Bears wide awake for season-opener

Sleep is part of the college lifestyle. Staying up late and getting up even later are as ubiquitous as beer pong and homework. Taking blind swipes at the snooze button, losing sleep, oversleeping, sleep-walking and the ever-popular passing-out-with-your-shoes-on are practically rites of passage. But not this year. Not for the Cal football team, which heads into Saturday's season-opener with UC Davis more than wide-awake.
"There's a drop-off, but it's not huge," said senior quarterback Kevin Riley, who for all the world perpetually looks like he just got out of bed himself. "They're a good team. They're predicted to win their conference this year. There is a difference, but they're scholarship players as well and they're a good team. You've got to be ready."
The Bears-and the media covering them-have had to adjust this year to a new practice schedule, one featuring early-morning workouts and meetings. All of them - gasp - before noon, something that senior linebacker Mike Mohamed has said is the biggest adjustment that the team has had to make.
"A lot of guys - including myself - we don't always go to bed before 10:00. Most guys, I would say, probably stay up past midnight. It's just a normal college thing," Mohamed said. "But, now, at 10:00, you've got to be in bed and going to sleep, because we've got to be up at six, every morning, and get up here by 6:45, 7:00, so that's the biggest adjustment."
The business major had practice with early wake-up calls this summer thanks to an internship, but other sleepy eyes in meetings have necessitated an uptick in pre-meeting music volume.
But, thanks to the new regimen, the team has more time at night to digest everything they've learned in the classroom, the meeting room, the video room and on the field, and by the time the Bears wake up on Saturday morning, none of them will even think about sleeping on the Aggies. They simply can't afford to.
"If you come out there just thinking you're going to win, not ready to play, it's going to be a fight, and you might get yourself in a bad situation, just like with Michigan and Appalachian State a couple of years back," Riley said. "There's many stories, just like that."
This is the same Davis team, after all, that defeated Stanford in 2005 and pushed this year's No. 3 Boise State to the brink just last season.
"It probably wouldn't be truthful if I said that, from top to bottom, they're as athletic as us," said Bears head coach Jeff Tedford. "I think that's probably not the case. But, that being said, you don't play with individuals. You play with a team, and they do a great job of coming together as a team. They run well, they play hard, they're tough. They don't make mistakes. You take a look at their victory over Stanford years ago, and you take a look at how they played Boise State last year at Boise - it was 27-16 with about a minute to play in the game, and they do a great job there."
While Cal is the heavy favorite going into Saturday's contest, the Bears are entering a season bereft of the lofty expectations of years past.
"From the outside looking in, there aren't very high expectations," Mohamed said. "But, for us, on the inside, our expectation is to win the Pac-10, go to the Rose Bowl, all of that. So, yeah, some teams may be overlooking us this year. We'll find out in the near future. We're just going to go out there with a chip on our shoulder, work hard and just try to win ballgames."
Cal is once again playing the role of underdog, and after two devastating losses to close out the 2009 season and two more crushing defeats at the hands of USC and Oregon, frankly, they can't afford to sleep on anyone, even FCS opponent Davis.
"Obviously, this is a game we should win. But, we don't want to overlook these guys," Mohamed said. "They've played a couple big games against big opponents in the past few years, so we just need to show up and play Cal football and not take these guys lightly, because they are going to give us their A-game.
"I don't care who it is on Saturday. I just want to play. That goes for the rest of the team, too."
In fact, Davis has played seven FBS schools since 2005, posting a 1-6 record.
That mark, along with the fact that the Aggies will be breaking in a redshirt signal-caller, have no less than a murky situation at running back and a relatively young receiving corps are all fairly good reasons to get drowsy over the thought of playing Davis.
Gone is veteran signal-caller Greg Denham, who left 6,435 passing yards and 46 touchdowns over the past two seasons on the table to join the ministry.
In Denham's place, Davis will start redshirt freshman Randy Wright, who makes his first career start on Saturday at 1 p.m. Wright will be the first freshman - true or redshirt - to start a season opener for the Aggies since Ryan Flanigan started against New Mexico Highlands in 2000.
"I think a lot of people were concerned when Greg decided to go into the ministry, and where we were going to go, particularly on the offensive side of the ball," said Davis head coach Bob Biggs. "But, I think Randy Wright, who we have given the nod as the starter, is a very talented redshirt freshman, and he has proved that in our scrimmages here in camp."
