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Good-bye

Cal fans are fortunate because I made a big mistake the first time I sat down in Jeff Tedford’s office. I could tell right away that he was something special and was going to make it big.

I told Jeff, “I’ve been here long before you came and I will be here long after you go.”

I was wrong.

That’s good for Cal fans because you have a wonderful coach and a man who could get you to the very top of the mountain without sacrificing the ideals you hold so dear. I knew the NFL would come calling, and unlike Steve Mariucci, he turned them down.

Myself, I have decided to go after some new challenges after 26 years. Today is my last day at the Times.

It’s been a great and wonderful ride and I will forever be thankful to Cal fans for their enthusiam and pure joy. Other programs have fans in greater numbers, but I have found none that rival the Cal fans in terms of showing their pride and insisting on honor in the pursuit of success.

I have had far too many wonderful times covering Cal sports to list them all. I always will remember Kyle Boller’s final big game where the crowd carried him off the field. He had been through so much adversity and was presented a day that will live in his, and my, memory forever.

There were so many other special moments, too many to mention.

I still remember covering Keith Gilbertson, a wonderful man who wore his heart on his sleeve. In Gilby’s world, you were either for him or against him. I can’t begin to tell you how many times he cussed at me. It was a time when I was usually the only reporter at practice. But we developed a friendship that I think was strained a bit when Gilby lost his job. As a reporter, I had to do my job, and it was tough. Years later, when he landed the head job at Washington, he shook my hand and told me he wasn’t so thin skinned anymore.

Steve Mariucci came through and was gone in a heartbeat. He went to the gold and got it.

Tom Holmoe was next and it boggles my mind that some of the fans were so cruel to him. Ultimately, Tom failed as a head coach in terms of wins or losses. But he could coach my son anytime. When I wrote the story about Tom getting the head job, I asked his wife to describe him. She said, “He is the best man I know.” If someone asked me about Tom now, I would say, “He is the best man I know.” I will leave it at that.

Jeff took over and Cal took off. He is a special man, driven, a perfectionist. Believe me, Cal fans could grumble all they want last year when Cal slumped a bit late in the season. Nobody felt worse than coach Tedford. He will get it done, all the way, if he gets the chance. Fans are so fickle at times, and that can be tough on a man. But I think he is going to stay the course in Berkeley.

As far as the athletes, wow. What a great group of young men. From guys like quarterback D’Andre Farr, who never realized his dream of playing and yet stayed and got a scholarship, to Sekou Sanyika, to Brian Wethers, to Nick Harris, to Ryan O’Callaghan, to …

And a special thank you to all the other special people. The assistants who give so much of their time to young men without the fanfare or pay that drives head coaches. To guys like Bud Turner, who actually has blue in his veins. He is a wonderful man and in some ways I worry about him because if Cal does go to the Rose Bowl, he probably will drop dead the next day.

I’ve had great times here, and I have gone through some tough times personally where the Cal family was very good to me. It’s been a joy to meet people such as David Ortega, Greg and Susie Overholtzer, Adam Duritz and Muhammad Muqtar, who can best be summed up by the word Honor.

And a final special thanks to all the other beat writers, who made this job seem like a game to me. I still remember the old road trips, having a great dinner with writers such as Jeff Faraudo, Ron Bergman, Sam Chi, Bruce Adams and Jake Curtis, and all the time wondering what the heck they had in their story the next day that I might not have written. It was a special time.

So to all, thank you. My personal email is ht9j@aol.com so feel free to drop me a note.

Jay

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before spring break

Before letting the players head out for spring break, Cal coach Jeff Tedford ran them through a pretty hefty scrimmage on Friday at Memorial Stadium.

I guess the thing that hit me most was the fact that linebacker Anthony Felder was in the middle of several plays, making tackles, blocking passes, being a force. That’s great news for Cal since Felder battled injuries all last season that kept him from building on his fine freshman season. It appears that he is ready to go again. Zack Follett missed the scrimmage and Greg Van Hoesen tweaked an ankle so Felder, Worrell Williams and Justin Moye saw plenty of action. Moye put a monster hit on Justin Forsett that I mistakenly thought was Thomas DeCoud. Moye’s parents were sitting behind me so we got that one straightened out :o )

Other things I noticed,

DeCoud looks very, very confident. Cal’s safeties should have a big season.

