BERKELEY -- With some of the West Coast's top recruits roaming the sidelines during the California football team's first fall practice, Saturday marked the first collegiate action for one of the top running back targets of 2011: Brendan Bigelow, and his twice-operated-on knee.
"Everything's good," said Bigelow, who had a light wrap on his ankle. "It feels really nice. It feels good to be back, to actually put on the helmet and everything. I'm just happy to be back."
Head coach Jeff Tedford was pleased with Bigelow's first practice, and said that his potential star tailback is "100 percent."
"He looked good, he looked really good," Tedford said. "He was smooth. Didn't do a lot in team, but in drill work, we were watching him really close, and he looked very smooth. He looks 100 percent."
Bigelow looked sharp catching passes early during the first portion of practice, and he's done a lot of work making sure that his knee can withstand the constant cuts and changes of direction that will be ramped up as camp moves on to pads and shells in the coming days.
"It's been strong, but it's just gotten stronger," Bigelow said of his right knee. "Over the past few weeks, I've been up here, and it's been all-out."
Bigelow's knee brace may remind Cal fans of the massive sleeve that Jahvid Best wore during the 2008 season, but, he said, it's very light unintrusive.
"It is big, huh? That's what I've been telling them," Bigelow laughed. "It's pretty good. I like it. It's not heavy. It's light, and I'm going to work with it. I'll probably wear it for maybe half of the season, depending on how I do."
Saturday's practice was helmets-only, so as the camp progresses, Bigelow will see more contact and will get to test his new wheels.
"It feels good, I mean, it just feels really nice," Bigelow said.
One of the biggest factors in Bigelow's recovery has been the Bears new strength and conditioning guru, Mike Blasquez.
"He's had me do hamstring curls, start and finish, I always have to make sure I have a good lean with it, no false steps," Bigelow said. "I'm just staying positive, making sure I have a clear mind going into it. I find it easy, because I have a brace now and I know that it's stable."
Tedford said that Bigelow could indeed be the fastest player on the team, if he ever lets it all hang out, and likens a race between Bigelow and wide receiver Kaelin Clay to the fabled match-ups between Best and DeSean Jackson. On a side note, Clay was sidelined late in practice with a tweaked knee. Tedford said it wasn't a big concern, and that Clay will get checked out before tomorrow's session.
"I would guess he's the second-fastest guy on the team," Tedford said of Clay. "Now, Bigelow, he may have taken it over for the fastest guy on the team. That would be a good race. That would be like DeSean and Jahvid. That'd be one of those. I think because Bigelow's been injured, we wouldn't know, but when Jahvid came here, that was a big deal: who was fastest, between those two. They ran 100s one day, and lined up next to one another, and they got out and they went. It was really just on the first one that they went out and Jahvid got out early and then went to the side and DeSean went woosh! I don't know if it was a real race, because I think Jahvid was being the young freshman, like, 'I know what should happen.' Those are two of the fastest people I've ever seen on the football field."
Bigelow admits to having that competitive itch to see who indeed is the fastest.
"There's a couple guys who want to race me," he smiled. "I'm going to give them their race in due time. I feel faster [than before the injury]. The rehabbing stuff and just feeling confident in my speed and making sure it feels good, I feel a lot stronger. I feel like I've got an extra gear, just waiting to come out. It's been a while since I put on a helmet and pads, but it's definitely a good feeling. It's been a while: a year and a half."
The biggest challenge for the coaching staff this camp will be finding reps for the multitude tailbacks in the stable, including presumptive starter Isi Sofele, No. 2 back Covaughn DeBoskie-Johnson, Bigelow, Mike Manuel, Dasarte Yarnway, Trajuan Briggs, true freshman Daniel Lasco and Laney College transfer C.J. Anderson.
"That's a challenge through camp, to get seven tailbacks reps. We're going to bring the young guys along a little bit slow, and you don't want to overwhelm them," Tedford said. "Running back is a position that is very cerebral, with running the football, pass protection, routes, you name it, there's a lot of stuff there for them. You don't want to put them in there and discourage them."
DeBoskie-Johnson ran primarily with the second string, and looked to have lost a bit of the extra weight he was carrying during the spring.
"I think he weighed in at 211, or something like that," Tedford said. "He should be able to perform better, given that his weight's down. He was a little heavy in the spring. I think that put a lot of stress on his knees and ankles and things, so he looks better now."
Bigelow was singled out by Tedford multiple times in the offseason as one of the newcomers who could see early playing time because of his explosiveness and big-play potential, but the always-jovial Bigelow feels no pressure.
"There are a lot of areas that I need to work on, but I do feel like I'll be ready when the season starts," Bigelow said. "I think I could play. I think so. I just want to contribute to the team and help them out.
