Tuesday, July 29, 2008

SF Examiner: With renewed vigor, Cal out for redemption


Glenn Dickey

If the Cal Bears bounce back big this season, it will be because of the seeds that were sown in the four weeks before their win over Air Force in the Armed Forces Bowl in December.  A 2007 season which had begun so gloriously at 5-0 disintegrated with six losses in the next seven games, including a dispirited showing in the Big Game.  As he admitted at a media news conference for Bay Area college teams in The City on Monday, coach Jeff Tedford had lost touch with his team.  “I was so involved with game preparations that I didn’t realize what was happening,” he said.

The media/fan speculation was that the team was torn apart by Tedford’s loyalty to quarterback Nate Longshore, who was playing despite what was originally thought to be an ankle sprain, but was actually a small bone fracture. Tedford insists that no player ever mentioned Longshore.   Still, he showed the team videos of some of their losses, demonstrating that there was plenty of blame to go around.   “It’s easy to blame the quarterback,” he said, “but when we lost to Washington, they got 360 rushing yards. That’s not the quarterback’s fault.”  He stressed accountability for all of his players and, for the bowl game, it worked. Air Force was ahead 21-0 after the first 20 minutes — teams often struggle early against the unorthodox offensive and defensive schemes of the Falcons — but the Bears came roaring back for a 42-36 win.

“That wasn’t easy and it showed the character of the team,” said Tedford.   This year, Tedford has changed his approach, hiring Frank Cignetti as his offensive coordinator to call the plays. “I’ll be able to talk to all the players,” Tedford said. “It will be the same in practice. I’ll still concentrate on offense, but I’ll be talking to defensive players, too.”  He continued to stress accountability for all players during the spring drills, and he thought that worked well.  “We had a very good spring,” he said. “The players really responded.”  One of the big problems during last year’s slide was the lack of player leaders. The most vocal players were ones who weren’t big playmakers, so nobody followed them. Conversely, the best players were quiet.

So, Tedford has made an effort this spring to get top players to also step up as leaders. On Monday, he identified three who have responded: Center Alex Mack and linebackers Zack Follett and Worrell Williams.

Although Tedford had a disappointing recruiting year, a direct result of the team’s slide, there is still talent on this team. Though the focus will again be on the quarterbacks, running back Jahvid Best, a Salesian High grad, could be the Bears’ best offensive player. Best is very fast and was a big playmaker in a limited role as a freshman last year. When he was hurt, Tedford shut him down; he didn’t play in the bowl game. He’s totally recovered now and Tedford said, “I’m really excited about what he can do as an every down back.”

And, when Best isn’t in there, Shane Vereen will be, and he’s a special talent, too.  But talent alone doesn’t win without the right attitude. Both Tedford and his team learned that the hard way last year. This year, that lesson should help the Bears bounce back.


No comments: