It couldn’t have been a nicer day for the Bears to wrap up spring practice for 2009. About 2,000 fans were in attendance at Memorial Stadium as Cal put on about a 90-minute situational scrimmage that yielded a few storylines but not much in terms of the big picture.
Let’s start with the quarterbacks. As expected, coach Jeff Tedford didn’t draw any conclusions from the scrimmage or the entire spring, for that matter. The competition is still fluid, and will resume in the fall.
But he did make one comment that I found noteworthy, although it’s probably dangerous to read too much into it. When asked for a depth chart heading into the fall, Tedford said there was “no change.” He followed that up by saying “it’s still” Kevin Riley, followed by Brock Mansion, followed by Beau Sweeney.
That is the first time, to my knowledge, he’s ever ranked the quarterbacks. He’s been religious about staying on message, that the competition is equal. As recently as Thursday, he said the three quarterbacks were even.
But Tedford wasn’t really breaking any news. It’s obvious, based on reps, that that is the current pecking order. Riley has taken the majority of the first team reps, Mansion the second team reps and Sweeney the third team reps. Tedford said that order simply has been determined based on tenure, from most experienced to least experienced.
But it is telling for a couple of reasons. It implies that, all things being equal, experience provide an edge. That is a plus for Riley. It also implies that neither Mansion or Riley has stood out enough to render that experience less important than something else. Again, this is not breaking news. We could see all through spring that nobody had substantially stood out.
I would still be surprised if Riley is not the starting quarterback in 2009. Despite Mansion’s recent surge — he had a very good scrimmage to cap off a terrific final week — and Sweeney’s surprising effectiveness for a freshman, Riley still played the best and has the most experience. It will take something special for Riley to be supplanted.
That being said, if Mansioin’s rate of improvement continues like it did during the past week, who knows? On Saturday, he was 9-for-11 for 94 yards and a touchdown with one interception. He started the scrimmage with the second team and led the offense on a 70-yard touchdown drive, going 5-for-5 for 75 yards in the process. He completed the possession with a 1-yard touchdown pass to Alex Lagemann.
Mansion struggled during the first couple weeks of practice but excelled this past week. He said the key to the turnaround was staying after practice for extra work, something he had been doing but shut down because of arm soreness.
“I got back doing what i used to do, throwing about 40 more balls after practice,” Mansion said. “It got me a little more consistent.”
Riley was 7-for-12 for 74 yards. He wasn’t spectacular but was steady, although he made a couple of bad thorws to receivers that were well-covered.
When Riley was asked if he thought he had done enough to be the starter, he said he thought so.
“Every scrimmage and during practice, I ran the offense, I’ve managed the huddle — pretty much last year what Coach was telling me to do,” Riley said. “With that experience, I can do that now. I understand how he wants things to go.”
Sweeney was just 4-for-10 for 64 yards and a touchdown and interception. His best moment came on a nicely thrown sideline pass to Jeremy Ross that went for a 36-yard touchdown. His worst was when he was hit by linebacker Chris Little (more on him later) as he threw and had his pass intercepted by safety D.J. Campbell, who then returned it 73 yards for a touchdown.
“I thought I made some improvements, and that’s what my goals were from the beginning, to get better every day,” Sweeney said. “It’s still really new for me, but I feel more comfortable with it.”
Lagemann continued his strong spring, leading the way with five catches for 72 yards and a score. Ross finished with four catches for 45 yards and a touchdown.
Lagemann has positioned himself to make a run at being a serious contributor in the fall. He took advantage of the absence of Verran Tucker and Mike Calvin to really make an impact.
And that has left the wide receiver situation an uncertainty at this point. Tucker, Ross and Nyan Boateng are the top returners, but Marvin Jones and Lagemann were the two best receivers in the spring. When asked if he knew who would line up at receiver if they had to play a game today, Tedford said: “I don’t. We don’t have to line up today. We have to line up in September.”
Tedford acknowledged that guard is the position along the offensive line that is the most open right now. Chet Teofilo and Mark Boskovich continued to get the first team reps Saturday with Justin Cheadle and Matt Summers-Gavin on the second team. Tedford singled out Summers-Gavin as “playing very well.”
We know most things are set defensively. The few things that the spring determined for the defense is that Mychal Kendricks will play inside linebacker and Devin Bishop will play outside, and that Sean Cattouse will push Brett Johnson at safety. Cattouse made a nice catch to intercept a pass by Mansion in the end zone today.
Defensive coordinator Bob Gregory said that Cattouse, Johnson and Marcus Ezeff are competing for the two safety spots, but acknowledged that, as a two-year starter, Ezeff pretty much has one spot locked down. Johnson started most of last season.
“They all just have to improve on everything that they do,” Gregory said. “We try to look at the whole deal and see which guys play the most consistent. They’re all close.”
As I’ve written recently, Bishop’s spot at weakside outside linebacker should be challenged in the fall by JC transfer Ryan Davis, so there’s more to come with the linebacker story. And the storyline took another turn Saturday with the dominant play of converted safety Chris Little, who had eight tackles, three sacks, one other tackle for loss and forced Sweeney’s interception with pressure.
Little, a freshman, played safety on scout team during the fall but was converted to outside linebacker for the spring. Gregory said his inexperience obviously puts him a bit behind but could make a bid to play in the fall depending on his offseason work.
“I think he has a chance to play,” Gregory said. “I think that all comes down to how he develops over the summer and camp. He has to be able to pick everything up.”
During a scrimmage, the officials usually blow the whistle when it’s clear the quarterback can’t escape a sack so the QBs don’t actually take too many big hits. But Little actually had a few hits on quarterbacks Saturday. Tedford appreciated Little’s intensity but had to have a little talk with him about it as well.
“He is a really good player,” Tedford said. “I think moving him to linebacker from safety is a natural position for him. He’s very hard to block and plays with great intensity, almost too much at times. I had to take him off the field today because he kept hitting the quarterback when he’s not supposed to.”
Other highlights from the scrimmage:
–Giorgio Tavecchio began the scrimmage by kicking the ball into the end zone. That drew big cheers from the crowd, because they haven’t seen that too often in recent year. He had another kick go to the 5.
–Tavecchio made a 42-yard field goal but also missed from 42 and 51. David Seawright missed a PAT and field goal attempts from 40 and 44, but made a 28-yarder.
–Lagemann blocked a punt in the end zone.
–Cal running backs rushed for just 62 yards on 25 carries.
–The defense recorded a safety when linebacker Eddie Young tackled Shane Vereen in the end zone onf a second-down play from the 1-yard line.
–Running back Jahvid Best is now running and said he expects to be 100 percent by the time summer workouts begin.