By Ron Kroichick
The start of Jeff Tedford's eighth season as Cal's football coach carries a curious soundtrack: the hum and pounding of construction work on the school's long-sought athletic-training center, right outside the window to Tedford's office on the west side of Memorial Stadium. If that project bodes well for the future - and Tedford is counting on it - then the present hinges on a more fundamental football matter: Who's the quarterback? That's the omnipresent question for Tedford as his Bears begin training camp this week in Berkeley. Cal went 9-4 last season and won the Emerald Bowl despite season-long uncertainty at quarterback, where Tedford bounced between Nate Longshore and Kevin Riley. Longshore has departed, leaving Riley to compete with Brock Mansion and Beau Sweeney for the starting job.
As this subplot swirls, the Bears begin preparing for their Sept. 5 season opener against Maryland. They will hit the practice field Friday with one of the nation's most dynamic running backs in Jahvid Best, a solid defense and the annual challenge of trying to unseat mighty USC. Tedford recently sat down with The Chronicle to talk about his program, his play calling, his quarterbacks and Cal's perpetual quest to reach the Rose Bowl.
Q: What's your sense of the personality of this year's team?
A: I like the chemistry. People are working very hard and pushing one another. It's going to be interesting as we get to camp to see who's really emerged as leaders through the summer program.
Q: How is it different from past teams you've had here?
A: I think there's probably a little bit more team feeling - everyone is focused on our team goals, for the most part. That's always important. I think the players respect one another, because they've all invested the same amount of time through the summer and given the same commitment. That goes a long way in earning each other's trust.
Q: Will you call plays this season, or will (new offensive coordinator) Andy Ludwig?
A: We both will. He'll call the majority of them and I'll make suggestions here and there.
Q: Is that how it's worked in recent years?
A: That's how it worked last year. My first three years, I think I called them all - until we hired (Mike) Dunbar, then we went back and forth. I would call maybe 20 percent of the plays in a game. Last year, it was probably about the same. We'll see how it goes this year.
Q: Has that been a challenge? I know you love Xs and Os, but you obviously deal with so many other things as a head coach.
A: I'm still 100 percent involved in the game plan. But I feel like I have to have more on my mind, so my play calling is really situational - when we get to a certain yard line or something. ... In between series, I might want to talk to the official or pay attention to the defense. I always want to be conscious of what's going on in the game with penalties or injuries.
Q: I can't go too far without asking about the quarterbacks. How does that position look going into camp?
A: I think it looks great. Kevin obviously has more experience than the others, and I think he's worked hard on his fundamentals. We'll see how his experience and knowledge transitions this year. Brock and Beau are gifted - they're athletic, smart, competitive guys. I feel like we have some nice depth, and that's going to create some competition, and competition is always good to bring out the best in people.
Q: So you're starting camp thinking it's wide open among those three?
A: Yeah. Kevin will take the first snap, but it's going to be who performs the best. Nobody has a lock on the position, by any means. It's about who's going to perform, who's able to run the team and put us in a position offensively to be successful.
Q: Do you second-guess yourself at all for going back and forth last year?
A: No, I don't. The idea is to have a consistent guy who gives you the best chance to win. I will admit consistency was a problem last season. I would have loved for someone to take over the reins and be consistent, but it didn't happen. We had a guy in Nate who won a lot of games for us here. It wasn't like he was an unproven guy. But I don't look back on last year and regret having two guys play. You're always looking for the guy to run the offense. I understand there are going to be mistakes made. Everyone needs to understand that about the quarterback position - no one is going to be perfect. There are going to be interceptions thrown from time to time. Once you start alternating quarterbacks, people are so quick to form opinions and choose sides. That's the hard part about the fan relationship with the position. You'd like to not have any emotion involved; it's about who's producing. But as soon as one guy throws an interception, you hear, "Oh, put the other guy in."
Q: How would you assess Kevin's play last season and how does he look going into this season?
