BERKELEY-While the Cal football team's offensive line has been largely in a state of flux since the beginning of fall camp, there is one man who has remained steadfast: left tackle Mitchell Schwartz.
Schwartz protects the all-important blindside for senior quarterback Kevin Riley, and is a two-time defending All-Pac-10 honorable mention honoree. But the rest of the line continues to be a question mark, especially after an unspectacular performance against an undersized UC Davis.
"It definitely wasn't as clean as we would have liked it to have been," Schwartz said. "Some of our combo blocks, we've got to work better and work together, that's the whole point of a combo block-two guys on one-and we weren't really doing a great job on that. The whole line has got to focus on technique and we're emphasizing working together this week."
Head coach Jeff Tedford was happy with the performance of his two guards, Brian Schwenke and Justin Cheadle, who started at left and right guard, respectively on Saturday.
"Schwenke and Cheadle were the starters, and Dominic Galas ended up playing some center for us most of the game. They did alright," Tedford said. "We can improve there. They can … we all need to be better, up front, everywhere. We need to be better each and every week."
Communication will be key in opposing a Colorado defensive line that has something to prove after the Buffaloes finished last season ranked 57th in total defense. Of Colorado's starting four defensive linemen, three have two or fewer years of experience, with 6-foot-2, 280-pound senior Marquez Herrod being the only three-year veteran. 6-foot-4, 280-pound sophomore nose tackle Will Pericak is the biggest body up front, but has only one year under his belt.
"I don't think they're as small as you think on tape. I think they're pretty decently-sized, and they look really good, actually," Schwartz said. "They're really quick, playing hard, it'll be a good challenge for us."
The biggest task for the line will be making holes for Cal's stable of tailbacks, headed by junior Shane Vereen. On Saturday against the Aggies, Vereen didn't break off any big runs, and occasionally struggled finding holes in time.
"Those backs have to read everything that's happening so fast, and maybe it's him just getting back into game shape, having missed a few weeks of camp," Schwartz said. "But, I'm not really worried about it. Shane, I mean, you've seen his production. He's going to have a great game."
Schwartz doesn't believe that it had anything to do with the musical chairs that the offensive linemen have been playing. In fact, he believes that the other linemen understanding what the man next to them is doing will help in the long run.
"I think it's actually great," Schwartz said. "Guys are learning multiple positions, and it helps them understand not only their position, but how the line works as a whole. The offensive line isn't about just doing your job, but knowing what other guys are doing, and helping them when you can. It's been great in getting our depth, especially the competition. The competition's been great. It helps everybody push each other."
That experience will be of paramount importance facing a Colorado defensive scheme that has several interesting wrinkles.
"They bring a lot of pressures, a lot of field dog, as I've seen," said Riley. "I haven't seen too much film, but from what I have seen, they like to bring pressure. Mostly, they use nickel a lot more than most teams. If you're in a base set, they'll have four down linemen, two linebackers and five DBs, so they like to use their speed. They bring safeties in the box and they mix it up pretty well."
The biggest factor in opening up the running game-save for the line-will be the effectiveness of the passing game, especially the performance of Keenan Allen and Marvin Jones against a talented Buffaloes secondary that includes senior stars Jalil Brown and Jimmy Smith, as well as a consistent safety in Anthony Perkins and a sophomore on the cusp of a breakthrough in Ray Polk.
"Colorado is more aggressive and they play man," said Jones. "They have good athletes, so we just have to prepare. They're big, and they're physical. About 6-1, 6-2, 205, and I've never played against corners that big. The first thing that jumps out is their physicality. We've just got to practice, practice and keep practicing. Our corners are big and physical, too, so it's not really a big change. We've just got to get prepared for that."
Those physical defensive backs-including 6-foot-3, 212-pound senior safety Chris Conte and 6-foot-1, 191-pound senior corner Bryant Nnabuife-will have to contend with a three-wideout pro-set offense highlighted by 5-foot-11, 185-pound senior playmaker Scotty McKnight, who caught 76 passes last season for 893 yards and six scores for a 3-9 Buffaloes squad. Other starts include Michigan transfer Toney Clemons, a 6-foot-2, 210-pound junior who caught 11 passes for 101 yards for the Wolverines when he last saw action in 2008.
In Clemons' first game with Colorado, he hauled in three catches for 25 yards.
"I think that's the difference between their team this year and their team last year: they have more speed at the receiver positions," Tedford said. "Scotty McKnight, was really their only playmaker last year, that I saw, and now they have a few others that can really run and stretch the field and do stuff with the ball in their hands once they catch it. They have two running backs who are very good players."
Throwing them the football will be the imminently-mobile junior quarterback Tyler Hansen, who, though a bit undersized at 6-foot-1, 205, has rushed for 324 yards on 155 attempts in his two-plus seasons in Boulder, to go along with 1,912 passing yards on 180-of-321, with 11 TDs and 12 picks.
"Their quarterback can really hurt you in the passing game, and he can pull it down and run with the football," Tedford said. "He's very athletic, so we're going to have to keep him contained or he can make some big plays there."