Forsett looks very quick, but he isn’t going to be the pass catching threat that Lynch was.

Freshman fullback R.J. Garrett is a BIG guy.

Brandon Jones looks like a playmaker.

If Cal lines up Daniel Lofton next to Nyan Boateng in 2008, teams are going to have trouble dealing with their size.

Kyle Reed and Kevin Riley have a long ways to go.

James Montgomery is ready to make a move. This kid is quick and his cuts come so effortlessly.

Eddie Young is going to get on the field. The guy is a load.

Cal opened some nice holes inside with Kevin Bemoll at right guard and Mike Tepper at right tackle.

I know that senior defensive end John Allen won’t be a starter, but it would be interesting to see this guy get some snaps. He often is a force during practice.

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don’t lose your head

The Zack attack was on display on Saturday. Zack Follett tracked down wide receiver Lavelle Hawkins, who made a catch and then had his helmet ripped off by Follett. Fortunately for Cal, Hawkins’ head was not in the helmet as it bounced along the turf.

Instead, Hawkins went into a “You can’t hurt me dance” that energized everyone on the field. It was a great shot of energy.

After the practice, I asked Jeff Tedford if it was a little unnerving to see Follett line up one of his marquee wide receivers. “Nah,” Tedford said. “It was a good, clean hit.”

Cal’s entire practice session on Saturday was full of energy, somewhat unusual for a spring drill. Sure, the Cal coaching staff preaches enthusiasm and demands it, but the whole place was bursting with energy on Saturday. It kind of gives the indication that these kids have some lofty goals in mind.

Besides his big hit, Follett also tipped a pass during drills that was intercepted. He then got into a Follett War Dance where he stretched his arms out to each side and did about eight helicopter spins. Great stuff.

I think the most impressive thing on Saturday was the way Derrick Hill was moving around the field. The big guy can eat up some ground and he obviously is feeling pretty good.

Syd’Quan Thompson looks physically bigger and thicker this season so he obviously has been doing the work in the weight room.

Coach Tedford gushed about how well Chet Teofilo has been playing at tackle. Teofilo strugged last season as he moved from defensive line to offensive line, but Tedford said he is finally getting it.

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time to hit

Can’t wait until tomorrow.

OK, that might be a take off Scarlet O’Hara (you young’uns are probably scratching your head on that one), but I really love that first day of hitting at camp.

So many of the players want to show what they can do, especially those kids that had to red-shirt last season. I want to see the young defensive backs mix it up, I want to see how far along Derrick Hill and Michael Costanzo are. Is Rulon Davis ready to be an impact player? Who’s ahead, James Montgomery or Tracy Slocum? Is Kyle Reed ready to step forward and is Kevin Riley another Aaron Rodgers?

It’s an exciting time of year to be around coach Tedford, who is stressed out all season as he prepares for each team. There are no games right now, so Tedford can concentrate on teaching, something that he loves to do. Those who feel that college coaches are all about winning and losing should take a trip to spring ball. To see these coaches’ faces when a kid picks up a technique, when he finally gets over a hump, when the light bulb goes on. It’s a joy to see.

I have fun just watching the special teams guys. Larson is a stud and Tommy Schneider is so consistent in practice that it’s silly. My question about Nick Sunberg is this, “Has a long snapper ever left early for the NFL?”

I wish I could see more of you out there at the stadium, but practice of course is closed. Of course, you do get to see the spring scrimmage, and perhaps coach Tedford will open up another scrimmage some where along the way. If he does, I will let you know. But I will let you know how things go on Saturday, when big hits return to Memorial Stadium. Hopefully, Bernard Hicks doesn’t hurt anyone.

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spring cleaning

It was very impressive watching Cal’s throwing drills on Wednesday during spring practice. Not only did Nate Longshore look very sharp, but Kyle Reed and Kevin Riley were very impressive. This Reed-Riley showdown is going to be very interesting. For one, Reed has come a long way in a year. He sets up very quickly now and gets ready to throw in a hurry. He has some very impressive athletic skills and a very strong arm.

Riley’s accuracy was uncanny on Wednesday. He isn’t quite the athlete that Reed is, but he is very fluid and every pass seems to hit his receivers chest high in the hands. It was very impressive watching him throw out pattern after out pattern right on target.

