BERKELEY-The Cal football team's slow double-day ended Thursday afternoon with a short practice composed purely of walk-throughs, all part of head coach Jeff Tedford's plan to get his players a well-needed mental day.
"We've been hitting quite a bit," said Tedford. "The guys have been hitting and we've made a major emphasis on running and they have all done a great job of trying to do everything we've asked them to do. But it's been very physical."
Even senior starting quarterback Kevin Riley-who has put in more than his fair share of work both on the field and off during this, his final offseason-agreed that the team needed a bit of a break to help refocus and re-dedicate themselves.
"We've been going hard every single day," said an exhausted Riley, fresh off of the 75-row climb up the eastern stands of Memorial Stadium. "People have been pounding up front-fullbacks, O-linemen, D-linemen, linebackers-they have just been going at it. Every body is sore, and I think Coach (Tedford) just understood that if he wants these next couple of days to be hard practices with everybody going at full-speed, we need a little rest today. It was a good mental day."
Even without shoulder pads, practices have been tough all week long. Thursday afternoon, the players were not even in helmets.
"Even the times we don't have pads on they play physical," Tedford said. "So, every day for the interior guys, it's banging every day. So it was really important today to back off and do some walk-through type stuff where they're not hitting all the time."
It wasn't just the hitting that's been taking a toll on Tedford's personnel. The receivers and secondary needed a break from the constant, high-octane competition in which they have been embroiled.
"That was this morning; we didn't hit, and then this afternoon we didn't hit plus we got the receivers to rest their legs," Tedford said. "Hitting is one part of it, but running and dead legs is another, so now it's time to start betting them back healthy, get them back fresh and have a real productive three days."
According to both players and coaches, this year's camp has been more physical than ever.
"How hard we've been going, this is probably a tougher camp that I have been a part of since I have been here," explained Riley. "With how hard people are going and just wanting to win every rep, I'd say that's probably the biggest thing so far."
For Tedford, the physicality is a means to an end.
"It's because we need to play live. We have some young people playing, we have a new defense where people need to be evaluated," said Tedford. "These guys are going so hard even when you give them a tempo that you might as well be going live. Toughness and hitting are not going to be an issue with them."
But Thursday afternoon was back to the basics. Tedford wanted to make sure that in an off-day as far as contact was concerned, his players would be able to pay special attention to what was going on around them on the field.
"Now we need to get fresh," Tedford said. "We need to have mental practices, we need to know what we're doing. Not to say we're done hitting-because we're not-but you can only go so far until you need to give them a little break so that you can get some more out of them. And then there's always that time in camp where it's time to get their legs back and get them fresh, and now is that time."
Is it inspiring to see his players going all-out every play in camp, even when they don't have pads on?
"Yeah it is but I always have my fingers crossed," said a cautious Tedford. "When they don't have pads on, you can still hear the whack, whack, whack, whack, and they're big physical guys, so they're hitting.
"That's why sometimes we take the helmets off because if they have their helmets on you're going to get shoulders and things like that because they are just going to put their face onto people's shoulders. So we take their helmets off that way we know they aren't going to stick their heads in there. But they're moving fast, it's really hard to pull them back and say slow down because they want to play fast."
With Tedford planning on playing more freshmen than ever this year, he took the time Thursday afternoon to explain what it takes to transition a first-year player from camp to game day.
"A lot of mental work," Tedford said. "(It takes) lots of meetings, a lot of walk-throughs, those type of things. They will play so much faster if they know what they're doing. If they are unsure, if they are kind of paralyzed because they are over-thinking things, we don't want that. I was pleased with yesterday's practice because they were aligned well and they knew their assignments."
A lot of the responsibility for the Bears' success in 2010 will be squarely set on Riley's shoulders, and the senior signal-caller is confident that the offseason work which he has put in will pay off when the season kicks off on Sept. 4.
