BERKELEY-Speed kills. It's the one thing you cannot teach or coach. It's also the Cal football team's biggest weapon. And on Wednesday, when the team suits up in full pads for the first time this fall, that speed will be tested.
"You just have to play fast," said head coach Jeff Tedford. "If you play fast, you play smart, and if everybody is playing at the same pace, the injuries will be limited."
But, before that, the Bears had to get through their fourth day of fall camp, and that speed was on display yet again in all three phases of the game.
On offense, aside from the usual suspects Keenan Allen and Coleman Edmond, physical freshman Tevin Carter provided plenty of excitement, highlighted by a great, finger-tip catch on the right sideline over the defending corner. After grabbing the pass out of the air, Carter showed enough pose to ensure that both his toes touched in-bounds-a veteran move from the 2010 recruit.
Junior wide receiver Marvin Jones also solidified his bona fides as the No. 1, making a superb adjustment mid-jump to a ball in-flight to haul in a first-down catch.
Wideout Jeremy Ross also showed up well against a first-team defense that was flying around the field all day, hauling in a 10-yard screen pass from starting quarterback Kevin Riley on the left sideline for a substantial gain.
While there were a few big plays in the passing game, Tuesday's focus appeared to be primarily on the run game, solidifying the depth chart behind injured starter Shane Vereen, who is still sidelined with a balky hamstring, but did take part in some light throwing and agility drills.
"His hamstring is coming along each day," Tedford said.
In the backfield, Isi Sofele got the bulk of first-team reps and showed off his trademark darting, weaving style in evading both defensive linemen and linebackers, breaking off for several big runs in 11-on-11 drills late in the day.
When Sofele wasn't filling in for Vereen, Dasarte Yarnway took the first-team snaps, running hard and low to get some tough yards in third-down situations. Wednesday, however, will be the true test, as the Bears will don full pads for the first time this fall.
"Then, it's real football," Tedford said. "There's a lot of things that happen when you know there's no contact. You start to be cut at the line of scrimmage, so you start working on some different fundamentals. Guys have to play blocks well enough, get their hands down, and we have to get used to moving our feet to get in position to cut people and things like that. You take it to the next step. It's not really for the receivers, because they're really going to be doing the things that they've been doing every day. It's really more for the running backs and the tight ends, the linemen, the d-linemen and linebackers."
The defense earned its wings today, with both starters and newcomers thriving in defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast's new, more ambitious scheme.
"I think we're going to continue to see that through camp," Tedford said of the increasing speed on defense as the new scheme sinks in. "As they continue to master the defense, I think they're going to (get faster). Any time you know what you're doing, you play faster."
For the past two days, the focus in post-practice tape sessions has appeared to be on the outside linebackers, who had earlier sported white tape stripes on their helmets to track eye movement, but today wore the Bears' trademark golden claw design. It seems that the strategy has paid dividends, especially with the younger backers.
Freshman linebacker David Wilkerson was able to chase down speedy recruiting classmate Kaelin Clay in pass coverage, and teamed with cornerback Darian Hagan to limit the speedy freshman to a seven-yard gain on a pass from second-string QB Beau Sweeney.
Another standout on defense today was sophomore Tyre Ellison, who picked up an interception on a pass from Ryan Wertenberger to Quinn Tedford on the 20.
"Tyre maybe a special teams player," Tedford said. "He's competing to get on the bus, really, right now. He's not in the starting two right now, but anybody who can be a utility player, that can back up and that you can have confidence in and that can play special teams, those are always the guys that are right on the bubble."
Starting corner Bryant Nnabuife continued to solidify his position on the depth chart, contributing a nice pass break-up on a pass from Sweeney to Clay on third-and-seven.
Sweeney did seem to benefit from a bit more time in the pocket than was afforded Riley, thanks in large part to second-string center Dominic Galas, who is making a hard push behind starter Chris Guarnero. Both the first- and second-team lines performed well in their second day without star lineman Matt Summers-Gavin.
"They're fine, I mean, there's a lot of guys and Matt doesn't make our offensive line," Tedford said. "We still have a lot of guys, a lot of pieces, competing and doing their job. But, tomorrow's going to be real football. Really, the defense always has an advantage when you don't have pads on, so there's no fear to get cut because you don't have to protect your legs. They slow down a little bit when you start going after the legs. Things are pretty clogged up right now, with the defense doing a great job, but things tend to open up more when you get guys on the ground."
Once more elements of the playbook are installed, Cal's speed will most certainly allow both the offense and the special teams to open up to full throttle.
