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Goodbye: My long run covering Cal sports for the Bay Area News Group comes to an end

Well, it’s time to say goodbye. It has been my great pleasure to bring you Cal sports news and commentary for more than 30 years, but I have taken a voluntary buyout and my time at the Bay Area News Group ends on Friday.

It’s been a blast! And rarely a dull moment.

I covered Kevin Johnson and Jason Kidd, Joe Kapp and Jared Goff.

I wrote the game story for the Big Game for the first time in 1982, and you all know what happened in that one. I watched grown men cry when the Bears ended their 52-game losing streak to UCLA.

I saw Cal knock off two-time national champion Duke to reach the Sweet 16 in 1993 and was there when Mike Montgomery’s 2010 team won the school’s first conference title in 50 years.

I had the joy of getting to know two late, great Cal men — Pete Newell and Bruce Snyder.

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Cal football: Linebacker Hardy Nickerson to transfer to Illinois to play for his father

Cal’s football team lost a key defensive player Thursday when senior linebacker Hardy Nickerson announced he will graduate this summer and transfer to Illinois to play for his father, the Illini’s new defensive coordinator.

Nickerson, who led the team in tackles last season, said the decision to leave was tough but he could not pass up the chance to play for his father, Hardy Nickerson Sr., a former star at Cal who later played in the NFL.

“After much thought and numerous discussions with my parents, I have decided to graduate from Cal and pursue a post-graduate degree at the University of Illinois in the fall,” Nickerson said. “A most unique opportunity presented itself when my father joined the Illinois football staff as their new defensive coordinator just last month.

“This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to play my final year of college football for my father and head coach Lovie Smith, and it is an opportunity that I simply cannot pass up.”

Cal coach Sonny Dykes called Nickerson’s situation “a unique opportunity” and was understanding of his decision.

“The Nickerson family is extremely tight-knit and this is something that is only happening because of their tremendous family relationship,” he said. “We hate to lose Hardy for next season but wish him, his father and their entire family the best.”

Nickerson played in 35 games with 27 starts during his final three seasons at Cal from 2013-15 after redshirting as a true freshman in 2012. He finished with 246 tackles, nine tackles for loss, two sacks and one interception.

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Cal football: Sonny Dykes discusses NFL draft prospects of Golden Bears

Cal coach Sonny Dykes met with beat reporters Wednesday to talk about the program’s impressive APR scores and took the time to provide analyses on Bears with an opportunity to be taken in the April 28-30 NFL draft.

Dykes is looking forward to attending his first draft, joining Jared Goff in Chicago where the quarterback seems likely to be selected first or second overall.

Here’s what Dykes had to say (with the mock draft projection of CBS Sports in parenthesis):

On QB Jared Goff (1st overall to the L.A. Rams): “Obviously, Jared’s been talked about and pulled apart and examined in a million different ways. I’ve always believed that at the end of the day the most important thing on your resume is your work experience. How you performed with your previous employer . . . not necessarily a lot of the other stuff that seems to come up in the NFL draft.

“The good thing about Jared is he’s been steady through the whole (pre-draft process). That’s why if I was a general manager in the NFL he would appeal to me because he’s done that for three years. His resume is impressive and I’m not talking about the numbers. I’m talking about his approach and his work ethic. You know exactly what you’re getting with him.

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Cal football: Bears make huge leap in latest Academic Progress Rate scores

Three years after he inherited a Cal football program with its academic reputation in shambles, coach Sonny Dykes’ team has earned its best Academic Progress Rate four-year average score since 2008-09.

The Bears scored 997 of a maximum 1,000 points on the APR scale for the 2014-15 academic year, raising their four-year average to 960, according to figures released by the NCAA on Wednesday.

Cal ranked last in the Pac-12 the past three years, but its four-year average now is tied for eighth in the conference. The 19-point jump from 941 last year was the best in the conference.

The Bears’ 997 score for 2014-15 ties for the highest in the Pac-12, and is the second-best in program history. Cal football had sub-930 scores in consecutive seasons before Dykes’ hiring.

“The issue we were dealing with early was we had some (academic) numbers that weren’t very good,” Dykes said. “A lot of these kids came to Cal with a leap of faith. They’re the guys that did it.

