Good Seasons Ahead for Cal, Stanford
Cal coach Jeff Tedford’s work with quarterbacks, as an assistant and head coach, is legendary. This year, he had the challenge of replacing Aaron Rodgers, who left early to become an NFL first-round draft choice. Nate Longshore was the leader coming out of training camp, but Joe Ayoob had to take over when Longshore broke his ankle in the opener against Sacramento State.
Ayoob was dreadful in that first game. An emotional young man, he wasn’t mentally prepared to go into the game and couldn’t settle into a rhythm, going 0-for-10. He started the same way against Washington in Seattle last Saturday, missing on his first three throws, but then settled down to have a very good day, throwing the long ball beautifully and completing 17 of his last 24 passes.
“There was a tremendous boost in maturity from the first week to the second,” said Tedford. Ayoob is very gregarious, popular with his teammates because of his joking, but he was much more focused on the practice field last week. “We don’t mind players joking around,” Tedford said, “but not on the practice field. There’s too much to be learned out there, and you don’t learn it if you’re not focused. We tell players we don’t mind them making a mental mistake once, but we don’t want them repeating it. The ones who repeat mental mistakes are the ones who aren’t paying attention in practice.”
Ayoob was helped greatly by sophomore receiver Robert Jordan, who caught 11 passes for 192 yards and three touchdowns, which earned him Pacific-10 Offensive Player of the Week honors. It seemed Ayoob was looking specifically for Jordan, but Tedford denied that.
“In our system, we never concentrate on one receiver. This was just a matter of how the reads came up. Actually, on Robert’s last touchdown, I think the primary receiver was supposed to be DeSean Jackson but Joe was under pressure so he found Robert.”
Jordan is another example of a boost in maturity from his freshman year. “He had a problem with consistency last year,” Tedford said, “but that often happens with freshman, no matter how talented they are. They’re not used to the intensity and focus you need on this level. Robert has made tremendous strides this year.”
The Bears have an outstanding group of receivers but it all starts with the quarterback. Ayoob has the ability – he’s also a running threat and broke loose for a first down on one run against the Huskies –and he’ll get the coaching he needs to become a star and leader.
WALT HARRIS returned home – he grew up in South San Francisco – to coach Stanford, and he got a road win in his first game, 40-38 over Navy in Annapolis, Md.
Harris is a hands on coach, much like Tedford. Significantly, he took on the role of quarterbacks coach, as well as that of head coach. Over the years, he’s coached 15 quarterbacks who went on to the NFL, including first-round picks Dave Wilson and Tony Eason.
“I’m not one of those coaches who just talks to the media,” Harris said when we talked in February. “I like to coach, which is why I took on the job of coaching a position.”
He’s been true to his word. Members of the Stanford sports information office have been dismayed by the way Harris has limited his access to the media. “He’s in meetings all the time,” I was told. His predecessor, Buddy Teevens, was much more media-friendly, but that didn’t translate into many Stanford wins.
At one point in the mid’-80s, Harris was interviewed for the job of 49ers offensive coordinator, but Bill Walsh chose Mike Holmgren instead. No bad choices there. Harris remains an admirer of Walsh. “One of the reasons I took this job is because Bill Walsh is in the same building,” he told me in February. “What a great resource. I know we’ll talk frequently.”
Walsh feels the same way about Harris. “He’s a great football coach,” he told me. “I don’t know why Pittsburgh let him go. When you see what he did there (four straight bowl appearances, 2000-2003) and then you see how little the school has to offer, it’s amazing what he accomplished. Stanford is lucky to have him.”
Stanford has a long history of outstanding quarterbacks, with Frankie Albert (the first really successful T quarterback), Jim Plunkett and John Elway being the most outstanding examples. With the school’s high admissions standards, it’s nearly impossible for the Cardinal to amass the depth of talent that USC can, for instance, but a good pass-catch combination can overcome other weaknesses. Walsh proved that in his first coaching stint at Stanford, when he had Guy Benjamin and Steve Dils (both of them NCAA passing leaders) throwing to James Lofton and Ken Margerum, and won bowl games in his two years at the school.
Now, Harris has Trent Edwards. After an outstanding high school career in Los Gatos (USA Today ranked him as the top prep passer in the country), Edwards was expected to be the next great Stanford quarterback.
It hasn’t worked out that way yet, partly because of injuries in the two seasons he’s played, partly because of a poor system. Margerum, a Stanford assistant last season, was appalled at what he saw. At the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame this year, Margerum, now the offensive coordinator at San Jose State, told me Edwards was often victimized by blitzes because he had no receiver he could hit on a short pattern.
There will be no such problem this year because he’ll be in a system which will support him. Fortunately, Edwards doesn’t appear to have changed his playing style or lost his confidence because of the beatings he’s taken. “I didn’t have to work with him at all on his mechanics,” Harris told me last week. “His mechanics are fine. It’s just a matter of learning our system, and he’s made excellent progress with that.”
In the Navy win, Edwards had a very efficient game, 21-of-33 for 235 yards, one touchdown, no interceptions. I believe he’ll improve steadily throughout the season and be highly-ranked nationally – which will translate into more Stanford wins.
On “The Last Honest Sports Show” a couple of weeks ago, I predicted a seven-win Stanford season, which surprised my fellow panelists. The talent level is not as high as last year, but strong coaching and strong quarterbacking will help the Cardinal win at least some of the close games they lost last fall. The Navy game is an example. There’s no doubt in my mind that last year’s team would have found a way to lose that game.
NATURALLY, I’M hoping that one of those Stanford wins does not come in the Big Game, but I am looking forward to a truly competitive game this year.
The Big Game has lost a lot of its lustre because of incompetent coaches on one sideline or the other. First, Cal suffered with Tom Holmoe, as the defensive coordinator for one season and head coach for five. (The idea that Tyrone Willingham had some kind of hex over Cal because of his Big Game success was certainly dispelled last Saturday, when he didn’t have Holmoe on the opposite sideline.) Then, Stanford had Teevens for three seasons.
Now, both schools have excellent coaches and excellent quarterbacks. It should be an exciting season, capped by a Big Game that lives up to its billing.
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