By Joe Davidson - Bee Staff Writer
A year ago, Cal ventured to Knoxville, Tenn., to kick-start a football season of promise. The Bears collectively gulped when they tried to inhale the heat and humidity, and to comprehend just how rabid 102,038 orange-clad fanatics packed into Neyland Stadium can be. By the time it was 35-0 in a game that finished 35-18 Volunteers, Cal's national championship picture had been hopelessly smeared. Bears coach Jeff Tedford has maintained this offseason that it took the rest of the country a full two months to recognize the Bears again as something more than just a bunch best known for receiving a Rocky Top throttling. Now Cal braces for Tennessee again, only this season opener is in Berkeley on Saturday. "It's not about revenge," Tedford said. "It's about redemption."
But it's still very much about the Bowl Championship Series big picture. Cal tied for a conference title last fall for the first time since the famed 1975 team, but the Bears wound up back in the Holiday Bowl. After Cal trounced Texas A&M 45-10 -- its biggest bowl rout ever -- to finish 10-3, Bears star receiver DeSean Jackson proclaimed his crew legitimate BCS contenders in 2007. "I still believe that," he said. "We can be that good." To be sure, he's plenty good. It's a short list when one ponders the most dazzling, effective players in the country. Tedford says so, and Cal is touting the junior from Long Beach as a Heisman Trophy candidate. That Jackson is even in Cal colors is testament to the Tedford touch. Jackson grew up in USC country, and the Trojans pride themselves in securing every five-star recruit in the land. They didn't get this one. Jackson has been one of Tedford's marquee finds, and the recruits keep pouring in for a program that is in the midst of its best run since the storied Pappy Waldorf days of the 1940s and '50s. "I came to Cal for the opportunity and because of Coach Tedford," Jackson said. "It's been great." Equally as important to Cal's success, however, is the man who gets the ball to Jackson. Nate Longshore, like the rest of the roster, struggled in the Tennessee downer last season, then recovered to produce the second-most passing yards by a Bear in a single season (3,021). He returns this season with rare experience.
"This is the first time we have a returning quarterback come back as a returning starter in our five years here," Tedford said. "He has experience in all the environments. Starting out last year at Tennessee is about as tough a beginning as you are going to get. I feel like he's very, very comfortable with the offense now." As much of a quarterback program as the Bears have been under Tedford, Cal also has produced tailbacks Adimchinobe Echemandu, J.J. Arrington and Marshawn Lynch. Per the norm at Cal, the backup runners also get plenty of carries, and last season it was Justin Forsett. He enters this season with 1,674 career rushing yards. His backups are touted recruits in sophomore James Montgomery of Cordova and freshman Jahvid Best of the Bay Area. The concern is on defense, where the Bears must replace their top three stoppers in tackle Brandon Mebane, linebacker Desmond Bishop and cornerback Daymeion Hughes, the Pacific-10 Conference Defensive Player of the Year. Zack Follett and Worrell Williams of Grant are back at linebacker, and Syd Thompson of Grant returns in the secondary. He was attacked early and often at Tennessee, a freshman in his first start, though like the rest of his teammates, he grew from the experience, Tedford said. "We will do things to help our secondary," Tedford said. "We left our corners on an island a little last year." For a half last season in that opener, the entire team was.