By Jay Heater
CONTRA COSTA TIMES
BERKELEY - Joe Ayoob, the next great Cal quarterback hope, expertly snapped off his three-step drop, quickly surveyed the field, then launched a missile over the middle during a spring scrimmage.
It looked quite proficient except for the very end of the play, where the ball skipped down the Memorial Stadium field, bouncing its way toward the goal line without a wide receiver in sight.
Ayoob, a City College of San Francisco transfer, went back to work on the next play, and that toss was errant as well. He threw a zig as his receiver zagged. The next pass was high. The next was low. Perhaps the wide receivers were running the wrong patterns.
"The wide receivers had a good day," Cal coach Jeff Tedford said following the workout. "The patterns were good."
As spring blossomed in Strawberry Canyon, it became apparent that Ayoob, named the No. 2 junior college prospect in the country by SuperPrep, had a lot of work to do. Locked in a battle for the starting job with redshirt freshman Nate Longshore, Ayoob looked like the new kid on campus trying to find the library.
"Some practices, we reinstate everything we have learned since Day One," Tedford said. "Joe has to be responsible for the whole thing and that's tough on him right now.
"So he makes some misreads and gets crossed up. You see his talent flash from time to time, then he throws the ball to the other side. I know it's got to be tough on him. He had so much success at San Francisco City College, then he comes here and struggles. It's enough to make anyone a little discouraged."
But Ayoob isn't just anyone, and his confidence has served him well at a time when his head is swimming.
"I had an idea that this was going to be hard, but I didn't think it would be this hard," Ayoob said. "I have to come up to the line of scrimmage and read my wide receiver's body language, and I've never had to do that before. So I'm sure that (quarterbacks coach) George Cortez is going to have a lot of time slots open for me.
"But I'm also very comfortable with what I can do. This is football, and I'm enjoying it a lot."
Longshore, who was a Parade All-American out of Canyon High School-Canyon Country, also seems to be enjoying his good fortune. Stiff and openly unsure of himself as a freshman, Longshore seems at ease now. He doesn't think about the fact that Tedford recruited another junior college quarterback who is expected to be the second coming of Aaron Rodgers.
"We're so far away from an actual game that it really doesn't matter," Longshore said. "And there is so much to be done. I just want to improve my skills as much as I can."
While Ayoob has been erratic throwing the ball, Longshore has been on target.
"I like to concentrate on things I know, and I've always been able to throw the ball," Longshore said. "But in this offense, throwing the ball is the easiest part of the job."
Longshore said he knows what Ayoob is experiencing. As a true freshman, Longshore felt lost at times.
"I never thought football was so complicated," Longshore said. "It blew my mind. But once you've been around it, you start to understand the concepts."
Tedford has been pleasantly surprised by Longshore's improvement.
"Nate is doing a real good job," Tedford said. "He has been very sharp throwing the ball and his experience shows. He has done a good job getting used to his receivers and understanding the pocket."
Even so, Tedford isn't tipping his hand if he has a preference between the two.
"The competition doesn't start until the first day of fall camp," Tedford said. "And I probably won't announce a decision until game week."
Those at Saturday's spring game at Memorial Stadium can understand why Tedford isn't jumping to any conclusions. While Ayoob struggled at times earlier in the spring, he has a swagger and the ability to make big plays. His first pass in the spring game was a 70-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Noah Smith. He also completed a 49-yard pass to tight end Eric Beegun.
Longshore also looked sharp during the scrimmage, but his main duty was handing the ball to Marshawn Lynch. Longshore's footwork might determine his fate. Tedford said he knows that Longshore can handle the throws, but his mobility has to improve.
"A lot of that comes down to strength," Longshore said. "I have been doing a lot of foot ladder drills and jumping rope. I practice the repetitions over and over. It's been a slow process, but it feels more natural now."