Can Ayoob Do It for the Bears?
by Glenn Dickey
Sep 08, 2005

EVEN THOUGH the Bears won the game, Cal’s season opener against Sacramento State was a disaster. Starting quarterback Nate Longshore broke his leg and Joe Ayoob went 0-for-10 in relief. Ouch!

The good news is that coach Jeff Tedford isn’t panicking. Ayoob will start Saturday against the Huskies in Seattle, and Tedford is confident he’ll come out of his funk.

“He’s been picking up the offense well in practice,” he said yesterday afternoon. “When he relaxes and just throws the ball, he’s fine. When he starts thinking too much, then his passes sail.”

In practice, Ayoob has alternately looked sharp and terrible. When he’s on, his passes hit his intended receiver in stride. When he’s not, he can miss by a wide margin. His inconsistency was the reason Longshore, who had been in the program as a redshirt freshman last year, had been ahead of him on the depth chart.

Ayoob had been scheduled to play in the second half of the Sac State game, but he was rushed into action when Longstreet went down. Ayoob was neither physically nor mentally prepared at that point, and he threw poorly, rushing his throws.

Though Tedford had said earlier that he wanted to see his quarterbacks play through adversity, he replaced Ayoob with Steve Levy, a junior who had come to Cal as a quarterback but played fullback last year before returning to quarterback this spring. Tedford said he didn’t want Ayoob to get too deep in an emotional hole, “and I wanted to give Steve some playing time, too.” Levy struggled, too, but he did hit a touchdown pass.

The day after that game, Tedford called Ayoob and told him he’d be the starter against Washington. Ayoob’s physical ability is obvious He was the No. 1-rated passer in California junor college play last year and a JC All-American, so with experience, he should be a fine quarterback for the Bears.

IN AN INTERVIEW /in the spring, Tedford had said Ayoob would struggle learning his system, complicated by the fact that Ayoob played out of a spread formation in CCSF. “Everything is different for him,” Tedford said at that time. “Even handing off.” Ayoob’s struggles mirror the problems the 49ers rookie quarterback, Alex Smith, has had adjusting to the pro-T after playing in a spread offense in college.

Tedford said this week that he thought Ayoob was as far along at this point as he could have expected. He’s reminded media questioners this week, too, that Aaron Rodgers also had early problems at Cal, with a nine-for-34 game against Oregon State. Though he wouldn’t divulge what he said to either quarterback, Tedford said that his advice to Ayoob this week has been similar to what he told Rodgers two years ago.

Ayoob will get more opportunity to learn with Longshore out; though Levy was an all-area choice as a high school quarterback in New Jersey, the fact that he played fullback last season is an indication that Tedford has limited expectations for him as a quarterback.

The Bears also have a top freshman quarterback, Kyle Reed from McClymonds, but Tedford hopes to be able to redshirt him this year, barring another injury to the quarterbacks ahead of him.

“He’s not ready to play right now,” Tedford said, “but we’ve moved him up from the ‘scout’ team to the regular team. He sits in on all our meetings and he’ll travel with us, but we really hope not to have to use him.”

Tedford recalled a time when he was the offensive coordinator at Oregon and the Ducks played in a bowl game when Joey Harrington had a separated shoulder and A. J. Feeley had a broken bone in his wrist. “If Joey hadn’t been able to play (he did), we’d have had to burn a year for our redshirt freshman quarterback, just for one game. I don’t want anything like that to happen with Kyle.”

WITH QUARTERBACKS, the mental game comes before the physical game.

As Tedford noted in the earlier interview, a quarterback has to know not only his own position but what everybody else is doing, and in passing situations, he has to make a decision in three seconds or less.

Quarterbacks are effective when this becomes automatic. They no longer have to think about what everybody else is doing because they know, just as a good typist doesn’t have to look at the keys to know where they are. Successful quarterbacks don’t have to worry about recognizing defenses because, when they see where defenders are lined up, they know what to expect. When they reach that point, their physical ability can take over, but they can’t get there without seeing many different defenses.

Though it sometimes seems in practice that Ayoob is comfortable within the Tedford system, it came apart for him in the game – again, just as it did for Smith with the 49ers – when he also had to account for a speeded-up game and defenses he hadn’t seen.

“In practice, we use the same defenses every day, so he’s accustomed to them,” Tedford said. “In a game, he sees things he’s not accustomed to.”

The learning process is quicker for some quarterbacks. Notwithstanding his bad game against Oregon State, Rodgers picked up Tedford’s offense very quickly, though he didn’t have the benefit of spring practice. Joe Montana became comfortable in Bill Walsh’s offense much faster than Steve Young did, though Young is as intelligent a player as I’ve known.

Ayoob has not progressed as quickly as Rodgers, but Tedford is working with him to not only learn but to realize that he doesn’t have to do it alone, that he’ll get help from an excellent group of receivers and a special playmaker in Marshawn Lynch.

And, in the meantime, Cal fans have to be patient with Ayoob’s growing pains.

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