Wright will lead a spread offense that has lost two of its biggest downfield threats in Chris Carter and Bakari Grant, who had a combined 367 catches for 4,371 yards before graduating.
"I believe we've done a great job recruiting the past few years, and I think if you do a good job recruiting, you graduate people and you have people step in and take their place and fill the void," Biggs said. "I think we've done that."
That inexperience in the vertical game could very well hurt the Aggies' spread offense, which depends mainly on one-back formations with lots of receivers. Biggs has seven wide receivers listed on his depth chart going into Saturday, with all but two being sophomores or younger. After starters Sean Creadick and Anthony Soto, the third wideout spot seems wide open.
"Really it'll be three guys: Troy Udan's going to play, Steven Dunstan and Elon Wyatt," Biggs said." That'll be the five guys that'll be in the mix for the most part. Troy has been the steadiest of the three, but they all have real strengths and they'll all play a lot, and Tommy Hemmingsen is going to play a lot, too. He'll be backing up Anthony."
As a side note, the only senior wideout - Creadick - and junior Cal punter Bryan Anger were once teammates under Dennis Riedmiller at Camarillo (Calif.) High.
But the young man throwing Creadick the ball will be quite the fish out of water when he walks through the tunnel into Memorial Stadium and faces a defense coached by a former NFL defensive coordinator in Clancy Pendergast.
"We've studied the Kansas City Chiefs a lot," Biggs said. "We've watched a lot of their film, and we're assuming that the schemes are going to be similar to the 3-4 scheme that they ran there … There's going to be a feeling-out process and we'll work as best we can against what we think they're going to do."
The mastermind behind the defense, Pendergast, has given the Bears' 3-4 scheme some real teeth, taking the leash off of the playmakers and letting them attack from multiple angles with a bevy of different looks, including mid-series switches from a 3-4 to a 4-3 alignment.
"The defense we went up against in fall camp this year it's hard to figure out at times," Riley said. "They got better every single day, and they're communicating really well, which is probably the biggest thing."
That communication started improving as soon as Pendergast was hired.
"We finished installing with about a week of camp left, so now it's just getting as good as you can, given what we're going to run in each particular week. We've got everything that we want to run against Davis right now, and now it's just repetition," Mohamed said. "During spring ball, it was tough, just having to adjust to a new defense, but now, in the fall, I feel like we hit it running pretty well, just having that six months under our belt already, and I think camp's gone pretty smoothly. We're ready to showcase it on Saturday."
That new, more multiple version of the 3-4, which utilizes the Bears' speed and athleticism, is something that the Aggies have had quite a bit of trouble emulating in practice.
"What we've decided to do this week is that we've broken up our practices so we're going one's against one's or at least two's against one's so that we can simulate the speed, because to put your scout group out there in a 3-4 and try to simulate the kind of speed and athleticism, really is impossible," Biggs said. "We've really been creative, I think, and done a great job in just finding different ways of making sure we're practicing against the 3-4. We're breaking periods up where we're servicing each other, offense and defense, and it's been great. The kids have been absolutely super."
Mohamed, who will be captaining the defense from the inside linebacker spot, promised that the defense Cal fans see this year will be completely different than what they saw under former coordinator Bob Gregory.
"I want to say just tenacity," Mohamed said. "We're going to be aggressive, we're going to fly to the ball, stop the run, and our weak point was in pass coverage last year, so we're looking to improve on that. When it comes to passing situations, we want to be more aggressive. We want to get in the quarterback's face, we want to cause turnovers and just get the ball back for our offense. We're not just going to be calling blitzes when it's not smart to do so. But, there's definitely going to be some risky things at times, but also high-reward."
The addition of Pendergast - aside from breathing new life into a moribund unit - has also given some players a second chance to prove themselves, none more prominent than starting cornerback Darian Hagan.
"I think when there was a change of defensive coordinator, not to put anything on the old coordinator, but it just gave Darian, I think, a new start," Tedford said. "It was a breath of fresh air where he could start from scratch and could just kind of turn over a new leaf, and he's really done that. I've been pleased with his growth and development, not just as a player, but as a person."