Of course, the competition probably is more important to Reed than Riley, who as a redshirt freshman is a year behind Reed. If Reed doesn’t secure the No. 2 spot, it will be interesting to see what he decides to do. He obviously has the talent to play Division I-A football. But Longshore will be just a junior next season and Riley has four years of eligibility remaining. Plus, more quarterbacks are on the way.

Young quarterbacks seldom realize they are just one or two snaps from being the starter. It appears to be the exception, not the norm, that a quarterback keeps his health through an entire season. If Jeff Tedford can find a way to keep all three happy, it bodes well for team depth.

As far as other observations, new tight end Skylar Curran looks very gifted as a receiver, but he has the bulk to be effective on the line as well. Although Cal is well stocked at tight end, I would imagine that Curran will contribute this season.

Tailback Justin Forsett looked very quick in drills.

Junior wide receiver Drew Glover made a great diving catch of a long pass, but of course, he is buried on the depth chart.

Walk on tight end Garry Graffort was given quite a few opportunities to make plays during scrimmage opportunities. The kid has some talent.

Lavelle Hawkins, DeSean Jackson and Robert Jordan all flashed their talent at times during the workout. What a trio.

Derrick Hill looks healthy after last season’s knee injury and he should be a force. He runs very well for a big, big man.

Transfer wide receiver Nyan Boateng is a beast. He has very strong hands grabbing the ball away from defenders and has a big body that makes it tough on small defensive backs. He will be just what the doctor ordered when Cal loses Jordan, Hawkins and possibly Jackson (to the NFL draft) after this season.

Cal is stocked at linebacker, but Eddie Young looks like he could become a force in the near future. His physical talent is impressive.

Also, just thought I would note that Ken Delgado is now the assistant head coach. Good stuff for a guy who knows how to assemble talent.

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Zack attack

So how many of you are looking forward to seeing Zack Follett on the field all the time?

It’s hard to fault Cal’s coaching staff for most of the decisions it has made since Jeff Tedford took over, but I often wondered last season why Follett wasn’t on the field more. This guy was a monster playmaker and, obviously, he had the speed and desire to get the job done.

Granted, Cal had major talent at linebacker, but Follett is a special athlete and, I believe, will become a marquee player in the Pac-10.

Certainly, he will be in the middle of everything this season as he accepts the Desmond Bishop role. I also would imagine that defensive coordinator Bob Gregory will continue to line him up on the edge at times in passing situations. I always have admired the fact that Gregory doesn’t lock guys into a position. He will develop schemes to utilize his players’ strengths, even if that means going outside the box.

Follett said he has been issued the challenge by the coaching staff of proving that he is an every down linebacker. It’s one thing to come off the bench fresh and go full steam for a series. It’s another thing to carry out excellence over an entire game. We’re talking stamina.

My guess is that Follett has that stamina and he is going to be a hard guy to get off the field.

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spring breakouts

Although spring football doesn’t always have a huge sense or urgency, it would appear to be important for this Cal football team if it expects to forge through to a Pac-10 championship.

This team has incredible strengths, but some huge holes to fill.

Those of you who have followed my stuff over the years know that I believe it is a huge bonus for a football team to take five starting offensive linemen through the spring and into the season. Teams that can’t do that tend to struggle. Fortunately for Cal, it has a great offensive line coach in Jim Michalczik. His importance has been hidden the past few years, but consider some of the injuries Cal has had along the offensive line and still managed to keep a high level of play. Look at last season, when Cal lost three NFL players off the line yet still managed to put together an above average offense.

That being said, being above average isn’t good enough when it comes to winning a Pac-10 championship.Cal is going to be challenged this coming year because two of its potential starters, Mike Gibson and Noris Malele, aren’t playing in the spring. That becomes more critical because Michalczik said he is going to experiment by moving center Alex Mack to tackle. Cal could get into summer camp with a lineup such as Mack at left tackle, Gibson at right tackle, Malele at right guard, Brian De La Puente at the other guard and Chris Guarnero at center. That would leave Gibson and Malele as the only guys who played that same position last season. They would have a crash course in terms of learning each other’s moves. The key here seems to be Mike Tepper. He’s got the size and strength to be a force. If he can prove himself in the spring, it could allow Mack to stay at center. Personally, I think a starting lineup of Gibson at right tackle, Malele at right guard, Mack at center, De La Puente at left guard and Gibson at left tackle would work well in terms of cohesion. Guarnero is a huge talent, but breaking in new centers every year is a dangerous practice. That being said, teams seldom flourish if defensive ends can blow past the left tackle.

