(Note: You can now find this article on Bleacher Report. Click here.)
By Ryan Maquiñana
This time last year, California was poised to mend the scars from a stretch where the Golden Bears had gone 44-19, yet failed to secure a BCS bid.
Behind the fleet feet of Jahvid Best, the team soared to a record of 3-0 and a No. 6 ranking for its fourth appearance in the top ten in the last five years.
Unfortunately, it took only two weeks for rock to become rubble and the walls to come tumbling down on the Cal program once more.
In successive games against eventual Pac-10 champ Oregon and annual tormentor Southern Cal, the Bears were blasted by a tally of 72-6. After head coach Jeff Tedford had seemingly righted the ship with three straight conference victories, Best’s college career and the team’s Rose Bowl chances were brutally knocked out one week later at the hands of Oregon State.
Although the season was salvaged by a heart-stopping road victory over archrival Stanford, the reopened possibility of a 10-win season was immediately slammed shut in disappointing defeats to Washington, and later, Utah in the Poinsettia Bowl.
The issue now is whether or not Tedford still has it. Once a hot candidate for NFL openings, the two-time Pac-10 Coach of the Year has assumed the mantle of elder statesman of the conference (if you discount Mike Riley’s NFL stint in between his two eras in Corvallis). His longevity is a testament to his consistency, although one could argue that it has been dampened by the lack of New Year’s Day bowl berths on his résumé. Further compounding the issue is the fact that the Bears have not finished in the polls two out of the last three seasons.
Almost at a crossroads, Tedford underwent quite a bit of self-reflection during the off-season ahead of his ninth year at the helm. “For me to sit here and say that it doesn’t take a toll on you would be very naïve for me to say, because it has,” the coach shared in an interview with Rivals.com. “I have to re-evaluate who I am and why I’m doing this, and what are the goals and how do I handle all the things that come along with the high expectations.”
Some of these alterations range from the important to the trivial. The new 6:45 a.m. position meetings have been accompanied by trivial wrinkles, such as giving the players more freedom to choose the loudspeaker music during practice.
Getting back to basics might be a welcome change for Tedford, as this year presents one of his biggest coaching challenges yet. With the loss of Best and defensive stalwarts Tyson Alualu and Syd’Quan Thompson to the NFL, along with the transfer of top defensive recruit Chris Martin, the media has forecasted a seventh-place conference finish for California. Are the prognosticators’ predictions an accurate appraisal of the team’s future?
Heading into the Bears’ season opener against FCS school UC Davis tomorrow, here are five smoldering questions that will go a long way in determining whether the pundits will be right come December.
1. Which Kevin Riley will close his Cal career?
Over the course of four years, we’ve seen a tale of two quarterbacks. The first one has excelled in the pressure-cooker, as evidenced by Kevin Riley's gutsy second-half performances last year against Arizona State and Stanford where he marched his team downfield to paydirt in clutch situations. The other one turns frigid at inopportune times and goes through long stretches without putting together consecutive first downs, as witnessed in the four regular season blowout losses.
While it will forever be up for debate whether Tedford stuck with an injured Nate Longshore for far too long in 2007 and 2008, the truth is that this has been Riley’s team for over a year. Despite logging 23 starts over the past three seasons, 2009 marked the first time he didn’t have to look over his shoulder from beginning to end.
With offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig now running the system for a second year, the skill positions are laden with talent for Riley to succeed. All-American freshman Keenan Allen joins a pair of juniors, acrobatic Marvin Jones and first-down machine/part-time rapper Alex Lagemann, in the receiver corps. Another third-year player, tight end Anthony Miller, has emerged as a reliable option down the middle. Big Game hero Shane Vereen, also a junior, leads the bevy of Bear running backs that have generated a 1,000-yard rusher in seven out of the last eight seasons.
Surrounded by this variety of weapons, if Riley can get some decent protection, there will be no more excuses left for the senior signal-caller not to produce week in and week out. The statistics show he’s been an excellent game manager (37 passing touchdowns, 15 interceptions); however, the numbers also state that in a little over two seasons of work, he only has two 300-yard-plus passing games to his credit. This year, he’ll probably be expected to shoulder more of the load once opposing defenses stack the box to stop the vaunted Bear rushing attack.
Either way, it would be in his best interests to perform on a constant basis, because this season, Tedford has designated Riley (along with another player) to answer to the media the day after every game. Still, the Beaverton, Ore., native has taken everything in stride.
"It's a humbling experience to go up and down. Everybody loves you and everybody hates you, and you can't listen to it," Riley recently told Fanhouse.com. "I've matured more from my football experience in the last three years than anything that could possibly come up in my life."