"We really haven't done anything, special-team-wise, really just drill-work," Tedford said. "We haven't put it all together yet, but Steven Fanua is a guy who should be a major contributor on special teams."
New special teams coordinator Jeff Genyk has seen some encouraging signs even this early, though.
"It's very basic, you know," Genyk said. "All the special teams are really in the drill phase at this point in time, where we're still evaluating some of our new players. Then, from there, we're slowly piecing it together. It's really one of those things where you want to install the basic fundamentals first before you get too far advanced and start doing things where you aren't fundamentally sound."
Right now, Genyk is concentrating on the basics, the building blocks of what is expected to be a much-improved special teams unit. But, even at this early juncture, potential stars are emerging.
"I've been excited just to have Mychal Kendricks back," Genyk said. "I didn't get a chance to see him in spring, and I think he can be a very effective special team player. And then, obviously the young receivers and young corners all are very impressive. They just have to learn about special teams and how they can contribute early. I think guys like Josh Hill, C.J. Moncrease, D.J. Campbell are all really in a position to help us."
As it stands, it looks like Edmond and Ross will see much of the action on punt returns, with speedy cornerback Steve Williams and Sofele set as the primary kickoff weapons.
"Obviously, Jeremy Ross did a nice job for us, and Shane Vereen is a possibility," Genyk said. "Isi Sofele is also in the mix. But, also, those young receivers are also in the mix, so it gives us some options. It's the same crew of guys, really (for both kicks and punts). We also want to be able to see them respond when we have people come out there and attack them.
"Catching the college punt is really a different experience than catching a high school punt, because you can field 30, 40 punts in high school and maybe only one or two actually have that four- or five-second hang time, those high spirals. So, that takes a lot of work, plus, you want to have some adverse weather conditions as far as wind is concerned, and fortunately, we're getting that."
Williams continued to make a strong case for the starting corner spot, making a dramatic, leaping pass break-up in early-practice team drills. Freshman defensive back Dash Oliver-an early entrant to the highly-unofficial BearTerritory All-Name team-also showed some serious hops in breaking up passes.
The kickers in camp are largely a familiar cast of characters, with veteran Bryan Anger locking down the starting punting job and the tandem of Giorgio Tavecchio and Vince D'Amato holding down placekicking duties.
The real surprise has been true freshman walk-on Jed Barnett, a punter/placekicker out of Washington.
"Today was the first time that we really decided to do some competitive evaluations," Genyk said. "We had kind of let him get acclimated for the first four days, and they had brand-new footballs out there, which are usually bugaboos for kickers, and now, they've been broken in for four days, so you're able to get a little better sweet spot on them. Initially, I was concerned just from the standpoint of a new ball, new shoes, new environment, but today we did some kickoffs and he responded really well."
Even at this early stage of camp, Barnett-who, at 6-foot-2, 212 pounds looks more like a linebacker than a kicker-has secured the backup punting spot behind Anger.
"Jed Barnett is the backup, yeah. He's put himself in a position from a punting standpoint that he's really competing for that backup spot, and Bryan will get better with some competition, also," Genyk said. "I think that (Barnett) is certainly a Division I punter, and I think that from a kickoff standpoint, it's probably just too early to tell. I've got to watch the video and we've got to put all of our specialists in pretty severe pressure situations as it pertains to our own team, so that they're ready to go on gameday."
Those pressure situations will include the box drill that Genyk introduced in spring, where both kickers and punters try to place the ball in a 10-yard box of players starting at the 10-yard line and extending into the end zone, where every kick or punt landed has an effect on post-practice conditioning.
"I think that's one of those things where, any time we can put our specialists in pressure situations, where they have to respond, and if they do respond, the team is rewarded and if they don't respond, it's somewhat punished, I think it's a good situation," Genyk said. "I think it'll be a positive for them."
The biggest change this year in camp has been the addition of musical accompaniment for warm-ups and post-practice cool-downs, and on Tuesday, we finally found out just how the playlists are assembled. Each coach on staff gets three songs per day, and Tuesday was running backs coach Ron Gould's day to be the DJ. Gould picked a mixture of soft jazz and old-school funk, quite the departure from the hard rock and hip-hop played during the first three days of camp … Other pass-cathcers making some noise on Tuesday were sophomore Ross Bostock-who hauled in a five-yard fade from Allan Bridgford, split the defensive backs and scampered in for a touchdown in coverage-and fullback John Tyndall, who reeled in a seven-yard strike from Sweeney for a first down in team drills … Tight end Spencer Ladner caught a pass over the middle for a 45-yard score towards the end of practice, shedding several hits in the secondary before finding paydirt.