but has had to work his way up from the depths of the depth chart after transferring from Florida and running into some problems off the field and in the classroom.

It appeared as though Boateng was in the mix to start early on in camp when he spent several days working with the first team offense. But he fell off during the latter part of camp and had been running with the second team recently.

Boateng expressed frustration after practice Saturday because he believes he’s done everything he’s been asked to do. But he also said he’s just going to continue to do just that until he gets his shot. And it’s not like he’s not going to play. Jeff Tedford said he’s in the mix for playing time, just not necessarily to start at this point.

Nate Longshore also commented today for the first time since Kevin Riley won the quarterback job. Longshore essentially said the decision won’t cause him to change and he just wants to continue to focus on getting better every day.

You can read about Longshore and Boateng here.

In other news, tailback Jahvid Best didn’t practice yet again, but Tedford said he’ll resume practicing in a full capacity on Monday (the Bears are off Sunday). Tedford also said he hopes Calvin (sprained toe) will be back at practice Monday as well.

I’ll be back with a thorough look back at training camp on Sunday.

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Lineups

Some of you have been asking about the starting lineup, since training camp is essentially over and preparation for Michigan State has begun. Here you go.

OFFENSE

QB Kevin Riley

TB Jahvid Best

FB Will Ta’ufo’ou

WR Michael Calvin, Sean Young, LaReylle Cunningham

TE Cameron Morrah

LT Chet Teofilo

LG Chris Guarnero

C Alex Mack

RG Noris Malele

RT Mitchell Schwartz

 

DEFENSE

DE Rulon Davis, Tyson Alualu

NT Derrick Hill OR Mika Kane

OLB Zack Follett, Eddie Young

MLB Worrell Williams, Anthony Felder

CB Syd’Quan Thompson, Chris Conte OR Darian Hagan

ROV Marcus Ezeff

FS Bernard  Hicks

 

SPECIAL TEAMS

K David Seawright

P Bryan Anger

KR TBA

PR TBA

HOLDER Brock Mansion

LS Nick Sundberg

 

A couple of notes: It remains to be seen how soon Mike Tepper will rejoin the offensive line. Jeff Tedford has all but said Tepper won’t start the opener, so this is the composition of the O-line for now. Tepper was supposed to start at left tackle this season with Teofilo at right tackle. With Teofilo and Schwartz playing well, you might see some rotation on the line once Tepper gets healthy. … Nothing has been made official with the wide receivers, but those are the starters based on recent practices. … The Bears continue to use several punt and kick returners at practice. I think Syd’Quan Thompson is the favorite to return punts, but his sprained shoulder has kept him out for awhile. Best should be the top kick returner.

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Friday afternoon

Well, what are we going to write about now that Cal has named its starting quarterback? I’m sure we’ll come up with something.

–The top headline on ESPN.com’s college football page right now is a story about Kevin Riley winning the quarterback job.

–Jon Wilner of our sister paper, the San Jose Mercury News, weighed in on the quarterback news.

–I’m sure Cal fans hope to read a story similar to this one day.

–Michigan State will have a hungry defensive end when it opens the season at Cal.