2010 marks the last chapter in Riley’s Cal legacy, and this is his last chance to effectively put the ghosts of seasons past to rest.
2. Will Clancy Pendergast make fans forget about Bob Gregory?
In contrast to his predecessor Lyle Setencich’s gambling “Hit Squad” units that forced plenty of turnovers but had a propensity to give up the big play, erstwhile defensive coordinator Bob Gregory’s “Bend But Don’t Break” defense was cautious but successful early in Tedford’s tenure.
However, after 2007’s freefall that was highlighted by the Bears giving up 30 or more points in five out of the last eight games, Gregory’s subsequent shift to the 3-4 alignment produced mixed results in his final two seasons and his eventual departure to Boise State.
His replacement, former Arizona Cardinals defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast, will continue the base 3-4 that Gregory employed. However, he has vowed to summon more bodies to the quarterback, a tactic that was all too absent last season.
“In any scheme, you have a base philosophy of things you want to do,” said Pendergast in a recent Oakland Tribune article. "My past experience has been to run a more pressure-oriented style defense. This defense has some speed, and we're trying to utilize that.”
Even with the loss of Martin, the incoming defensive freshman class is arguably the highest-rated in school history. Defensive lineman Gabe King, inside linebacker Nick Forbes, and the outside linebacker tandem of Dave Wilkerson and Cecil Whiteside were all ranked within the top six recruits in the country at their respective positions. More astounding is that this list doesn’t even include Allen, who was the top-ranked safety in America before settling on a spot on the other side of the ball.
However, grumblings remain whether Pendergast will get to coach them at all. Many wonder if this is merely a pit stop for him while he bides his time until an NFL job in a similar capacity becomes available. Nonetheless, it is clear in his decisions to name converted sophomore cornerback Josh Hill the starting safety over incumbent junior Sean Cattouse, along with giving sophomore nose tackle Kendrick Payne the nod over senior Derrick Hill, that he has taken ownership of his new job.
Knowing the Cal faithful, they will hold him accordingly accountable.
3. Can Matt Summers-Gavin avoid the injury bug and solidify a shaky offensive line?
If you were to ask the average Bear fan why the Axe is still on display in the Student Union on the Berkeley campus, you’d probably hear the names “Shane Vereen” or “Mike Mohamed.”
While Vereen’s 34-carry, 192-yard masterpiece and Mohamed’s game-saving interception were noteworthy, one would be remiss not to mention the efforts of left guard Matt Summers-Gavin.
The 6’3’’, 280-pound sophomore was a thorn in the Cardinal’s side all night long, pulling and destroying defenders to clear the path for Vereen. He’s got a nasty side as well, as he baited an opposing Stanford lineman into a personal foul that moved the chains for California.
One could argue that the game was a microcosm of his impact on the team. One staggering number is the Bears’ record in games that Summers-Gavin played: 7-1. Conversely, Cal fared worse when he didn’t take the field, going 1-4 in his absence.
Missing five games was nothing new for Summers-Gavin. As a 2007 All-American out of coach Steve Bluford’s St. Ignatius program in San Francisco, an injury postponed his enrollment until the following year. In 2009, he suffered from a variety of ailments, with a concussion sustained against Stanford among them.
“I was leading with my head on quite a few plays," the lineman divulged to the San Francisco Chronicle. “Sometimes, that stuff just builds up. By the end of the game I was out of it.”
This offseason, a scary tweak of the knee in practice left him in crutches. Luckily, it turned out to be a bone bruise, and he will probably see limited action on Saturday backing up senior Donovan Edwards in his new place at right tackle.
The uncertainty of Summers-Gavin’s durability has to be concern for Steve Marshall. It was no secret that the offensive line struggled in the position coach’s first season on the sidelines. With longtime offensive line coach Jim Michalczik moving on to the Oakland Raiders, Marshall, who coached the same position with the Cleveland Browns, made the trip west to replace him. The jury’s still out.
Now with a year under his belt, Marshall’s zone blocking schemes will be scrutinized much more closely, and a healthy Summers-Gavin could be the difference in the unit’s effectiveness yet again.
4. Will Darian Hagan and Derrick Hill fulfill the promise they showed as four-star recruits?
As high school seniors in 2006, Darian Hagan and Derrick Hill were “hat guys.” In other words, enough programs pursued them to the point where each recruit held a press conference and announced his commitment by donning the baseball lid of his college choice.
When the pair put Cal caps over their heads amid much media fanfare, neither expected that their coronations would be short-lived, nor that they would be fighting for their starting lives four years later as seniors.
In Hagan’s case, chalk it up to some extenuating circumstances. After a banner year in 2008, the senior cornerback and the Bears’ secondary as a whole took a hefty step backward last season.
