Friday, August 31, 2007

Contra Costa Times: Cal's cornerback wants redemption in rematch

By Jonathan Okanes

BERKELEY -- Cal cornerback Syd'Quan Thompson became the poster boy for what went horribly wrong at Tennessee last season, but defensive coordinator Bob Gregory said there was plenty of blame to go around.  Thompson, playing in his first college game, was burned twice by All-American wide receiver Robert Meachem for long touchdown catches. On both plays, Thompson took a gamble on short passes from quarterback Erik Ainge, and each time Meachem broke free and raced up the field for the score.

The touchdowns went for 42 and 80 yards, with most of the yardage being consumed on the ground by Meachem. Which begs the question: Where was the rest of the defense?

"We should have done a better job giving him help," Gregory said. "Certainly, he wanted to make the play, but that's on me to make sure we get the guys in the right spot. We could have given him a little bit more help, not leave him out there by himself. That goes for anybody, having guys in the right spot." Thompson, Gregory and the Bears get their chance at redemption Saturday when the No. 15 Volunteers visit No. 12 Cal for the 2007 season opener, 364 days after last year's 35-18 disaster in Knoxville.  Thompson once again will line up at cornerback, with a full year of experience to his credit and healthy dose of motivation in reserve. The soft-spoken Thompson downplayed the revenge component, but teammates say memories of last year's game will be with him when he takes the field Saturday. "He's been working harder than anybody to get ready," linebacker Anthony Felder said. "He probably has more of a goal to redeem himself more than any individual on the team."  Added free safety Thomas DeCoud: "I think that game has become his motivation for the duration of his career."

Thompson entered the game as a redshirt freshman who wasn't even expected to start. But when projected starter Tim Mixon went down with a knee injury during training camp, Thompson was thrust into a starting role. It wasn't exactly a recipe for a successful college debut. Not only did Thompson play his first game in front of 106,009 fans at Neyland Stadium, one of the more hostile environments in college football, he played with a cast on his left hand because of a fractured thumb.  "He's got two hands this year," Cal coach Jeff Tedford said. "He had a great year last year. He just took a chance on two plays, and it didn't work out for us. I have a lot of confidence in Syd." The Bears flew home immediately after last year's game and arrived in the Bay Area late that night. Thompson was at Memorial Stadium the next morning going over the plays with Gregory.

"I'm a competitor. I felt like if there was something wrong that he had seen, I would want to know from a coach's point of view what it was, so I could come out and practice and correct it," Thompson said. "I was just out there trying to make a play for my team. Things didn't happen the way I expected them to happen at the time, but I think that game really woke me up for the rest of the season." "That's a huge credit to him because he wanted to find out how to get better," Gregory said. "He was in the tank, but he did what he had to do to get better. It's not like he slept in for eight hours. He was in here asking to go over all those plays."

Just like last year, Saturday's game will feature two teams ranked in the top 25 and will appear on national television. Just as the country saw Thompson's struggles last season, it will get a chance to see how far he's come this year. "I just want to start off better as a team than we did last year," Thompson said. "It just made me come to each game focused and playing at a high level. You never know what's going to happen on the next play. Whatever does happen, you have to be able to erase good or bad plays and play hard the next play."


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