BERKELEY-After a grueling double day Monday and an ensuing scrimmage set for Wednesday, the Cal football team had a light and quite workout early Tuesday afternoon. All the media was allowed to see was the kickoff return unit line up on the field, without running through a single rep.
Tailback Isi Sofele and wide receiver Jeremy Ross made up the back row of the kickoff return unit, which has been the case throughout camp. Defensive back Chris Conte appears to be next on the depth chart.
"It will be me and Jeremy back there for kickoff returns, (and) it may be Conte," said Sofele after practice Tuesday. "Tomorrow we're going to have a little scrimmage, so we'll see from there."
"Those are two of the guys. Tomorrow we'll get some live returns, see how that works out," added head coach Jeff Tedford. "We're pretty sure of what Isi can do and what Jeremy can do, but we need to take a lot at some of the other younger guys and see what they can do."
Bears fans have enjoyed seeing some of the best return men in college football in previous years with DeSean Jackson and Jahvid Best. Those may be big shoes to fill, but both return men are eager to see if the glass slipper fits.
"There's a lot of big names that were before me," said Sofele. "It just means I have got to come out here and prove to everybody that I can be one of those guys and just fill those shoes. It's going to take a lot of work, but I know I can do it."
"It's a fun challenge," said Ross. "I'm definitely excited, I'm ready to fill those shoes, to step up and do more than those guys, really raise the bar they set. I don't really feel any pressure about it, I'm just ready to go."
Tedford saw those former Cal greats first-hand, and he seems to think that Sofele and Ross have the physical assets to be impact players of the same caliber.
"There's some ability, some speed on the field and ability," Tedford said. "That doesn't concern me so much, our talent on the field. A lot of those come down to decision making.
"When you catch the ball, how do you catch the ball? When do you let it go? When do you stop it so it doesn't roll? The decision-making, fielding balls that you know they're going to be sure-handed. If you stood there and handed them the ball and said 'go', there's a lot of guys that can run with it, but that's secondary to the decision making and fielding the ball clean and making sure the ball doesn't get on the ground."
Both young men have a their own technique for busting out the big return.
"Mostly just looking at my blocking, looking at the return," Ross said. "What was clogged before? How my blocks are set up and if not, how I can set them up so I can spring myself for a long run?"
"Be patient, hit the holes fast," listed Sofele. "Keep my eyes up and look for the hole."
By not all kicks are created equal. Ross explained the deference between returning a punt and returning kickoffs.
"With the punt return, it takes a tremendous amount of focus," Ross said. "You have people running at you in your face and a ball that's going I-don't-know-how-high in the air, which you're looking up at. It takes a lot of focus and you really got to stick to your technique: getting back into position, staying focused on the ball, keeping your elbows in and you will be fine. Kick return, it still takes focus but you have a little more time in the back. You got to go full speed and once you find that hole you got to hit it as hard as you can."
And based on the height and distance of junior Bryan Anger's punts, Ross is getting the best practice for the toughest return situations.
"I'm definitely grateful to have a punter like Bryan Anger because every time he punts it, I'm looking straight up in the air," Ross said. "He's not only punting it high but punting it far, so it forces me to get my hips open and really run back. Any other punter in the league won't be a big challenge."
Sofele is also in the midst of a three-back competition for field time behind starting tailback Shane Vereen, along with fellow running backs Covaughn DeBoskie-Johnson and Dasarte Yarnway.
"We're all still in tough competition," Sofele explained. "We've got a lot of guys-a lot of good guys-so tomorrow after the scrimmage I guess we'll kind of get a sense of who will be the number-two guy."
If Sofele is named Vereen's backup, as the past week of practice has indicated, both he and Tedford said it will not affect his special teams status.
"I'm pretty much solid on the return game," said Sofele. "Just wherever I can be, just play fast and I won't be injured."
"We're going to play our best guys on special teams and if he's the best at his position then he's going to play," insisted Tedford. "Mike Mohamed is covering kickoffs. We have to have our best guys playing special teams."
The team looks to have an important day on Wednesday. The scrimmage may clear the dust on depth chart status at several positions. Also, players will be tested on being able to run the system on their own.
"Today was a very light day to get ready for a big practice tomorrow," said Tedford. "We're going to do a lot of live stuff. A lot of game situations, put them in different places on the field and get off the field at let them do they're own thing.
"In practice we're out there on the field with them and if they don't know what to do, they break the huddle and you tell them what to do. Tomorrow they're going to be on their own out there. Their mistakes are going to be magnified because if they don't line up right or do the right thing it could cost us a penalty or blown assignment."
When asked if more freshmen would be seeing significant playing time than ever before, Tedford was quick to say "absolutely."
He confirmed a master list of freshmen that included receivers Keenan Allen, Tevin Carter and Kaelin Clay, linebackers David Wilkerson and Nick Forbes, defensive end Michael Coley and tight end Jacob Wark. That's at least seven freshmen looking at major minutes on the field, with Tedford indicating that Allen would likely start.
"Typically it's maybe two, three maybe," said Tedford. "These are guys that are going to make contributions on both sides of the ball. To start, most of them will be in a back-up role, ready to go in any time."
Tedford also made a few comments on the tight end unit. It appears Anthony Miller, Spencer Ladner, Jarrett Sparks and Wark will all be in the mix.
"I think we'll have four guys at least who are ready to play. Sparks has come a long way as a tight end. He can run, he can catch, he's done a good job at the point of attack. Wark has a lot of ability but again he's really young.
"Tight end is a pretty difficult position. It's pass protection, route running and reading coverage, run blocking schemes; there's a lot to learn at the tight end position. Physically he can play. He will play right away physically."
Tedford said that Vereen and veteran defensive lineman Cameron Jordan were progressing on their injuries … Earlier this week, Tedford said that Vereen could possibly return as early as Wednesday, but that no longer appears to be the case … Sofele indicated that Vereen would most likely be back as early as Friday, though next week is also a likely possibility.