Good Times Ahead for Bears
by Glenn Dickey
Apr 11, 2005

AFTER WATCHING the first scrimmage of spring practice on Saturday, I’m convinced that the Cal Bears have a chance to match last year’s record, especially with the break they’ll get with the schedule.

Not surprisingly, the offensive star of the scrimmage was running back Marshawn Lynch, who only carried five times but ran for a 95-yard touchdown on one of those carries.

That run showed his speed, as he broke to the outside and then ran down the sideline, outrunning defensive back Thomas DeCoud. After the scrimmage, coach Jeff Tedford talked to Lynch. Asked what he said to the sophomore back, Tedford said, “I told him, I’d better see him beating Thomas in our 40-yard sprints. Thomas always wins those.” But Lynch is one of those backs who seems to run faster with a football under his arm.

Lynch was, if anything, more impressive on a much shorter run. Seemingly trapped behind the line of scrimmage, he broke loose for a seven-yard gain. He has the ability only the best of backs have, able to instinctively find the hole. That’s an ability that can’t be coached.

He has another important attribute: a love for the game. “He is excited just to be practicing,” said Tedford. “He approaches everything with great enthusiasm.” That’s absolutely essential in football, just for survival. We’ve all seen half-hearted efforts in baseball and basketball, but a football player who does not play all-out will get hurt.

Another running back, Justin Forsett, was almost as impressive. Forsett is small, at 5-8 and 180 pounds, but he’s no smaller than Darrin Nelson and Barry Sanders, who had the same kind of running style. That’s not the same as saying he’s as good as Nelson, a great college back, or Sanders, who is headed for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but Forsett is elusive and hits top speed almost immediately, bursting through holes.

It’s likely Forsett will be the backup to Lynch, which is significant because that leaves both junior Marcus O’Keith and senior Terrell Williams scrambling for playing time. Both were expected to be big-time players when they came to Cal and they’re still very good backs – but certainly not as good as Lynch and probably not as good as Forsett.

It highlights the great recruiting job Tedford and his assistants have done. Tedford is known as a great quarterbacks coach, so it’s not surprising that he’s recruited outstanding quarterbacks, but his offense is very balanced, so the top running backs know they’ll get a chance to shine, too. J. J. Arrington led the nation in rushing last season.

To their credit, Williams and O’Keith have remained committed to the team style which Tedford coaches, in an era where players often transfer when they’re not starting.

THE QUARTERBACKS, junior college transfer Joseph Ayoob and redshirt freshman Nate Longshore, weren’t as impressive as the running backs, but there was a reason.

“I’ve put in the whole offensive system this spring,” said Tedford. “That’s why the quarterbacks looked like they’d never played a game before.”

Tedford’s evaluation was too harsh, as he knows; he was only trying to make the point that both quarterbacks have much to learn this spring. That’s one of the reasons for spring practice, because a coach can concentrate on teaching, without having to prepare for a specific game.

Both quarterbacks threw some nice passes, along with some errant ones. Ayoob was a junior college All-American at CCSF last fall and has been expected to be the starter at Cal this season, but two weeks of spring drills, including the scrimmage, have shown that Longshore has real skills, too.

The quarterbacks have different styles. Ayoob is an excellent runner as well as passer. Longshore, at 6-5, is more of a pocket passer and has great poise, but he showed on one play Saturday that he can run for yardage if his protection breaks down and a hole opens up.

Neither quarterback is likely to duplicate the two years Aaron Rodgers had, but whoever wins the job, most likely Ayoob, will be in the top half among Pacific-10 quarterbacks. (Rodgers watched the Saturday practice but emphasized that he was there only to observe, not to give advice to the quarterbacks.)

Whether it’s Ayoob or Longshore in the fall, he’ll have excellent receivers.Top recruit DeSean Jackson isn’t in school yet, but he’s coming up this summer and will be working out with Cal players on his own. Sam DeSa showed off his speed on one long touchdown throw from Longshore on Saturday. David Gray, finally healthy, had a leaping grab for a touchdown and also made a nice spin move to shake a defender after catching a short pass on the sideline, then racing for the touchdown.

Three sophomore receivers, Robert Jordan, who became a starter in late season last year, Noah Smith and Sean Young are also in the mix. I can’t recall a season when the Bears have had so much quality depth among their receivers.

REBUILDING THE defense will be a bigger challenge for defensive coordinator Bob Gregory, but the talent is there with a good group of incoming freshmen and JC transfers.

Even though the defensive lapses were obvious on Saturday, the speed and hitting of the defenders was equally obvious. While I was standing on the sidelines, perhaps 10-15 yards away, freshman linebacker Worrell Williams put a hit on fullback Chris Manderino that broke Manderino’s jaw. The gutty Manderino got up and wanted to continue playing but coaches quickly waved him off the field, though they didn’t know the full extent of Manderino’s injury until later.

Another CCSF transfer, linebacker Desmond Bishop, has also impressed this spring with his hitting and feel for the game.

THE SCHEDULE will benefit the Bears because it isn’t until mid-season that the Bears get into tough conference opponents.

They open with Sacramento State, because of a scheduling snafu. Cal had been negotiating with San Jose State to play a game at Candlestick which would count as a home game for the Spartans, thus boosting their average attendance as they attempt to stay in Division 1-A, but San Jose State backed out of the tentative agreement. At that late date, the Bears only alternative was Sacramento State.

That game against a Division 1-AA opponent will hurt them in the BCS rankings, but the first half schedule will give Gregory a chance to get his defense rolling for the tougher games in the second half.

Overall, the picture is bright. It almost makes me forget the Tom Holmoe years. Almost.

What do YOU think? Let me know!

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