A: The thing with Kevin is, he shows signs of brilliance. He does great things from time to time. But it's just the consistency you need to have at that position. Last year, the consistency wasn't there. Some of it had to do with mechanics, which he's worked on in the offseason. I think he's done a really nice job. He ended spring really sharp, and his summer workouts have been good, from what I understand. Those experiences he had last year are going to create more confidence for him as he moves forward.
Q: You've said all three quarterbacks are fairly mobile?
A: There's no quarterback there who can't run. They can all adequately run - I'm not saying great, I'm saying adequately. They can pull it down for 10 to 15 yards.
Q: Hasn't that become such a big part of the game, being able to elude the rush and keep the play alive?
A: Exactly. ... It's nice to know you can do that. Each one of them would like to run the ball. That would be one of their options: OK, I can do this and go. Nate would be the other way, he would stand in the pocket and stay there, stay there, stay there until the cows came home just because he wasn't confident in his running ability. These guys are all confident in their running ability.
Q: What about Jahvid - how significant is it that he's added some weight?
A: I think with the pounding you take as a Pac-10 tailback, if you're going to carry the ball upward of 20-25 times a game, you need to have some bulk to handle that. I think Jahvid has done that. He's put together really well. His work ethic is great. He's gained weight and he's healthy - where last year he was banged up and maybe not as strong as he is now.
Q: How will you use him this year? Will he still return kickoffs?
A: He'll return kicks and pretty much do it all. We're not saving him for anything, but we don't want to run him into the ground, either. We feel fortunate we have quality people around him. Shane (Vereen) is right there. They complement one another. Both are game-breaking-type backs. They can take it and go the distance at any time.
Q: I know you feel good about your linebackers, but is there still some anxiety about replacing Zack Follett, given all the big plays he made?
A: Yeah, he made so many plays - who's going to fill that role? Who's going to step up and make the plays at critical times like Zack did? Is there going to be a guy like Zack, or is it going to be done by committee? We feel like we have talent and depth at linebacker.
Q: What do you think when you hear this construction work every day?
A: It's music to my ears. More than anything, it alleviates the issue of credibility. For so long, we recruited to something that was going to happen. You feel bad when you recruit an Alex Mack (former Cal center), promise something is going to get done and then his career's over and he never got to enjoy any of it. He lets me know about it from time to time, too. But now there's concrete evidence this is happening.
Q: Did you have doubts it would ever really happen?
A: Yeah, I did. I think everyone always had the right intentions, but it just seemed like there were so many things out of our control that kept popping up. It was almost like, "OK, what can happen next?" So to see this actually happening now is great for the program - not just the football team but all the student-athletes who are going to take part in the new facility.
Q: How does it affect your future and your interest in staying at Cal long term?
A: There have been many opportunities to go other places, both professionally and in college. And I've always made the decision to stay here - for the quality of life, for the investment we've made here as a coaching staff. Early in my career here, people would say, "Cal's really going to grow on you." And it really has. I have a great deal of respect for this place. My family enjoys it here. We've worked very hard to make a positive impact on this program. And once you do that, it builds the investment and passion and loyalty to a place, because you have worked so hard to get it where it is. That said, we still have a lot of work to do. The national championship is still out there. The Rose Bowl is still out there. We're still working hard every day to attain those goals.
Q: As much success as you've had here, do you appreciate the magnitude of the Rose Bowl and what it would mean if you take Cal there?
A: I hear it all the time: "Can you please get us to the Rose Bowl before we die?" I keep joking, "We're keeping a lot of people alive," because they say that all the time. We've been so close a couple of times. And the passion I feel from the people here to get to the Rose Bowl ... for the Cal faithful, it would just be the most unbelievable thing. I see how passionate people are about that. They're starved for it.
Q: Why do you think the Rose Bowl holds such a mesmerizing grip on Cal fans?
A: I just think that's been the carrot dangling for so long. I run into older people all the time who say, "Yeah, I didn't go to that one in 1959 because I thought, 'I'll go next year.' " (Laughs) Oops.
Who's the QB?
"Kevin will take the first snap, but it's going to be who performs the best. Nobody has a lock on the position, by any means."
Jeff Tedford, Cal head coach
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