The unit’s interception total went from 17 to 11, and with an oft-injured Thompson sitting out extended periods of time, Hagan’s performance declined as well. He went from breaking up 18 passes the year before to only five in 2009.
The low point occurred when then-junior Bryant Nnabuife replaced him in the starting lineup. Unbeknownst to the public was that the former Crenshaw High of Los Angeles standout had more important things on his mind at the time; his one-year-old daughter Kaiyana was braving a bout with kidney cancer.
“The reason I didn't want to talk about it is because for some people, it sounds like an excuse,” Hagan told the Oakland Tribune. “That situation normally should make a person work harder or try harder. But I guess I just wasn't quite ready for that -- for her to be going through that. Now that it's over with and she's back 100 percent healthy again, that's the real motivating thing for me right now, to get back and make something happen.”
With a new outlook on life and his focus renewed, hopefully Hagan can follow in the footsteps of former Bear cornerbacks like Thompson, Daymeion Hughes, and Nnamdi Asomugha, All Pac-10 performers who have all reached the next level.
Hill’s case, on the other hand, is a quandary on its own. As mentioned previously, the talented nose tackle not only lost his starting spot to Payne, but he was also diagnosed with gout, a type of arthritis that usually befalls the elderly.
A big toe filled with uric acid hasn’t been the only thing plaguing Hill during his Cal career. A chronic knee injury has also limited the Oakland McClymonds product’s effectiveness.
While he has amassed 76 tackles in 37 games, he’s only been able to start in 18 of them. Hence, the opportunity for Payne to pounce on Hill’s playing time manifested this fall.
“Ideally, I'd like to be playing, getting better and competing with those guys,” Hill lamented in an article by the San Francisco Chronicle last week. “It's hard to see your brothers out there fighting, just trying to survive practice and knowing you could be helping them out by taking reps.”
With the basic premise of Pendergast’s 3-4 calling for the nose tackle to do the grunt work necessary to eat space and allow the linebackers to run rampant, Payne can’t do it alone. The 6’2’’ 308-pound Hill will get his shot eventually, and gout or no gout, he will have 12 or 13 games left to transform himself into the role of defensive anchor that Cal fans envisioned for him four years ago.
5. Can Jeff Genyk stabilize one of the most embattled special teams units in the country?
Bring up the name of former special teams coordinator Pete Alamar in the middle of a pregame powwow at Henry’s Pub on Durant Avenue in Berkeley at your own peril. You might as well launch a steak at a pack of famished Dobermans.
While all-world return man DeSean Jackson won a Moss Award and junior punter Bryan Anger has been in perpetual contention for the Ray Guy Award under Alamar’s tutelage, the overall appraisal of Bear coverage units during his tenure had been subpar at best.
With crucial losses like the 2004 USC game (botched punt snap, fumbled punt return, missed field goal) and the 2008 Oregon St. debacle (kickoff return for touchdown and two punt returns of more than 30 yards conceded) forever etched in Cal fans’ minds, last year signified the boiling point.
To be fair, Alamar had done an admirable job in double duty as the tight ends coach by sending two of his pupils to the NFL (Craig Stevens and Cameron Morrah). However, the team’s shortcomings on special teams led to his ultimate dismissal. An inexcusable three out of 67 kickoffs resulted in touchbacks in 2009, a glaring statistic when considering that Alamar was allotted a scholarship spot (Vincenzo D’Amato) and two walk-ons (Giorgio Tavecchio, David Seawright), yet could not develop an effective kickoff specialist among them.
But enough about Alamar. While his replacement Jeff Genyk is renowned around coaching circles for being the architect of the “warp speed” offense popularized by current Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly, Tedford hired the former Eastern Michigan head coach for his prowess on special teams, where his 2006 team was third in the nation in punt return yardage defense.
A former punter (and quarterback) at Bowling Green, Genyk’s previous stop at Northwestern as special teams coordinator from 1995-2003 yielded three Big Ten titles and a coveted Rose Bowl appearance in 1996.
“We were really able to have some outstanding specialists and that always makes a big difference in the unit's performance,” the new Cal assistant recalled on BearInsider.com. “But, most importantly, we were able to take some starters and a lot of second-team and backup players and get them highly invested in their contribution to the overall success of the team based on their 10-15 snaps on special teams each week.”
Apparently Genyk has hit the ground running, with his introduction of box target drills to close practices acting as the perfect pressure situation to hone the trio of specialists’ kickoff skills.
If the Cal offense can enjoy the benefit of short fields, and the defense can likewise avoid them with more frequency this year, it will stem from the machinations of the new guy in town.