Sunday, August 23, 2009

SF Chronicle: It's better to receive and give Best help

Ron Kroichick

They ran pass patterns in Berkeley, ran The Hill in Pinole, ran along the sand in San Francisco. Cal's wide receivers ran and ran and ran this summer, trying to distance themselves from an underwhelming 2008 season and position themselves for better days ahead in '09.

The sessions at Memorial Stadium usually unfolded in front of 70,000 empty seats. Nyan Boateng, Marvin Jones, Jeremy Ross, Verran Tucker and their colleagues diligently worked on their routes, trying to sharpen timing with quarterbacks Kevin Riley, Brock Mansion and Beau Sweeney. The visits to Pinole meant joining tailback Jahvid Best on his punishing offseason ritual, scaling a steep hill in a quiet residential neighborhood. The trips to Baker Beach involved sprints on the sand, more hill climbing and footwork drills. All the while, the echoes of last season - when Cal's passing game ranked 83rd in the country and the offensive burden fell heavily on Best - rang in the receivers' collective ears.  "We got tired of people saying we weren't good last year," Boateng said. "We just want to shut up the critics. ... We want to be the group that really steps up and does well for the team. I think we're headed in the right direction." As the Bears prepare for their season opener Sept. 5 against Maryland, the wide receivers know they must make strides. Two years ago, the position offered pizzazz and production - DeSean Jackson zooming downfield, Lavelle Hawkins crossing the middle, Robert Jordan doing his thing.

Hawkins (72 catches), Jackson (65) and Jordan (47) each posed a serious threat in 2007. Last year, no Cal receiver caught more than 29 passes (Boateng), dragging the Bears' output from nearly 242 yards passing per game in '07 to less than 190 in '08. The drop-off was not entirely surprising, given the receivers' lack of experience and the revolving door at quarterback with Riley and Nate Longshore. Still, as a group, the wideouts struck little fear into defensive coordinators throughout the Pac-10. "It was a big struggle for us last year," Ross said. "Jahvid kind of carried this team and it got rough - one man can't carry a team. It was up to us to step it up and we didn't really do the best out there.  "I think we can be way more effective this year; we have way more experience. We can take the load off Jahvid and be a threat, so the defense has something else to think about." Ross is pushing for playing time after starting four of the final five games last season. Boateng and Jones still are on track as the probable starters in the opener, giving the Bears two sizable targets.

Boateng, a senior who began his college career at Florida, is physically imposing at 6-foot-2 and 211 sculpted pounds, while Jones, a sophomore, offers speed and a more slender 190 pounds on his 6-2 frame. He also presents one compelling reason to expect more out of Cal's receivers this season. Jones caught only one pass as a true freshman, when his season was curtailed by a lingering knee injury. But he came back to have a strong spring, and he has stood out in training camp by snagging virtually all passes tossed his way. Coach Jeff Tedford noticed, as did Riley. Most encouraging to the quarterback is the way Jones plucks wayward throws out of the air - not every pass must hit him squarely in the chest to become a completion. "Everything you throw, Marvin catches it - high passes, low passes, whatever," Riley said. Said Jones: "If we need that catch, just throw it up and I'll get it. I'm not picky at all. If the quarterback throws the ball and it's in my area, I've got to get it, no excuses." Cal could still use contributions from Ross and Tucker, probably the best deep threat (team-high 17.2 yards per catch last season). Sophomore Michael Calvin might grapple for playing time, too, though he had arthroscopic knee surgery last week and will miss 2-3 weeks.

However the puzzle sorts itself out, the Bears clearly need their receivers to divert defensive attention from Best.  "We have the most explosive player in the country right now (Best), so obviously the run game is going to be there," Jones said. "We really need the passing game to click. It's important to get it going."

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