By Jon Wilner
What a difference a bay makes. On a chilly night early last week, Stanford Coach Jim Harbaugh could barely contain his excitement over the performance of freshman quarterback Andrew Luck, who tossed five touchdown passes in the Spring Game. Five days later, on a warm Saturday afternoon, Cal Coach Jeff Tedford gave a matter-of-fact review of quarterbacks Kevin Riley, Brock Mansion and Beau Sweeney following the last of the Bears' spring workouts. "I was really encouraged with their attitude and work ethic," was as complimentary as Tedford got. But guess what: None of it matters — and it wouldn't have mattered if Harbaugh had been slightly subdued and Tedford approaching giddy. If we have learned anything about spring practice on either side of the bay, it's that April impressions don't necessarily translate to October efficiency. (The same goes for San Jose State, which wraps up its spring session this weekend.)
A year ago, both Harbaugh and Tedford broke spring workouts encouraged about their options at quarterbacks. Less than one month into the '08 season, Tedford had benched his starter and Harbaugh was on the verge of doing the same. So until further notice, Cal and Stanford are in the same position they were six months ago: desperate for efficient quarterback play, hopeful that it will surface, braced for the possibility that it won't. The bar isn't particularly high for either team. The Cardinal doesn't need Luck to be Trent Edwards, and the Bears don't need Riley to be Aaron Rodgers. They simply need the starter to complete 60 percent of his passes, limit mistakes (especially in the fourth quarter and in the red zone) and make sound decisions. And if that happens, both programs can reach their respective goals: Stanford can make its first bowl appearance in eight years and Cal can make its first Rose Bowl appearance in 51 years. Because in Berkeley and on the Farm, the other pieces are in place.
Both teams have veteran offensive lines, depth along the defensive front, playmakers at the skill positions and favorable schedules: Stanford plays seven home games, and Cal gets USC in Berkeley. "Everyone believes we can be Pac-10 champs," Riley said after Saturday's controlled scrimmage. "We have the running game. We just have to work on the passing game." Technically, neither Tedford nor Harbaugh named a starter last week. But their reluctance was not created equal. Harbaugh went hypothetical: "If we had a game tomorrow, Andrew would be our starter" over senior Tavita Pritchard, who has thrown 449 more career passes than Luck (449 to 0) but has limited ability. Tedford conceded nothing: The post-spring depth chart (Riley, followed by Mansion and then Sweeney) is based solely on experience. "Once we get to camp, we'll see if one of them can separate," he said.
The guess here is that Harbaugh names Luck the starter in the second week of training camp. The son of former NFL quarterback Oliver Luck, he is less mobile but far more talented than Pritchard — his big arm will open up the playbook and create opportunities downfield that the Cardinal hasn't had in years. At the same time, don't expect Tedford to name his starter until deep into camp. He probably will split the reps equally for a few days, eliminate one of the three (probably Sweeney), then let Mansion and Riley go head-to-head for two weeks. Given his history, Tedford could wait until the Monday before the season opener against Maryland to name his starter (probably Riley). At that point, spring practice will be long forgotten and all that matter — on both sides of the Bay — are those 12 precious Saturdays.