By Jay Heater CONTRA COSTA TIMES
BERKELEY - Cal coach Jeff Tedford had mined junior college gold. His 2003 class of recruits soared from contributors to off-the-charts in 2004.
Aaron Rodgers went from promising quarterback to a guy who is projected as a first-round NFL draft choice. Tailback J.J. Arrington moved from backup to the nation's leading rusher. Defensive end Ryan Riddle improved from just another guy to All-American.
The fast progression was impressive. However, it also gives Cal fans reason to do a little tossing and turning at night. Tedford has once again tapped the junior college ranks to fill key holes on a team that lost a wealth of talent. And this will be that first season when those players are struggling to fit into a new system.
Indeed, it usually takes a year for junior college transfers to adjust and that might be a tough pill to swallow for fans who saw their program move into the Top 10 in 2004.
"At other places I've been, it's usually midway through the second year when that light goes on," Cal defensive coordinator Bob Gregory said about junior college transfers. "Then you only have them for five more games.
"But here at Cal, we've been better for whatever reason."
Gregory and his fellow coaches are working during spring practice at Memorial Stadium to groom incoming quarterback Joe Ayoob, linebacker Desmond Bishop and defensive end Nuu Tafisi, three key additions who must produce immediately if Cal wants to continue its lofty status as Pac-10 title contender.
Ayoob, out of San Francisco City College, was rated as the No. 2 junior college player in the nation by SuperPrep magazine. He is competing against redshirt freshman Nate Longshore for the starting job.
Bishop, another San Francisco City College transfer, was ranked No. 4 in the country by the same publication. He seems a sure bet to be a starter when the 2005 season begins.
Tafisi, out of Mt. San Antonio College, was a first team junior college All American and if early returns are accurate, he will be a major contributor this season.
But junior college honors mean little on the major college level. All three are aware that history has proven that junior college players seldom put together great seasons in the first year of major college ball.
"I've heard about that," Bishop said. "But I am going to try to prove the critics wrong. I don't mean to sound cocky, but I only have two years to prove that I have what it takes to go to the NFL, so I'm going to be ready."
Gregory said his defensive players, Bishop and Tafisi, don't fit into the normal definition of junior college transfer. "Nuu is as far along as any junior college transfer defensive end that we've had," Gregory said. "He's been on a Mormon mission so he is older and more mature. He also is very quick and has a great first step.
"Desmond is a guy who is totally into this thing. He is great playing in the box (from tackle to tackle) and he has very good explosiveness."
However, they are learning new terminology and systems.
"I knew it was going to be complicated," Tafisi said. "You have to learn all the plays and there is just more defense to learn than in junior college. At the JC level, the defensive linemen are more dependent on the linebackers to make the calls. Here, the defensive linemen make their own calls. There are so many plays to learn. Every day there is something new."
Learning a new system is difficult enough, but most of the junior college transfers also find that playing major college football requires a lot of attention to detail. No longer can players simply rely on their natural talent since all their competitors have just as many physical gifts.
"It's been especially hard for me because I had some bad habits," Tafisi said.
Cal defensive line coach Ken Delgado teaches Tafisi all the nuances of the position while encouraging him not to lose his aggressiveness. That can be a problem with junior college recruits who come to the line of scrimmage thinking about all the things they have learned in practice instead of chasing the ball carrier.
"We sit down with the players and we tell them that from Day One, don't be afraid to make a mistake," Gregory said. "Just play hard and fast. Cut it loose and have fun."
But can a player cut it loose when he is trying to figure out what defense to call against an offensive formation? "I've always been the man to call the plays," Bishop said of his previous football experience in high school and junior college. "I think that makes it easier for me. And at San Francisco City College, we have a lot of the same plays, it's just that the terminology is different.
"So I am confident. Some people really like something like math, and they are really good at it. But this is what I do."