By Rob Calonge
In 2007, the college football world couldn't stop talking about Cal's DeSean Jackson and his highlight reel returns. Going into the season, he was one of the top Heisman candidates and he led what was one of the best receiving groups in the country, arguably THE best group that the Golden Bears have ever assembled.
Along with gritty tight end Craig Stevens and quarterback phenom Nate Longshore, the Cal passing offense, which also included Lavelle Hawkins and Robert Jordan, was expected to be the greatest show on turf, grass, or any surface used at a college stadium in the country. While many times this combination was deadly, to say that they fulfilled expectations would be quite an overstatement. When you stop to think that every starting player in Cal's 2007 passing arsenal is in the pro's except for Longshore, you have to wonder how so much talent could falter enough to let the Bears go 7-6.
Quarterback play had plenty to do with it. That might be why Nate Longshore is now backing up Kevin Riley rather than showing him how it's done this season. It's hard to tell from the outside looking in, but Longshore's play may not have been the only thing lacking towards the end of last season. Despite how good that DeSean Jackson is, there were plenty of times during the season that he disappeared for quarters or even halves of games. Could that be because Longshore didn't have the vision to spot him? Sure, but it's highly unlikely since Jackson was normally the number one option on passing plays.
One problem for sure was the attitude of the receiving corps as a whole. Often, they weren't able to get separation due to poor route running or lackadaisical play. Coach Tedford thinks that he's made major strides in repairing that. "I'm really happy with the team chemistry," he said about this year's team at the conclusion of camp. "The way we worked together, the attitude, the focus, the camaraderie."
It could also be that Longshore continually looked for Jackson rather than find the open man. Many times, Longshore would telegraph where he was going with the ball, giving defenders the edge on stopping his passes. Craig Stevens, now of the Tennessee Titans, was a solid outlet receiver, but too many times he stayed in to block and was normally an afterthought when it came to him being a target. Justin Forsett, now with the Seattle Seahawks, had more passes thrown his way coming out of the backfield than the reliable Stevens. That could be due to game plan or the poor play of the quarterback. Either way, the tight end wasn't used enough.
Too often, when Hawkins had a great day, Jackson only caught a few balls and vice-versa. In only four games last season, both receivers caught five or more balls in the same game. Never did both receivers catch six or more together. Add the fact that in only two games, Jackson, Hawkins, and Jordan all caught at least five passes and you start to piece together why Nate Longshore received so much criticism last year.
Of the 11 games that all three receivers played together in 2007, there were only six games where two or more of the three caught at least five passes. That is not the makings of the greatest show anywhere.
In 2008, The Bears don't have the hype that they came into 2007 with, but they may have a better receiving group as a whole. According to Tedford, there are six or seven guys competing for playing time. The projected top two guys, Michael Calvin and Sean Young, have a combined three NCAA catches thanks to Young and the number three guy, LaReylle Cunningham, who has only ten. Young and Cunningham are Seniors while Calvin is a redshirt Freshman. The fourth man in the rotation is true Freshman Marvin Jones.
So with so little in the way of statistics, how can I say that the Cal receiving group is stronger in 2008? Their depth is much better this year than in the past. Besides, Young, Cunningham, Calvin and Jones, the Bears also have highly touted Sophomore transfer Nyan Boateng, redshirt Freshman Alex Lagemann, true Freshmen Verran Tucker, and Charles Satchell. They could also play roles throughout the season.
If Young can stay healthy and play up to the level of the hype he had coming out of high school, Rivals ranking of 91 of the top California players, then he could be a consistent target for whoever is quarterbacking the offense. Injuries have hurt the sixth year Senior, which is why he's still at Cal playing after the first five. He'll finally get his chance to pay back the program starting this week. Young could also get the opportunity to return kicks if Jahvid Best is held out of those duties.
Cunningham may be the most experienced receiver on Cal's roster. He played in all thirteen games in 2007 on special teams. Along with Young, he will play a vital role in helping the younger players adjust to the speed of Div I football. Calvin won Scout Player of the Year for the offense in 2007 and there are high hopes that he will be one of the next great receivers to have worn the blue and gold. Coming out of high school, Calvin was rated as the 25th best receiver in the nation by Scout.com and the 58th best by Rivals.com. Rivals and Scout both agreed about Freshman Marvin Jones. They both ranked him as the 23rd best receiver in the nation coming out of high school last year and he's already put himself in the mix in his first Bears season. Coach Tedford is pretty high on him and Bears Backers should get a chance to see why when the Bears take on the Spartans this Saturday night.
Besides Young, who measures in at 5'11", the top receivers all are 6'1" or taller making for easy to see targets. With the height and the speed as their biggest strength, Riley should be able to find open men often. Speaking of big men, Cameron Morrah will be starting at the tight end position and taking over for departed pro, Stevens. Morrah caught the third longest touchdown pass last year, a 49 yard reception from Longshore against Arizona. The 6'4" 245 pound Junior is a converted defensive end that has flashed 'pro' calibur qualities. The Bears will be counting on him to uphold a tradition of gritty and talented Cal tight ends.
DeSean Jackson, Lavelle Hawkins, or Robert Jordan might not be part of this group of talented receivers, but these receivers (as a group) are expected to be more talented than the afforementioned pro's. If they are and the Bears can get the type of play from the quarterback position that they've been needing for the past few years, Cal could be a contender for the Pac-10 title and more. At least this year, Tedford will have more options should he need them.
Depth Chart released
It looks like my assesment of the Cal starting lineup was a little premature. Cal has released a depth chart for this week's game updated as of the 25th of August. Darian Hagan has the slight edge over Chris Conte, who I reported would be the starter opposite Syd'Quan Thompson.
Letter to the Fans
If you're planning on attending the game this weekend, or any of the Bears' home games for that matter, you may want to check out Cal's letter to the fans. It's similar to the NFL's code of conduct campaign, but has some important information about parking and the tree sitters too.