By Andrew Kim
The replacements. The new guys. The inexperienced.
A total of 6,218 yards, 454 receptions and 47 touchdowns later, wideouts DeSean Jackson, Lavelle Hawkins and Robert Jordan shed those labels and left the Cal football team as a unit to enter the 2008 NFL Draft, having risen as one of the nation's top receiving corps upon exit. After assembling a potent passing attack over the past few seasons-not to mention the stable of running backs that the program has graduated-the Bears are left with mere traces of their recent brilliance at this year's spring camp, with names like Michael Calvin, Nyan Boateng, Jeremy Ross and LaReylle Cunningham in queue.
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Suffice it to say, Cal's aerial attack remains clipped at the wings, as its depth chart at receiver was wiped clean by the departure of the aforementioned trio. The Bears have rebuilt their stash of receivers in the past, though never as exhaustively. Still, as should be expected from a top program, there are plenty waiting in the wings for a chance to become the quarterback's favorite hookup. Arguably Cal's best player not to dress for a game in 2007, Calvin has patiently learned about, well, patience. Like most of his teammates, the redshirt freshman was the go-to guy during his prep career at San Lorenzo High, racking up 22 touchdowns on 1,454 receiving yards in his final two seasons.
But the 56th-best wide receiver recruit in 2007-according to Rivals.com-had to stay content with simulating, instead of facing, the Bears' opponents once he entered Cal. Undeterred, Calvin responded by claiming Scout Team Player of the Year honors on offense, serving up a big 6-foot-2, 205-pound target for the Bears' defensive backs-a bulk that the featherweight starters couldn't mimic. "I talked to my high school coach, and he told me it's just all about being patient," says Calvin. "I just sat back, I learned the game. I took mental reps, and I prepared myself for this day now. "The award just shows that I work hard through everything, I don't take plays off, I go 100 percent. I give it my all, man."
Today, Calvin boasts NFL-type measurements and a self-proclaimed 4.4 time in the 40-yard dash. While Cunningham (knee) and Ross (high ankle sprain) continue to recuperate from injury, Calvin and another 6-foot-2 wideout have emerged as prime candidates for slots on the starting 11. An explosive athlete with hops better reserved for the hardwood, Boateng was recruited by a bevy of SEC staples like Florida and Tennessee despite an injury that caused him to miss his senior campaign. The Brooklyn, N.Y., native, however, struggled to impress the Gators staff as a freshman and opted to transfer to Cal, only to run into trouble with the law with charges of burglary, battery and criminal mischief before he played a single snap at Memorial Stadium.
A rocky rapport with coach Jeff Tedford seemed inevitable. "Coach 'T' and I had a great relationship when I first came in," says Boateng. "Then all the other stuff happened to me, so it was kind of a setback. But now he's starting to open up the trust level a little bit with me. It's a process, you know." Boateng seems to have reciprocated Tedford's efforts to improve their bond. "At first, I didn't understand why he did certain things with me, but now I do," says Boateng. "I read about him a little bit, saw something on YouTube about his life and I respect him as a man and everything he's been through." The soft-spoken receiver also assured that he's in the best playing shape of his career, Florida days included. After muffing a punt return early in Saturday's practice, Boateng later impressed teammates with a touchdown scamper off of a quick slant. The same type of resilience could serve him well in his first full season in years, in which he'll see his share of lumps. "He's getting better every day, and that's what spring football is all about," says Tedford. "It's about learning the system, it's about getting used to the speed of the game ... I'm pleased with his progress, but he has a long way to go."
Complementing the emerging pair of newcomers are old faces with largely new roles, likely to add stability and toughness to the position. A special-teamer for most of last season, Ross had impressed Tedford leading up to his injury, leading his coach to spare some relatively lofty words for the receiver: "Early, Jeremy Ross was doing a real good job," says Tedford. Look no further than the cause of the same high-ankle sprain-the wideout's willingness to drag defenders after the catch-for proof of his big-play potential.
The public got a glimpse of his grit during open practice two Saturdays ago, as Ross absorbed the initial contact and gained a dozen extra yards, only to be stopped by a gang of incoming tacklers. A horse collar grab from behind coupled with multiple hits across the chest resulted in the sprain. But despite the setback, Ross doesn't seem like he'll turn soft any time soon. "Oh yeah, that's my big aspect," says Ross. "When I get hit, it's gonna take more than one guy to take me down because I'm more physical and strong. I plan on catching the rock and getting more after that." Cunningham, meanwhile, continues to build strength in his right knee. The senior, who returns as the elder statesman of the receiving corps with 155 career receiving yards and a touchdown, said his legs felt about 75 to 80 percent healthy.
Another 6-foot, 200-plus pounder, Cunningham implied his preference for leading through action, Robert Jordan-style.
"I help out when guys come to me to ask questions," says Cunningham. "I let them know what's going on. I'm more of a not-so-talkative leader, but I'm there. I'm there for it." Despite the talkativeness of the rest of Cunningham's crew, none was able to express the optimism surrounding this group better than first-year wide receivers coach (and former quarterbacks coach) Kevin Daft. Perhaps the fact that he is new to his own assignment gives the receivers a coach to whom they can relate. "They're very hungry to play," says Daft. "It's been a while since they've played, every single one of them, extensive amounts of time since high school. I think that's good because they want to learn, they want to get better and they want to be great with everything."