By Rusty Simmons
It didn't matter what question was asked. Cal sophomore Kevin Riley had checked off goal No. 1 - winning the starting quarterback job - so his next matter of attention had taken hold of his lone focal point. "Um, get ready for Michigan State," Riley said Thursday. The question asked was aiming for Riley's emotions on beating out senior incumbent Nate Longshore. Never mind that Riley's response had nothing to do with the question; his answer gave an exact glimpse of his makeup. When Cal coach Jeff Tedford opened the quarterback competition during the offseason, Riley was "here to win the job," and Longshore was "here to do what's best for the team." Riley felt he had to play like "it's my job," and Longshore felt he had to play "the way I always have." Turns out, they both followed through.
Longshore, who is fourth all-time at Cal in passing efficiency, sixth in touchdowns and seventh in yardage, was consistent throughout training camp. Riley, who displayed the same confidence in losing to Oregon State and in overcoming a 21-point deficit to Air Force, was special. The most inspired portions of training camp have been red-zone drills. The most inspired play of training camp was Riley's in a red-zone drill. During a practice on Aug. 17, Riley was pressured out of the pocket. He avoided two tacklers before he turned and a fired a strike through traffic for a touchdown to tight end Anthony Miller. The play drew hoots and hollers from teammates. Even two on-looking defensive players exchanged a leaping high-five. "I think if a play breaks down, I have the ability to make a play with my feet," Riley said. "When I say 'playmaking,' it's not like I'm going to go out of my way to scramble around and try to make plays, but if something happens, I'm going to make something happen."
That might be the ultimate contrasting attribute between Riley and Longshore, but even in the quote, you can see another difference. Riley used the word "play" four times, and in a 5 1/2-minute interview, he used it 22 times. Football, and seemingly life, is "play" for Riley. Before he knew he would star in the Armed Forces Bowl, Riley was dancing around Fort Worth, Texas, in a cowboy hat. During a grueling conditioning period this week, he was laughing with and hugging linebackers Michael Mohamed and D.J. Holt. On the day he was named starter, Riley sat in a dark stadium with careerlong reserves Michael Costanzo and Garry Graffort and their families. "Our guys want to win, and that's what it's about," Riley said. "They would be behind whoever was going to be the quarterback, and they're giving me support. That's one more thing to keep working for: winning for every teammate." Riley made that comment without ever losing eye contact with the reporter. He stared right past the Band-Aid under his eye, which protects the hole left by a mole removed during the offseason. It wouldn't matter where the Band-Aid was. Riley gives the impression that he'd play anyway. "I just want to play ball," he always says, regardless of what question is asked.