I also wonder what it would be like to have Tepper at left tackle, Kevin Bemoll at left guard, Mack at center, Malele or De La Puente at right guard and Gibson at right tackle. In terms of running the football, Wow. Tepper is huge, Bemoll is a beast and Mack is the top center in the Pac-10. Need that extra yard? You know where to go.

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The arms race

This is the final of the series on the positions going into spring. I put three blog entries up today (Friday) since I will be off Saturday and Sunday. This will be a look at the quarterbacks. In entries below are special teams and tight ends. It was a lot of fun getting together with all the position coaches and seeing the excitement in their eyes going into spring. Certainly, there are some key questions to answer, but there also is a ton of talent that should propel the Golden Bears into a race for the conference championship. Anyone who believes that Cal can’t compete for a Pac-10 or even a national championship simply hasn’t been paying attention or wants to be buried in the “Sam Old Cal” days. To those people I say, “Go climb a tree.” Opps, that’s probably not politically correct.

As Jeff Tedford noted, the race to be the backup quarterback might be one of the more significant battles during camp. Certainly, Nate Longshore is the starter unless he does something like gain 40 pounds during the summer. His window washing job should keep the weight off.
Of course, everyone who follows college football knows that a team seldom gets through a season without having to use a backup. So either Kyle Reed or Kevin Riley could put their stamp on the 2007 season at some point.

Certainly, everyone hopes that Longshore stays healthy and continues improving into one of the conference’s top QBs. “Nate played well last season,” Tedford said. “He did a good job. His decision making was good. He gained a lot of experience and handled the game planning very well.
“He needs to shed weight and improve his mobility. He was pushing 240 at the end of last season. He is a big person. He has to watch it. Trent Dilfer was the same way. If Trent did squats, he would blow up to 250 pounds. Nate is the same way. I want to keep him in the 225 to 230 range.”

Tedford was asked if Longshore bogged down at the end of last season. “He made his share of mistakes like anyone. But I thought he played well. Everyone made some mistakes in those games (Arizona, USC, Stanford).”

While Longshore should continue to pick up experience reading defenses and making decisions, Tedford will be keeping a close eye on Reed and Riley. “We are going to see how far these young guys have come. Both are very talented physically. They have to learn how to run the offense, manage the clock, handle field position. They just need to get there.

“Kyle is a big, strong, fast guy. He has a nice arm and can throw all the balls. He is competitive and tough.

“Kevin also is fairly mobile, but he is not as fast as Kyle. But he is a kid who really understands what is going on. He throws good balls and he is pretty calm in the pocket. He keeps his eyes downfield. I’m very interested in seeing Kevin in competition.”

Please see below for special teams and tight ends.

By the way, I would like to thank all the readers. We had a very nice response to the series and I enjoyed doing it.

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A very special (teams) spring

Cal should have a very special year in special teams play this season. Tom Schneider has developed into a top college kicker and he should be rock solid his senior year. Last year, we discovered that punter Andrew Larson could be an NFL quality guy. DeSean Jackson is the best punt return man in college football. Nick Sunberg might well be the best long snapper in college football. Wow. Cal special teams coach Pete Alamar must be sleeping well at night.

“Tom (Schneider) has grown so much every year,” Alamar said. “He understands that kicking is his craft and he works on it. He has improved his body with Pilates. He looks for ways in all areas to improve himself.”

“We do graduate our holder (Joe Ayoob), so we have to look for somebody there.”

Who every is back there holding, they know the ball is on target. “Nick is the best long snapper in the conference,” Alamar said. “He is a snap-aholic. He snaps at least 200 balls a day, every day. How important is that guy?”

Then there is Jackson. “Obviously, with DeSean back there, we have to take a look in the spring at what people were doing. We will look at a couple of different things. It became a situation where teams were not going to punt to him. We’ve been to that movie ourselves (remember UCLA’s Maurice Drew?). Against A&M in the Holiday Bowl, that one-yard punt was because they were not going to put to DeSean.
“We’re thinking about dropping two guys deep. Vary our stuff. We know that people won’t want to punt to DeSean, so we have to sell our punt return group on the idea that we must take advantage of our opportunities.”

