Kevin Riley's evolution as a quarterback at Cal has included many lessons over the past two seasons.
As a redshirt freshman in 2007, he learned the cost of not throwing the ball away with the clock running down and your team out of timeouts (squandering a chance to reach No. 1 in the polls). Later that season, he learned the value of impressively orchestrating a bowl victory (loosening Nate Longshore's grip on the starting spot).
Then, as a sophomore last year, Riley learned the hazards of sharing the job with a more established teammate. He and Longshore, a senior, divided time at quarterback, an awkward tap-dance in ways stretching beyond Riley's uneven performance. Now, on the brink of his first season as the undisputed starter - kicking off Saturday night against Maryland - Riley acknowledged he was hesitant to become a full-fledged leader in 2008. He took charge at times, but he also didn't want to "butt heads" with Longshore, whom he liked and respected. "Kevin was one of our starting quarterbacks last year, not the starting quarterback," said backup tight end Garry Graffort, one of Riley's roommates. "This summer, he had a chance to take the spot. So he kind of put it upon himself to be the one voice for our team."
That one voice began rising in the spring and kept getting louder through summer workouts and into training camp. Graffort noticed it in the weight room, where Riley openly pushed his teammates. Tailback Jahvid Best noticed it in the huddle, where Riley showed more poise and command. Finally, on Aug. 24, coach Jeff Tedford officially named Riley Cal's starter. Sophomore Brock Mansion is the backup, but he's not hovering on the sideline toting a resume flowing with major-college success, a la Longshore.
So the job falls solely to Riley, who can tantalize with his mobility and accuracy. He also can exasperate with his inefficiency (50.7 completion percentage last season), a problem he traced to mechanical flaws that he and Tedford addressed in offseason film sessions. Now comes the true test, because Cal's hopes of contending for the Pac-10 title rest squarely on Riley. If he prevents defenses from crowding the line of scrimmage to stop Best and avoids costly mistakes, the Bears could make plenty of noise this season.
Asked how much responsibility he feels, Riley said this week, "Quite a bit. A lot depends on the passing game and what I do and how I control the offense." Earlier in training camp, he talked candidly about his '08 disappointment. Cal went 9-4 and won the Emerald Bowl (with Longshore at quarterback), but Riley was not at all happy with his play.