Cal faces a crossroads of identity in 2011

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Editor's Note: In Part I of this series stemming from a lengthy interview with head coach Jeff Tedford at the Pac-12 Media Day, BearTerritory asks what exactly is the Cal football team's identity? What do they hang their helmets on? The answer is a bit more complicated than one would think.
LOS ANGELES -- Who are the 2011 California Golden Bears?
Are they a team of under-achievers? Over-achievers? Are they a rag-tag bunch of disparate parts? Will they truly unite behind strength coach Mike Blasquez's Team Matters mantra?
Are they a spread team? Will they rely on a hard-pounding ground attack and a punishing physical style, or will they take to the air when they kick off the morning practices of fall camp on August 6?
Will first-year QB Zach Maynard cut down on his interceptions from the last year of action he saw at Buffalo? And who, exactly, will be calling the plays?
Those questions were more than evident for the Pac-12 press corps, and on Tuesday, at the inaugural Pac-12 Media Day in the middle of FOX Studios in Los Angeles, the Bears were picked to finish fifth in the Pac-12 North in 2011, ahead of only Washington State -- the only team Cal beat on the road in 2010.
For the vast majority of head coach Jeff Tedford's tenure, the question of identity has been an easy one to answer. The Bears have been a balanced offense with a consistent-as-clockwork ground game opening up the play-action pass and other deep threats out of a pro-style set.
There was the near-miss at the Rose Bowl in 2004 with a team that was one of the most explosive offensive systems in the nation behind quarterback Aaron Rodgers and 2,000-yard rusher JJ Arrington. There was the 2006 team that shared the Pac-10 title with USC behind over 3.000 yards passing from Nate Longshore and 1,356 yards on the ground from future NFLer Marshawn Lynch.
Over the past several seasons, though, the wins have become less satisfying, and the losses more lopsided. Elements of the spread have crept in and out of the playbook, which itself has swollen to ungainly proportions.
Even Tedford will admit that Oregon, picked by the Pac-12 media to win the inaugural conference title game, achieved remarkable success with a playbook more limited than the choices on a prison cafeteria menu. At times, it seemed all the Ducks ran were anywhere between five and 10 plays out of various disguises. Is there, then, maybe a temptation to simplify what has become an over-bloated playbook?
"More than that, but you are right," Tedford acknowledges of Oregon's limited plays. "Yes and no. They rely on their tempo, and that's why they have so few plays, and then they just change up the different looks and things like that. We do need to cut back. We do need to cut back. It's less volume, more creativity."
On Tuesday, July 26, the Pac-12 media voted for the first time on who would finish at the top of each of the new divisions. First-place votes are in parentheses, and are worth six points, with second place votes being worth five, third place worth four, and so on. Total points are in italics.
Oregon (29) 239
Stanford (13) 220
Washington 142
Oregon State 120
Washington State 51
USC (24) 230
Arizona State (13) 207
Utah (4) 170
Arizona (1) 140
Colorado 46
That "creativity" could come in the person of Maynard, who will provide an "extra dimension," as Tedford puts it, to the offense. That "extra dimension," in short, is the fact that he will be able to make a play with his legs should the questionable offensive line break down.
"We just need to cut it down a little bit to where everyone understands what they're doing, especially with Zach, because he's new," Tedford said. "In the past, you had quarterbacks who had been here a long time and that's what allowed us to expand it, so we need to make sure that everyone is on the same page and let them execute."
Execution. It's what Oregon and Stanford have been known for over the past couple seasons. Instead of endless wrinkles and permutations, the success of the Cardinal and the Ducks has been predicated on excellence in execution: being fundamentally perfect. Fewer plays would most likely help to service that ambition. So, will Tedford go through his playbook and just rip out pages at a time to thin it out?
"I don't know about that, but I just have to see what [Maynard is] comfortable with and who we are," said Tedford. "I don't know who we are yet until we get to camp and we see how our running back situation is.
"I'm pretty confident about who we are on the offensive line, at tight end, receiver, but with running back, I'm not sure yet. You have to know who you are before you can pick the plays you want to run, so that's what we're concentrating on in fall camp."
In the backfield, at least to start camp, will be isi Sofele, who will begin as the No. 1 back with a whole truckload of inexperience behind him. The physical Dasarte Yarnway is still recovering from ACL surgery. Covaughn DeBoskie-Johnson came into spring camp a bit on the heavy side, slowing his feet and limiting his mobility. Trajuan Briggs is still hobbled by ankle trouble. Junior transfer Mike Manuel impressed in spring camp, but is untested at the Division I level. Laney College transfer C.J. Anderson has all the makings of a powerful, physical bruiser, but has a few academic hurdles to overcome before he's free and clear.
"One of the other areas to focus on going into camp will be our tailback position," Tedford said. "We have been very fortunate over the years to have very productive tailbacks. Typically coming back for their senior season or junior season with Shane Vereen leaving early, we have good backs, but they don't have the experience of the production. So we're eager to see what they can do."
Behind the aforementioned crew are two true freshmen in Brendon Bigelow and Daniel Lasco. Tedford has made it a habit of mentioning Bigelow as the heir apparent at tailback, but in the same breath, expressing plenty of concern that a twice-operated-on knee engenders.
"I don't really know. It sounds like he's on track, so we're going to take it slow with him, with that double knee. But, the trainers say that it looks good and he's doing fine," Tedford said.
Bigelow will likely be eased into full-contact drills this fall, as the medical staff wants to be as careful as possible.
