Cal hopes depth can overcome inexperience at key positions
By Dave Newhouse, STAFF WRITER
BERKELEY — Cal is a citadel of learning, but it doesn't take a Nobel Prize winner or a Rhodes scholar to calculate the strength of the school's football team.
It's when Cal's offensive line gets down in a three-point stance and fires out, creating holes for explosive tailback Marshawn Lynch to inflict damage upon challenged, and possibly skittish, defenses.
If Cal's ball carriers amass 40 to 50 carries a game, the Golden Bears will be difficult to beat, and another top-20 ranking looms.
But Lynch and those behemoths fronting him can't do it by themselves. Coach Jeff Tedford is rebuilding after last year's 10-2 record and No.9 ranking. Therefore, certain aspects of his team have to meld — quickly.
Tedford didn't schedule Sacramento State on Saturday because he wanted an opening-game romp. Or because an old buddy is coaching the Division I-AA Hornets. Tedford took this game because he needs to find out what he's got.
He has accumulated some of Cal's deepest gridiron talent ever, and possibly the Bears' fastest team in history. The Tedford 2005 is a slick-looking automobile — now let's observe how it runs.
There are five keys to Cal's season beyond the obvious, the running game. Even future Nobelists in the school's chem labs recognize these five keys as the final pieces to Cal's progress in the BCS bowl picture.
Five easy pieces? We shall see.
1.Inexperience. Thirteen starters from 2004 are gone, eight on defense. Thus Old Blues can get only so excited about talented redshirts and promising newcomers. Cal has high hopes once again, but there's no telling how well these untested Division I-A players will perform until theyexperience game action. The quarterback is a first-time starter, and so are his wide receivers. The tight end has made one start.
There are three new starters on the defensive line (although Tosh Lupoi started in 2003 before sitting out last year). Two of the three starting linebackers are new, and the secondary, while experienced, is being shuffled around to replace two departing safeties.
Even many of Cal's backups have yet to take the field as Golden Bears. Tedford is banking on those baby steps not lasting too many Saturdays.
2.Quarterback. Replacing Aaron Rodgers is vitally important, because besides being NFL worthy, Rodgers grasped Tedford's complex offense better than any of the coach's previous quarterbacks. Nate Longshore and Joe Ayoob both are unfamiliar with Pac-10
competition, and no amount of preparation can replace what will happen in live action.
Longshore has first shot at No.1, but how will he react to pass rushes and blitzes? He has the arm and improved footwork, but Tedford prefers a mobile quarterback. Ayoob is that, but will his passes hit their mark? He is the better athlete of the two, and Tedford's fastest quarterback to date, but he must show poise because Cal needs a defined leader at quarterback. Ayoob is better long-suited for that role, but how long until he grows into it?
3.Catching the ball. Cal's receivers can flat-out fly. They have moves, though not the size of last year's wideouts. Now it becomes a question of hands. Freshman DeSean Jackson became the team's best receiver the moment he put on his uniform. He can do it all, including catch the ball.
The other receivers — David Gray, Sam DeSa, Lavelle Hawkins — have dropped the ball in practice in between making spectacular catches. If you can't hold onto the pass, drives die and so do opportunities to win the game.
4.Secondary. Tedford has said over and over how much he likes his secondary. But Cal was burned for 300 yards passing in three of its last four games in 2004, including 520 against Texas Tech in the Holiday Bowl. Opponents finally figured out Cal's defensive weakness.
This year's secondary is more pass-oriented, but it's a reworked group with players either learning new roles or rejoining the fold in one piece (Donnie McCleskey). Washington was the first team to throw for 300 against Cal last year, and the Bears travel to Seattle next week.
5.Kicking game. One low punt snap and a muffed punt return hurt Cal deeply at USC last October. Otherwise, Cal would have played in the Rose Bowl, Mack Brown or no Mack Brown.
The Bears need more consistency from kicker Tom Schneider (9 of 16 field goals in 2004), and improved length from punter David Lonie (40.0 average last year). Lonie is also the new kickoff man, and will that different technique affect his punting? Cal also needs a gamebreaker on returns, a Reggie Bush North.