“To go from one of the worst to one of the best just shows what kind of hard work and effort and character these guys have.”

The NCAA uses APR to track eligibility, retention and graduation, providing a gauge for each team’s academic performance.

The Cal men’s basketball team was among a school-record 13 sports that posted scores of 1,000. The perfect score came in coach Cuonzo Martin’s first season of 2014-15 and boosted the program’s four-year average to 960, matching the football team’s score over the same span.

Cal athletic director Mike Williams was pleased by the progress of the Bears’ two most high-profile programs.

“Under Sonny Dykes, our football program’s trajectory remains on an upward path, and the first-year results for our men’s basketball team under Cuonzo Martin couldn’t be any better,” he said in a statement.

The Cal women’s basketball program scored 949 for 2014-15 and its four-year average of 973 represents a 13-point improvement from last year and ranks ninth in the Pac-12.

The Cal men’s tennis program scored 1,000 for the seventh straight season and the women’s tennis team has posted a perfect mark six years in a row.

Other Cal programs that scored 1,000 were women’s volleyball, men’s and women’s cross country, women’s golf, men’s gymnastics, women’s lacrosse, men’s soccer, men’s swimming & diving, and men’s and women’s water polo.

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Cal football notebook: Freshman receiver Melquise Stovall sparkles in spring scrimmage

Offense ruled the day at Cal’s spring football scrimmage, but no one sparkled more than freshman receiver Melquise Stovall.

“Just get the ball in his hands and you see some special stuff,” said quarterback Ross Bowers, who delivered one of the two touchdown passes Stovall caught under sunny skies Saturday with a crowd of perhaps 1,800 watching at Memorial Stadium.

Quarterback Zach Kline, who also threw a TD to Stovall, was equally enthusiastic.

“That guy is going to be special,” Kline said. “And he’s going to get better, too. That’s scary.”

Cal’s top-rated recruit, Stovall graduated at midyear from Paraclete High in Lancaster and was on campus in time for spring ball. And he made the most of it.

He caught seven passes for 128 yards and two TDs in the 110-play scrimmage, helping the Blue team to a 38-37 victory. A 5-foot-9, 190-pound inside receiver, Stovall showed strength and elusiveness.

“My mentality is no one can stop me,” Stovall.

“He’s a very electric, explosive guy. Very hard to tackle,” Cal coach Sonny Dykes said. “He gives us a different dimension. We’ve had a lot of good receivers around here, but Melquise gives us something a little different.

“You can throw a slant and it turns into a 70-yard touchdown. You throw a screen and you have a 40- or 50-yard gain.”

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Cal football: Saturday spring game will actually be a game

For the first time since 2012, Cal football’s spring game will be a game.

The Bears will wrap up spring practice Saturday at 11 a.m. at Memorial Stadium with a game featuring teams drafted by the players this week.

A year ago, still battling depth and injury issues, the Bears held what they called the Cal Spring Football Experience. No one was quite sure what they were watching, but it sure wasn’t a football game.

Said quarterback Jared Goff at the time, “It wasn’t practice, it wasn’t a game, it was a little weird.”

This year, coach Sonny Dykes said, “We’re going to play a football game.”

Each team will feature an offense and a defense. Teams will get a predetermined number of offensive possessions; there will be no game clock. Field goals will be live action; otherwise, there will be little in the way of special teams play.

Dykes said the time is right to make the spring game something fans will recognize.

“It just means we’ve got more depth. It means we’ve got more quality players through the roster,” he said. “We’ve been trying to cover holes in the past, and now we’ve got enough guys to roll the ball out, go play and compete, and see what happens.”

The Blue team was drafted by and will be captained by three seniors, offensive tackle Steven Moore, linebacker Hardy Nickerson and defensive back Cameron Walker. Key players include quarterbacks Ross Bowers and Zach Kline, running backs Khalfani Muhammad and Billy McCrary III, and receivers Jordan Duncan, Raymond Hudson, Melquise Stovall and Patrick Worstell.

The Gold team was selected by three juniors, running back Vic Enwere, wide receiver Chad Hansen and defensive tackle James Looney.Their squad features quarterbacks Chase Forrest and Max Gilliam, running back Tre Watson, and receivers Greyson Bankhead, Carlos Strickland, Jordan Veasy and Vic Wharton III.