For the defense to terrorize Wright, they will have to get through 6-foot-6, 300-pound senior offensive tackle Mark Tos, a two-time All-Great-West honoree and a three-year starter.
"He's a big, athletic offensive tackle with three years starting under his belt. He's seen it all," Biggs said. "I think what he does is he brings a level of confidence and calmness to the offensive line. He just doesn't get rattled by much. I think he's seen every stunt and every blitz known to man, and so I think that's a calming factor for some of the other players that don't have the same kind of experience."
Mohamed and the new-look D will have to negotiate some advanced moves from Tos's line, but that's what film study is for.
"They run a lot of single-back and the lineman try to stretch you out, so to speak," Mohamed said. "They try to get guys out of their gaps and then try to cut it back on you."
The Cal line will be anchored by a dominant tackle in Mitchell Schwartz. Beyond that, though, there are question marks. Throughout fall camp and the first week of practice, the Bears have shuffled the line around quite a bit, in part due to a knee injury to Matt Summers-Gavin that caused him to miss the majority of camp.
Thanks to a week of healthy practice, Summers-Gavin will play on Saturday, but will not start at either left guard - next to Schwartz, where he spent the early part of camp - or at right tackle.
The line that takes the field on Saturday will likely look like this: Schwartz at left tackle, Brian Schwenke at left guard, Chris Guarnero at center, Justin Cheadle at right guard and the versatile [db]Donovan Edwards at right tackle.
"It still comes down to blocking, pass protecting and being able to do the work up front," Tedford said. "At tight end, I think Anthony Miller's a very good player, and some of those guys behind him have really come along well. While they may be young, I think they have the potential to be very good."
Behind that line will be the grizzled veteran Riley, who returns with more confidence and yes - even swagger - than he has ever had.
"When you have a year's experience, putting it all together, it makes me a lot more comfortable back there, playing," said Riley, who will benefit from having the same offensive coordinator - Andy Ludwig - two years in a row for the first time in his career.
"This is going to be a great season. I know it is," Riley said, with a smile spreading across his bristled face. "I'm very confident in this team. We're having fun, and I can't wait to play. Like I've said a bunch of times, this is my last year, maybe ever playing football, and I'm going to go out with a bang."
Riley has matured greatly over the past several years, and now no longer has to deal with some of the frantic decision-making that younger QBs are susceptible to, like young Mr. Wright.
"Eye discipline comes with experience, and knowing what you're doing, knowledge and being comfortable in the pocket," Tedford said. "You can tell quarterbacks that aren't real comfortable, if their eyes come down quickly, it usually means two things: they're not comfortable in the pocket or they don't know what they're looking for. Neither one of those fit Kevin."
Riley's eyes will be squarely on a much-improved WR corps, featuring true freshman phenom Keenan Allen.
"Keenan is so happy-go-lucky that I don't even think he knows where he's at right now," Tedford chuckled. "He is just a guy, who loves playing football, and it doesn't matter who it's against or anything like that. He's a great athlete who has a lot of confidence-in the right way-in his ability, and he's done a great job of picking things up mentally. That's the biggest thing: the learning curve for a true freshman, to come in, so he's done a great job. Coach (Kevin) Daft has done a great job with his preparation."
Allen has come in with tremendous fanfare, but Tedford says that his five-star prodigy is keeping his head in check, helped in no small part by the man starting opposite him - Marvin Jones. Behind that tandem will be Jeremy Ross, Coleman Edmond, Michael Calvin and Alex Lagemann, quite a potent sextet of targets.
"I think it has potential, but it's still about execution," Tedford said of his offense. "I think our receiving corps, be it a little bit inexperienced, I think is talented. Young guys like Keenan Allen, Michael Calvin, those guys are really getting their first-Keenan obviously more than Michael, because Michael has been in a game before-but those guys are talented. I think the potential there to make big plays, I think they have that."
Riley and his corps of pass-catchers will be up against a 4-3 Davis defense that has been gutted by the loss of All-America linebacker Mike Morales - who ranked third on Davis' career list with 261 career tackles - and defensive end Patrick Michelier, who posted 20 tackles-for-loss in his career (6th all-time for the Aggies).
