Thursday, April 20, 2006

SF Chronicle: 2-man race for starting Cal QB

Ayoob challenging Longshore as front-runner

Bruce Adams, Chronicle Staff Writer

Cal enters the final week of spring football practice today with the anticipated competition for starting quarterback now in full swing.  The Bears began drills March 20 with Nate Longshore penciled in as the starter. He held that edge until Joe Ayoob began mounting a serious challenge. However, coach Jeff Tedford said the four principals -- Longshore, Ayoob, Steve Levy and Kyle Reed -- are all in the mix. Although Tedford diplomatically says it's too close to call, Longshore and Ayoob clearly are emerging as the top two candidates.

"They all have their moments when they're doing well," Tedford said. "Kyle is the furthest away because of his lack of experience and knowledge of the offense."   Last summer, Longshore, then a redshirt freshman, and Ayoob, a junior transfer from City College of San Francisco, fought for the job with Longshore finally getting the nod. But he was lost for the year with a severe ankle injury late in the first half of the season-opening 41-3 win over Sacramento State.

Ayoob took over the job and showed flashes, but grew increasingly ineffective; he finally publicly admitted he was struggling with his confidence after a 35-10 loss to USC in November.  Levy, a junior, emerged from the bottom of the depth chart and led the Bears to a 27-3 win over Stanford in the Big Game and a 35-28 win over BYU in the Las Vegas Bowl.  During spring drills, Longshore has continued to show signs that he could become the next in Tedford's long line of great college quarterbacks, who at Cal were Kyle Boller and Aaron Rodgers.  "He certainly has that type of potential," new offensive coordinator Mike Dunbar said.  Ayoob has been a surprise. He's beginning to show the form that earned him junior college All-America honors at CCSF, where he led the Rams to a national championship as a freshman.  "He's throwing the ball a lot sharper," Tedford said.

Ayoob has been helped by changes in Cal's offense, with Tedford incorporating elements of the spread-option, which Dunbar used at Northwestern in leading the nation's No. 4-ranked offense last season. It is similar to the pure spread Ayoob ran at City College.  "I feel like this offense plays to my skills, being able to be a little more mobile in throwing the ball and running the ball," he said.  Plus, he said, after struggling with the speed of Division I football last season, he might be turning the corner on the transition from junior college ball.  "Things aren't moving as fast as they were at this point last year," Ayoob said. "I just feel a lot more comfortable."  Tedford has a check list of qualities he wants in his quarterbacks: mental and physical toughness, intelligence, competitiveness, athleticism and arm strength.  Reed, who took a redshirt as a freshman last year, is the best passer on the team. Ayoob and Levy have the most game experience. Longshore, though, might come the closest to fulfilling the qualities of Tedford's list.

"Nate throws the ball well and he's got a lot of the other things, such as command of the huddle and understanding the game," Tedford said.  Even when he couldn't play, of all the quarterbacks, Longshore was the one who showed the best mental grasp of the offense. He continued to attend all the meetings, often on crutches, and stayed involved with all the game plans after his brief debut in which he was 8-for-11 for 131 yards, with one TD and one interception.  "Some people have a rocket arm and some people can run real fast," Longshore said. "I'd rather just learn where I can exploit the other team, where they're lacking."  Longshore said his passing has improved because, after his injury, he spent two months throwing off one leg.  "My arm, I feel, is stronger, more accurate," he said. "You learn how to use your torso more and have a better center of gravity."

Longshore is still not fully recovered from the injury, which included a broken left fibula and ligament damage in his ankle.  "It doesn't hurt anymore," he said. "But it feels awkward -- numb in weird places. Sometimes it doesn't feel like my leg. I'm getting used to it and I'm getting back to regular movement."  The quarterbacks are a close group; a bond that grew stronger last year when Ayoob, who threw for 1,707 yards and 15 touchdowns against 14 interceptions, was booed during games, taunted by fans in the tunnel after games, jeered on campus and sharply criticized on the Internet.  "Not a lot of people know what goes into playing quarterback, especially on this team," Longshore said.  In any event, Ayoob said, "I'm over it."

The quarterbacks also cheered for Levy, who threw for 439 yards and four touchdowns, with two interceptions, in relief.  "We all love Steve," Longshore said. "It was sweet watching him do his thing."  The competition is likely to continue when preseason camp opens, possibly right up until the Sept. 2 opener at Tennessee.   Tedford has said that even though he probably will name a starting quarterback at the end of spring practice Saturday, it won't mean much.  "It will just tell you who will take the first reps when we open up" at camp, he said. "It's way too early to say."


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