The first 2,000 fans will receive Cal football commemorative posters and the first 500 will be given mini-footballs. The Pac-12 Networks will telecast the event.

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Cal football: Family of the late Ted Agu to receive $4.75 million settlement

Higher education writer Katy Murphy’s story on Cal agreeing to pay out $4.75 million to the family of Ted Agu:

UC Berkeley will pay a $4.75 million settlement to the family of Ted Agu, a football player with a blood disorder who died during a grueling drill in early 2014, the university said Thursday.

As part of the settlement, reached April 8, the university will “continue implementing changes to further protect its student-athletes, including those who have sickle cell trait,” the campus administration said in a statement.

“The university is glad to have reached a resolution with the Agu family, as it has been a difficult process for everyone involved,” said Dan Mogulof, a UC Berkeley spokesman. “Now UC Berkeley can continue to focus its energies on enhancing the safety and well-being of student-athletes.”

Click here to read the full story.

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Cal football: Chase Forrest, Ross Bowers in front of QB race; Luke Rubenzer back on defense

With the end of spring workouts just five days off, the quarterback picture at Cal is coming into better focus.

And it’s not.

Coach Sonny Dykes acknowledged after Monday’s workout that redshirt sophomore Chase Forrest and redshirt freshman Ross Bowers have moved ahead of the crowd and are getting the most practice reps.

At the same time, junior Luke Rubenzer has asked to move back to safety after spending all of spring so far at quarterback. Rubenzer played QB as a freshman in 2014, then switched to defense last fall when it was clear he would not get much opportunity behind starter Jared Goff.

“Same deal, he just wants to help the team and feels like he has a better chance to do it there than he did at quarterback,” Dykes said.

There is at least one additional open spot at safety right now after senior Damariay Drew injured his knee last week. Drew is expected to undergo surgery in two weeks or so, although Dykes has not provided details on the nature of the injury.

Meanwhile, true freshman quarterback Max Gilliam is making sure neither Forrest nor Bowers gets too comfortable as the frontrunners.

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Cal football: Depth at safety to be tested if Damariay Drew’s knee injury is serious

Cal’s potential defensive renaissance took a hit this week when senior safety Damariay Drew suffered a knee injury that will require surgery and leaves his status for the fall season unclear.

Coach Sonny Dykes said Drew would have surgery within a week or two. He did not speculate on the nature or severity of the injury or Drew’s prognosis going forward.

The injury occurred during Wednesday’s spring practice.

The Bears expect their defense to be stronger this season, partly thanks for improved depth. That could be tested if Drew — one of the team’s hardest hitters and most experienced defenders — is sidelined. Senior Khari Vanderbilt was listed as Drew’s No. 2 on a spring depth chart released this week and sophomore Evan Rambo has performed well enough that he is penciled in as the other starting safety.

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Cal football: Still no separation at quarterback during lengthy spring scrimmage

Three quarterbacks got significant playing time during a 130-play scrimmage Saturday, but the occasion did little to settle who might be the frontrunner for Cal’s starting job.

“Hard to know,” coach Sonny Dykes said. “We’ll go back and look at it.”

Chase Forrest, Ross Bowers and Zach Kline got most of the quarterback reps as the Bears emphasized creating a fast tempo.

“We want to play as fast as we ever have,” Dykes said. “We showed some signs . . . but we’ve got a long way to go.”

“Last year we were pretty fast,” Forrest said, “but this is another level.”

New offensive coordinator Jake Spavital said Luke Rubenzer and Max Gilliam — who got fewer reps Saturday — will get more opportunity later.

He called the quarterbacks’ overall performance “OK,” adding, “I think their thought process is improving.”

Forrest, a redshirt sophomore who was Jared Goff’s backup last season, is perceived to be the frontrunner for the job. But Bowers and Kline aren’t conceding anything.

Bowers, a redshirt freshman, understands the coaching staff is eager to see some separation.

“There has been urgency as soon as Jared Goff declared for the draft,” Bowers said. “As soon as he said those words, all gas, no brakes.”

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