"Coach [Ron] Gould is a great coach. The best. I'm just learning a whole lot and as time goes, I'm hoping I can learn a whole lot from him."
-- The starting offensive line took a bit of a hit on Saturday, as left tackle Mitchell Schwartz was sidelined with a bit of a hamstring issue.
"He's just got a little bit of a twinge in his hamstrong, so we're just making sure that calms down," Tedford said.
In Schwartz's place, junior Tyler Rigsbee played on the left side. The rest of the first-string line filled out thusly: Brian Schwenke at left guard, Dominic Galas at center, Justin Cheadle at right guard and Matt Summers-Gavin at right tackle.
The second line consisted of Bill Tyndall at left tackle, Justin Gates at left guard, Mark Brazinski at center, Alejandro Crosthwaite at right guard and Matt Williams at right tackle.
-- At tight end, junior Spencer Ladner was still on the shelf, though he was walking around without crutches or a brace on his surgically-repaired knee. Tedford said he will be out for about another week.
In his place, newly-converted wide receiver Spencer Hagan ran with the twos at tight end, and with an additional 25 pounds of muscle on his frame, acquitted himself quite well.
"Coach B has changed the whole atmosphere of our team," Hagan said. "In the weight room and in conditioning, he's really pushed me along with the strength coaches he has brought on. They've really pushed me, and put me in a position to be explosive without being tired."
The biggest difference for Hagan from his previous position has been the blocking aspect of his new slot, something he's taken to with great aplomb.
"You have to know more of the game," Hagan said. "You don't just have to know the passing game; you have to know all the running schemes, all the run-block schemes, and that's a whole new area that I wasn't aware of. We would block as receivers, but to actually understand what the line is doing up front, it's a different world, and coach [Jeff] Genyk has really helped me understand that."
Tedford said that his newest tight end will "definitely" be in the top three. On Saturday, he was running with the twos.
-- Jarrett Sparks was not in attendance, and is not in school. Tedford said that he is currently ineligible.
"I don't know if all the information's in, but as of right now, he's ineligible. Unless something happens," Tedford said. "As of right now, I don't expect him to play this season."
True freshman defensive back Jordan Morgan was also absent. Due to offseason ankle surgery, he will take a greyshirt and return in the spring.
-- Senior wide receiver Coleman Edmond, who fought through injuries last season, looked very strong on Saturday, making several eye-popping catches, including a 35-yard grab on the right sideline. Edmond looked to be one of the many beneficiaries of the Blasquez Plan, showing off some much-increased muscle mass. He was also among a group of returners that included Manuel, Stefan McClure, Bigelow and Lasco.
"He has great speed, his body is in great shape. I mean, look at him. He's in great shape, he's worked really hard and he can really run," Tedford said. "It means a lot to him. I'm really hoping that we can get him an opportunity to show."
Also showing up well on the receiving side was the brother of starting quarterback Zach Maynard -- sophomore star Keenan Allen -- and the third member of the family, Maurice Harris. Some of the best grabs of the day, though, belonged to senior receiver Marvin Jones, who hauled in a 40-yard bomb from Maynard at the beginning of practice by showing off his new leaping abilities.
"That's what you expect," Tedford said. "That's what you expect of them. He's a competitor and Keenan made a ton of great catches today and I still think that that's one of the strengths of our team is our receiving corps."
Walk-on Bryce McGovern also turned in a nice grab for a handful of yards on the left sideline, right in front of former Danville (Calif.) Monta Vista teammate Dalis Bruce, who was in the house along with several other recruits.
-- Defensive tackle Viliami Moala was impressive in what the media could see of the defense (much was blocked by the offense at the west end of Witter Rugby Field). The jovial bowling ball was all smiles during his first practice, and afterward, splashed into the ice baths with some of the other defenders. Seeing four 300-plus pounders in one tiny tub was, to say the least, one of the more amusing sights of camp, as was defensive end Mustafa Jalil's new beard. All kidding aside, Jalil looked to be in much better shape than he was in high school, and moved around with some good speed.
"He's probably down to about 358 now. Even at 370, he doesn't look it. He's just a thick person. He's a big guy," Tedford said of Moala, who could wind up as a three-down player. "We'll see how it goes. It's still really early. We don't know any of those things until we get pads on. After our first scrimmage, we'll have a better idea really how they fit in."
-- Other 2011 recruits that showed well were McClure -- who saw time with the second string -- and Brennan Scarlett.
"Brennan Scarlett has really stood out as being a guy who looks like he's physically ready to play," said Tedford, who also was impressed with tight end Richard Rodgers. "Yeah, today, in drill work. He can run and catch a ball. He's got to get used to his weight. He's gained a lot of weight. He's big. He's got a little caboose."