By Jason Anderson
BERKELEY - Nine days remained until kickoff for today's game between No. 12 Cal and No. 15 Tennessee, and already there was a white patio chair perched over the east rim of the stadium on Tightwad Hill. A soft breeze blew through Memorial Stadium as Lavelle Hawkins, a senior wide receiver from Edison High, sat in the bleachers on the far side of the field. It was a moment of tranquility in Strawberry Canyon, quiet and peaceful, the calm before the storm. "There's going to be a lot of people here - a lot of people watching us, especially the receivers," Hawkins said, his eyes growing wider and a smile lighting his face. "We've just got to take care of business."
A sellout crowd of more than 72,000 and a national television audience are expected to see the Golden Bears play Tennessee at 5 p.m. today in the day's only matchup of top 25 teams. Tennessee quarterback Erik Ainge will play with a broken pinkie on his throwing hand. LaMarcus Coker, the Volunteers' leading rusher last season, has been reinstated but will not play after serving a suspension for what coach Philip Fulmer called "a medical situation." Hawkins and former St. Mary's standout Tad Smith will help the Bears try to avenge last season's humbling loss in Knoxville, Tenn. The Vols blitzed the Bears for 35 unanswered points in a 35-18 victory before an orange-clad crowd of 106,009 at Neyland Stadium. The outcome dealt a severe blow to Cal's reputation and slowed its ascent to national prominence. The Bears went on to win a share of the Pac-10 title and trounced Texas A&M, 45-10, in the Holiday Bowl. But they've been dogged by questions about Tennessee ever since. "That was just something that happened," said Hawkins, The Record's All-Area Player of the Year in 2003. "No excuses. They just outplayed us that day, and that's why we've worked so hard this spring, summer and fall to clean up all the small things."
Cal coach Jeff Tedford anticipates good things from Hawkins, who had 46 catches, 705 yards and five touchdown receptions last season, ranking second in each category behind Heisman Trophy candidate DeSean Jackson. "Hawkins matured so much, and he's got a great understanding of the offense," Tedford said. "He's a talented guy, and now he has a great deal of comfort with the offense." Hawkins makes up one-third of Cal's receiving corps - regarded by many as the nation's best - and he isn't the only local product who will see significant playing time. Smith, a 6-fooot-6, 250-pound sophomore from Isleton, is an emerging force at defensive end. He sat out his first season at Cal as a redshirt freshman and underwent surgery to repair a torn ACL last season. Smith expects to play today for the first time since St. Mary's beat Nevada Union 50-45 for the Sac-Joaquin Section Division I championship in 2004.
"It's been a long time," Smith said. "I finally get to get out there and do what I've always wanted to do. It's been building up for a while." Despite the injury, a rigorous rehabilitation process and two seasons on the sideline, Smith showed up for summer camp in better shape than the other defensive linemen. "We had a conditioning test, and Tad breezed through it," Cal defensive line coach Ken Delgado said. "He was the top guy, and that was tangible evidence that he outworked a lot of other guys in summer conditioning." The Bears must replace six starters on defense, including their defensive ends. Tedford hopes Smith can help them shore up a front line that will be tested by Tennessee. "It's Tad's turn to step up now," Tedford said. "We lost our defensive ends from last year. Tad's been working really, really hard to gain some size and strength, so it's his time to play, and I'm anxious to see it."