"In terms of getting ready for the game, it's the same thing. Every opponent, you can't take lightly," Riley said. "The Boise State game last year with UC Davis, (the Broncos) scored in the last two minutes, but it was a pretty tight game the whole game, and Boise State's a good team, obviously. Davis brings a couple of looks that we're definitely going to have to pick up.
"They're things you see, but they disguise them pretty well with some pressures in third-down situations and things like that. You just got to be aware of it, and if you don't catch it, it can get ugly."
While Davis has lost its leaders, Cal has added one in the veteran Mohamed, who has taken his new role with great humility.
"Mike was the leading tackler in the conference last year, and he's a great player, a great leader, just solid in all areas. He brings a lot of stability to that group," Tedford said. "He's a very smart guy who understands everything he's doing, and I think he's a calming force. He can be both - he can be a calming force out there, and he can also light a fire under people. Obviously, going into his senior year, he's one of the mainstays there on defense."
This year, in addition to working on wagging his tongue just a bit more, Mohamed - who led the conference in tackles last season - has also added more muscle for his final year in blue and gold.
"It's made me a better player," Mohamed said. "I think, just in terms of having the extra pounds in dealing with linemen, dealing with blocks, things like that. It hasn't slowed me down at all. I feel like I'm moving just as well as I ever have, and that's the most important thing. If you're going to put on the weight, you've got to be able to move it."
BearTerritory's Game-Breaker of the Week
Don't think that we got this far into the preview and completely forgot about starting tailback Shane Vereen.
With the loss of first-round draft-pick Jahvid Best, the weight of the Bears' running back legacy and the Cal ground attack will fall squarely on Vereen's shoulders, and he will not disappoint.
"He's the same as he always is. He's a solid player. I mean, he's going to get big plays with the holes, he'll get chunk yardage, short yardage; he's a durable back," Riley said. "I don't think we can give him the ball 42 times a game like we did against Stanford, but Shane does everything well: pass blocking, catching the ball out on routes, and I just expect him to keep on doing what he did last year, but elevating his game."
On just 183 touches-42 of those coming in the Big Game against Stanford-Vereen rushed for 952 yards and 12 TDs in 2009, averaging 5.2 yards per carry. Best ran the ball 141 times for 867 and a dozen scores as well, averaging 6.1 yards per carry.
While Vereen may be just a hair slower than Jahvid as far as straight-line speed, he does have the added dimension of being a better pass-catching option out of the backfield.
Ever since they were freshmen, Jahvid has been The Jet and Shane has been The Train. Expect Vereen to display the same kind of toughness that pushed him to rush 20 times for 122 yards while fighting through several knee and rib injuries in the Poinsettia Bowl.
"People want to just think of him as a quick slash guy, but he's tough. He's a tough son of a gun. A real emphasis for us is just making sure we get lots of hats to the ball, because they find different ways and create different ways to get the ball to him, and he's a game-breaker," Biggs said. "He can score at any point from any place on the field, and he's just one of those kinds of really innovative, creative type of players that you can never relax on. You have to know where he is on the field at all times, and that's been a point of emphasis. We realize, in the open field, he's going to be a tough guy to bring down, one-on-one, and we've got to get a lot of people to the ball."
Though Vereen missed quite a bit of camp due to a balky hamstring, Tedford said that his starting tailback will be more than ready to go against Davis.
"Shane's doing fine," Tedford said. "He's had a little over a week of practice now, and so he's bursting, everything's fine, and I think that if there was any rust when he came back from his hamstring, it's gone now."
Expect Vereen to rack up yards early on Saturday, and then be spelled by backups Isi Sofele, Covaughn DeBoskie-Johnson and Dasarte Yarnway.
"Isi is our backup back and he's done a nice job through camp, and I'm anxious to see him play for real, as well," Tedford said.
• This will be Davis' first Pac-10 opponent since stunning Stanford 20-17 in 2005.
• Davis is 2-17 all-time against current members of the Pac-10.
• Cal will be the first of two FBS teams that the Aggies face this year, with the second being San Jose State.
• Bob Biggs is GWC Coach of the Year.
• This is Davis' fourth season at the Division I level.
• Cal is 8-0 all-time against the Aggies. All of those games came between 1932 and 1939. The Bears outscored Davis 299-20 over those eight contests.
BearTerritory's Score Prediction: 50-3, Cal.