There is a move in the NCAA to move the kickoff spot back to the 30-yard line. Alamar said he will have to deal with that issue in the spring because such a move will put more pressure on his kickoff team.

In terms of kickoff return, Lavelle Hawkins is a leading candidate. Young guys such as James Montgomery, Daniel Lofton, Jeremy Ross and Bryan Schutte will get a long look. Sam DeSa figures in that mix.

OK, so why not put Jackson back there, or Syd-Quan Thompson or Robert Jordan? All three are hovering around the 170-pound area and kickoff returns mean high-speed collisions. “I would hate to have something happen,” said Alamar, who doesn’t want to explain to coach Tedford that one of the nation’s top wide receivers or his top corner is out because of a train wreck on a kickoff. “We have to ask ourselves if we are being smart,” Alamar said.

Alamar has a strong cast of potential candidates in terms of blocking and tackling. Guys such as Justin Moye, Kyle Kirst, Marcus Ezeff, Matt Russi, and Will Ta’ufo’ou have shown that they take pride in their special teams assignments. “We had Mike McGrath and then Byron Storer, so the bar has been set high,” Alamar said.

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Tighten down the ends in spring

So he isn’t a perfect tight end.

Craig Stevens is a flat-out stud when it comes to mauling a guy at the line of scrimmage.

Did you wish Cal would have used more spread last season? Blame it on Stevens. Jeff Tedford didn’t like the look of his team when Stevens wasn’t on the field.

“There is something you always look for in your very good players,” said Cal tight ends and special teams coach Pete Alamar. “That’s continued growth. You can always look at the film and say, ‘here are some things we need to work on.’ ”

Simply put, though, Alamar said Stevens is the best blocker at point of attack in the Pac-10 (and perhaps a whole lot of other places as well). “He is one of the most dominating run blockers in the country,” Alamar said.

Stevens has become a better receiver over his previous three seasons and there is some more work to do. “Every guy has a spot that is kind of a blind spot for him,” Alamar said. “We know that Craig can make those tough catches over the middle. He is good at making that catch into his body. He has some trouble with the ball over his outside shoulder, it has got to do with transferring his eyes. It is something he is working on.

“Of course, every receiver wants to catch 1,000 balls. He is trying to grow more into that role. He also keeps working at getting stronger, and in terms of being a leader, I’m watching that grow.”

Alamar said that if there is a perception that Stevens isn’t pretty darned good catching the ball, it is wrong. “If you are a tight end and you drop one, everyone remembers it,” Alamar said. “You don’t have 60 other catches to hide the one you dropped.”

He also noted that Stevens is not just a glorified offensive lineman. “On timing day, he ran a 4.7 in the 40 and he has run that consistently. If you go check what the tight ends were running at the NFL combine, you now that’s not bad.”

Now a senior, Stevens is the sure thing at tight end. But charging to the forefront might be Cameron Morrah. He is a sophomore now and appears ready to make an impact.

“This is the year we expect him to blossom,” Alamar said. “We want to see him play with confidence and let it loose. This should be an exciting time for Cameron. He runs well, catches well, has good hands and is very athletic. He has to improve his run blocking, but that’s just a matter of coming off the ball and knowing that he can do it. The big thing for him is just learning what it takes to play at this level.”

Alamar said Morrah doesn’t look like he is running fast at time, but his long stride just gobbles up ground. “It’s like Wow, he just took off. Now he just needs to run like that all the time. It will be interesting to see if he can take it to the next level.”

Julian Arthur is a former water polo player who is now a 275-pounder who should contribute on short yardage and goal-line situations. “He is just a great story,” Alamar said. “He is a walk-on who has busted his hump. Unfortunately, he has a little knee injury and is going to miss some of camp.”

Cal gets another JC transfer tight end from Butte in Skylar Curran, who will have three years of eligibility remaining. Alamar said his biggest concern with Curran this point is that he just gets used to the speed of the game. “He is going to go through some growing pains,” Alamar said.

Alamar also mentioned Garry Graffort. “What a great kid,” Alamar said. “I don’t know when, but at some point, he will help us. He is passionate about the game. Guys like that, at some point you know they will find their way on the field.”