By Bob Condotta
California coach Jeff Tedford has a ready-made answer for the constant questions about his team's opener against Tennessee. "It's not about revenge but about redemption," he said. Indeed, while Cal went 10-3 in 2006 and won the Holiday Bowl — a season that pre-Tedford would have generated the kind of excitement usually reserved for tree-sitters — many Bears fans could never get past the opening loss to Tennessee. The Bears entered last season harboring national-title hopes and saw them fade before the first half of the opener against the Volunteers, a game Cal eventually lost 35-18. Now Tennessee has to come to Berkeley for a game that ranks as one of the most-anticipated season openers in school history. And if the Bears can get past it, they think those national-title hopes could be revived. Or at least one Bear does, anyway, receiver DeSean Jackson, who declared on national TV after the Holiday Bowl win over Texas A&M that the Bears would this year be playing in the BCS title game. Reminded of those comments this summer, Jackson said, "I definitely stand by them." Offensively, the Bears might just have the ingredients to make that type of run. Quarterback Nate Longshore, a group of receivers led by Jackson that is one of the best in the nation and a line led by center Alex Mack all return.
Like almost the entire team, Longshore was a disaster in that opener at Tennessee — it was the second start of his career — which tended to obscure the fact that he threw for 24 touchdowns and the second-highest yardage total in Cal history (3,021). "Nate has experience now," Tedford said. "Starting out last year against Tennessee is about as tough a beginning as you are going to get. I feel like he's very, very comfortable with the offense now." It doesn't hurt to be able to throw to receivers such as Jackson, who is rated by some as the best at his position and for whom California has already set up a Heisman Trophy campaign, including a Web site. Jackson has the brashness part down, telling reporters at Pac-10 media day that Cal's young secondary will be just fine because "going up against the best receiver corps in the nation [in practice] has been good for us to get them ready for the season." And while the Bears do have to replace running back Marshawn Lynch, they return Justin Forsett, who has rushed for more than 1,600 yards in his career, averaging 6.4-yards per carry. Backing him up is highly-touted redshirt frosh James Montgomery, who had committed to Washington for about six months in 2005 before changing his mind at the last minute and staying close to home.
Tedford is calling his own plays again this season after offensive coordinator Mike Dunbar left to take the same position at Minnesota. Tedford promoted line coach Jim Michalczik, who played at Washington State, but decided to retake the play-calling duties. The defense is a little iffier. The Bears lost their three best defensive players — DT Brandon Mebane, now with the Seahawks, LB Desmond Bishop, who led the conference in tackles, and cornerback Daymeion Hughes, the Pac-10's defensive player of the year. Even with those three, the Bears sometimes gave up a lot of yards, ranking eighth in the Pac-10 in total defense, though they usually stiffened when it counted to rank second in points allowed. The linebackers look like a strength, with players such as middle linebacker Worrell Williams and weakside linebacker Anthony Felder, a junior from O'Dea. Of particular concern is the secondary, which was often blistered — Tennessee threw for four TDs in taking a 35-0 lead — even with Hughes basically shutting down one side. The Bears allowed 3,131 passing yards last season, the most in the Pac-10. "I'm sure going into this year we will do some things to help our secondary," Tedford said. "We left our corners on an island a little last year, so we will approach it differently and give them some help on the outside, especially early in the year until they get some experience."