"There are a lot of drills I did this off-season to change my game," Riley said. "Most of it is just with my feet and how I'm moving. A big thing was that I lifted hard for the first time in my life, and have gotten a lot stronger and I'm just throwing the ball easily better than I ever have in my entire life. If you just watch, you can see the ball coming out of my hand and it's spinning faster, getting there, getting in better spots with the players."
Riley is also more than pleased with his talented receiving corps. Riley acknowledged not only the extraordinary talent of the freshmen class, but how returning players have really stepped up.
"Compared to last year, right now I'm feeling great," Riley said. "Those new guys are players, but not just that, the guys who played last year are a lot better. Everyone knows about Marvin Jones, but he's gotten better. I'd say the biggest people are Jeremy Ross and Michael Calvin from last year. Just how much they've improved their game and consistency level and just competing more, that's a huge thing right there."
With the improvements both in himself and in his receivers, Riley is confident that Cal's passing game could do some great things in 2010.
"We're going to throw the ball this year, and we're going to throw it well," Riley said. "Coaches have more confidence in the passing game right now, which makes them more comfortable calling plays and it's just going to be a better offense as a whole. We're throwing the ball right now better than we did midseason last year because our receivers have worked, we have more plays and we're consistently making more plays."
With his days in Strawberry Canyon coming to an end, Riley wants to make sure that all of the strides he has made this offseason bear fruit, and that, when it's all said and done, he leaves it all out on the field.
"I've worked harder this past off-season than I ever have, knowing this could be my last year ever, and I'm feeling good where I'm at but I have to keep on getting better everyday," Riley said.
Meanwhile, the other focus of the Bears' attack-junior tailback Shane Vereen-has returned to practice from a balky hamstring, though he really only participated during walk-throughs. After practice, Vereen described the frustration of being sidelined for the entirety of fall camp thus far.
"It kind of ate at me a little bit, because it had been so long since I had been out there," said Vereen. "Just not being out there, I can't wait to get back. I've been itching to get back and now I'm able to do that this week. (Friday) will be the first practice and I'm excited for it."
Tedford wouldn't confirm that Vereen will take hits on Friday, but left the door open. Vereen, for his part, believes he's ready to get back to work.
"It's up to trainer Wes (McGaugh), but after talking to him today I'm pretty sure that I'll be able to go tomorrow," Vereen said. "I feel fine. I've been feeling good for a couple of days now, couple of weeks actually. I haven't been really feeling any problems with it. It was just part of getting my strength back and getting back into things."
Last year Vereen's body took a serious pounding, particularly after Jahvid Best's season-ending injury thrust him into the starting role. The tailbacks competing for the No. 2 spot will surely lighten the toll on Vereen's body, and the junior back has great confidence in his bevy of backups.
"All three of them (Isi Sofele, Dasarte Yarnway and Covaughn DeBoskie-Johnson) bring something different to the table as well, and that's exciting," Vereen said. "They each can do their own thing and they are each exciting to watch. I think it will be easier on my body from a physical standpoint, but I'm excited to see them play, just to see them run."
• After the evening session on Thursday, Tedford rattled off a list of players he said would be starting come Sept. 4. That list included linemen Mitchell Schwartz and Richard Fisher, Vereen, Riley, tight end Anthony Miller, wide receivers Jones and Keenan Allen, defensive line veteran Cameron Jordan and linebackers Mychal Kendricks and Mike Mohamed.
• Sophomore defensive lineman Kendrick Payne will likely start in what Tedford described to be a very competitive position at nose tackle. D.J. Holt would start at linebacker if he was healthy, but in his absence, Tedford continues to express interest in true freshmen David Wilkerson and Nick Forbes.
• Junior safety Sean Cattouse is still out with what Tedford described to be a "significant hamstring" injury, with Chris Conte and D.J. Campbell serving as the starters at safety should Cattouse's injury cost him time during the regular season.
• Marc Anthony, Steve Williams, Darian Hagan and Bryant Nnabuife are all neck-and-neck-and-neck-and-neck for the two starting cornerback spots.