Thursday, April 20, 2006

Daily Cal: Battle Heating Up Between Bears QBs

Spread Offense Favors Much-Maligned Senior Quarterback for 2006

BY Steven Dunst

The heralded quarterback stepped onto the sun-drenched field with the eager crowd buzzing in anticipation. The opponent may have been Sacramento State, and nobody may have expected a historic performance, but the Cal faithful were on hand to see what the golden boy, Joe Ayoob, would do in his first collegiate throws.   As fate would have it, Ayoob would put together a historic performance that Saturday over six months ago-only it wasn't one to reminisce about with the grandkids years down the line.

Ayoob's 0-for-10 passing line shattered his confidence and made it apparent that the junior-college transfer was not quite ready for the limelight or coach Jeff Tedford's steely glare.  Now deep into spring practices, does he still think about that outing and other poor showings last year that led the Bears to finish as one of the worst passing teams in the conference?  "Not anymore," Ayoob said with a slight chuckle. "It seems like everyone is talking about (last year) but me."

After a tumultuous year, things are different for Ayoob this spring. Instead of feeling the pressure of mammoth expectations and clamoring fans, instead of staring at an entirely new team playing at an entirely new level, he is calm and focused, an experienced quarterback who knows that he may have to beat out three other signal callers to seize the coveted starting role.  "There are no expectations for me right now," said Ayoob, after sitting out the bulk of practice with a high-ankle sprain. "If I didn't even travel with the team nobody would care."  But even if people have written him off as a bust, Ayoob is still competing for the job, which is still up-for-grabs this early on even though sophomore Nate Longshore may seem to have the slight edge.  According to Cal coach Jeff Tedford, the much-maligned quarterback has made great strides since the entire nation witnessed his growing pains.  "The difference is night and day," Tedford said. "Joe is throwing the ball much better. He understands the seriousness of the position. Last year, when he wasn't in the play he would stand in the back talking to people. This year he's focused."  Having hired offensive coordinator Mike Dunbar in the offseason, the Bears will feature more of a spread offense in an attempt to display more athleticism and variety instead of utilizing largely only pro formations like last season.

At City College of San Francisco, Ayoob thrived on the spread offense for three seasons, giving him a solid foundation which has accelerated his learning curve during the spring while the other quarterbacks are entirely new to the quick reads and complex blocking schemes.  "My comfort level is high," Ayoob said. "It's relearning what I've already learned. I ran the spread with a lot of success."  In practice last Saturday, Ayoob looked the sharpest of the four competing quarterbacks.   During the first sequence of the spring scrimmage, he anticipated the blitz coming from the eight-man front and lofted a 63-yard touchdown strike to Noah Smith down the right sideline. Ayoob found pay dirt later in the scrimmage as well, hitting running back Marshawn Lynch for a 30-yard score.   "Joe's highly competitive," Tedford said. "I admire how he's handled himself. He's mentally and physically tough."  Although he has looked strong thus far, the season is still an eternity away. But armed with experienced and renewed focus, and with the unrealistic expectations cast aside, Ayoob has looked more comfortable than ever before under center.

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