Verran Tucker spent spring practice sequestered in the Cal coaches' offices, next to a computer, sitting alongside his academic adviser. As his fellow wide receivers ran routes and caught passes in Memorial Stadium, Tucker dived into his studies in a feverish attempt to stay eligible. When training camp began earlier this month, Tucker found himself with the third-team offense. His academic troubles had set him back on the football field, shoving him into the crowded pack of Cal receivers vying for playing time in the 2009 season. Fast forward to Saturday, when coach Jeff Tedford released his season-opening depth chart. Right there, starting at one wide receiver spot: Verran Tucker, No. 86. Tucker, a senior, and sophomore Marvin Jones will start Saturday's opener against Maryland. That counted as surprising news, given Tucker's meandering offseason journey, when he all but vanished from the radar.
"Honestly, I felt like I was kind of forgotten about," Tucker said of the spring. "I felt separated from the guys." He played well enough in camp to surge past Nyan Boateng, who led the Bears last season with 29 catches. The Bears often use three-receiver formations, so Boateng and Jeremy Ross (and possibly one or two others) should collect significant playing time. Even so, Tucker's return to prominence was striking. He caught 21 passes for Cal last season, after transferring from El Camino College. His average of 17.2 yards per catch led the Bears and stamped Tucker as the team's best deep threat. But his promising football future teetered in doubt because of his problems in the classroom. Tucker typically followed those springtime study sessions with drifting outside for conditioning work, to stay in decent shape. One time, he vomited after relentlessly running 110-yard sprints, back and forth across the field. It was a dual and daunting challenge, trying to get on track academically while not falling too far behind in football. "If I was able to make it through what I did this spring and summer, I don't think anything is going to be able to stop us this year," Tucker said. " I've grown a lot as a football player and as a man since I came to this school."
Said Tedford, in explaining why he elevated Tucker: "Speed, great hands; he knows the offense. Last year at this time, Verran had no idea what this offense was. Now he's comfortable and confident in what he's doing." Saturday's depth chart revealed no other grand surprises. Mike Mohamed and Eddie Young will start at outside linebacker, with Mychal Kendricks and D.J. Holt manning the inside spots. Brian Holley earned the fullback job, with Will Kapp as his backup. Giorgio Tavecchio is listed as the placekicker, though Tedford insisted he and the coaches have not officially decided between Tavecchio and David Seawright. Maybe the most significant news Saturday was the sight of No. 4, back at practice and darting through holes with familiar quickness. Jahvid Best missed Thursday's workout, the latest of several absences this month as he struggled to shake lingering pain in his left big toe. Best appeared healthy - and as fast as ever - seven days ahead of the season opener. "It was just something we needed to rest," Tedford said of Best's injury, "so he could be 100 percent. He could have kept aggravating it every day, and that wouldn't have done anyone any good."
Briefly: Wide receiver Michael Calvin is back at practice after arthroscopic knee surgery and will be available against Maryland. ... Backup linebacker Robert Mullins, a promising redshirt freshman, will miss four to six weeks with a sprained knee.