"He'll see some. I hear he's running change-of-direction, he's doing well, they say he's very strong, but we're not going to take any chances," Tedford said. "We just have to make sure. He's going to get a Cybex test this weekend, to see how his balance and his quad and his hamstrings are and to make sure he's completely strong all around it. He's said he feels great, though, but he always says that. He just got his brace this last week."
During summer workouts, senior wide receiver Marvin Jones, who accompanied Tedford to the Pac-12 Media Day, has seen a bit of the dynamic young speedster.
"I've seen him go straight-line, and he looked pretty good," Jones said.
Jones, along with Maynard's brother in true sophomore Keenan Allen, will be the go-to threats on the outside, but, once again, the way that Tedford's early teams succeeded was by establishing the run to open up the pass.
"Offensively, we need to improve," said Tedford, who saw his team limp to a 5-7 campaign, losing all but one game on the road and falling in blowouts to Stanford and USC, which was picked to finish first in the Pac-12 South, even though the Trojans will be unable to participate in the inaugural title game due to NCAA penalties. "We were not close to the consistency that we need to compete at a high level. That generally starts at the quarterback position, and we weren't consistent enough there last year. When Kevin Riley went down last year, we were averaging 37 points a game, and after that, we averaged 13. You're not going to win many games in the Pac-12 with that type of offensive production. So quarterback is somewhere we really need to pay strong attention to. Zach Maynard has been named the starter after spring football, and he earned it. There will be strong competition with Allan Bridgford and Brock Mansion as the backup."
Maynard had all of spring camp and his sit-out year to become familiar with the playbook, and, with him being named the starter on relatively short notice, BearTerritory asked Tedford what it would take for a true freshman quarterback to win the starting job. After a thoughtful pause, Tedford laid out the scenario.
"We'd have to be, he would have had to, I think, to start a true freshman, he'd have to be here for spring football, because there's no way in the world you could comprehend this offense and do what they need to do in three weeks' time," Tedford said.
With a movement afoot already to slim down the playbook, there could be fewer pages to learn for a potential true freshman gunslinger, thereby possibly increasing the likelihood of that scenario.
When asked just what his team's identity is at this point in time, Tedford summed it up in two words: "Diverse and efficient." What does that mean, exactly?
"I think we need to stay out of a lot of third-and-longs. We need to make sure that the ball gets into our playmakers' hands," Tedford said. "We have to define who those are, though I think we know who a few of them are, but who else are the good guys? Being able to have an identity means being able to run the football in certain situations, not always be spread, but be able to line up and run downhill at people, as well."
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Click Here to view this Link.Helping to re-establish that strong balanced attack will be second-stint coaches Eric KiesauClick Here to view this Link. and Jim MichalczikClick Here to view this Link..
Kiesau will act as wide receivers coach and passing game coordinator, taking up a perch in the booth while Tedford, running game coordinator/running backs coach Ron Gould and offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Michalczik prowl the sidelines.
"He may call a bunch of plays for us," Tedford said of Kiesau. "I'm relying on his eyes and we're going to work together very closely at calling plays."
Tedford came into Berkeley as a so-called quarterback guru, an offensive mastermind. One could argue that since he's left the booth, he's left his comfort zone behind. In trying to be an over-arching CEO coach, he has forsaken his roots as a quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator.
"Absolutely. Without a doubt," Tedford said when asked if the game is different for a coach when viewed from above. "As far as I'm concerned, if I could, if I could, I'd go in the box. I was in the box at Oregon."
Being in that booth definitely seem to be Tedford's happy place.
"I would never come out of the box. If I had it both ways, I'd stay in the box the whole time. Right now, if I was the main guy, I've even asked our coaches, 'Do you think it would be OK if I went in the box?'" he says laughingly. "They said, 'That's probably not a good idea.' Really, it's like a chess match up there, and I can just see everything from a bird's eye view, and it's a lot easier. It's easier to be organized with your things around, everything's laid out so you're not scrambling to find stuff. It's much easier."
Instead, it will be Kiesau, who has brought renewed energy to the 10th-year head coach and the program.
"I am so impressed with what Eric has come back with, the knowledge, the understanding," Tedford said. "He's been an offensive coordinator in a big-time league at a big-time school, so I mean, he has really, really grown a lot. To coach the receivers and understand, from the quarterback's point of view, what's happening, what the concepts are, this is what we're looking for, so on and so forth, they have a really good understanding of what's happening.
"Plus, he's just got a great personality. He's high-energy, very good recruiter, he's really sharp."
With Kiesau up in the box, there may be some more flair to the offense, and perhaps more of a willingness to roll the dice. It would certainly fit the young coach's electric personality.
"It depends. It depends. Flair is good sometimes, if it works. Not so good if it doesn't work," Tedford said. "Flares blow up in your face, and that's not a good thing."
While the so-called "special plays" will still be a part of the playbook that the quartet of Tedford, Kiesau, Michalczik and Gould will have to manage, Tedford is determined to cut down the amount of plays included in a given week's game plan from 150 to 100. With Tedford acting as one of the primary play-callers, he's set up quite a challenge for himself.
"We have to put a number on things, and say, 'This is what we're going to do,' and leave it at that. If we want to put something else in, then what can we take out?'" he said. "Still, you can be, you can still be around the 100-play mark, given all the situations. We typically get to the 150-play mark. I think we need to back off a little bit."
To clarify, that's 150 plays per game on offense alone.
"150 on offense per game plan. I'm talking about on the ready list, you know, but that includes first downs, red zone, third down, fourth down, goal line, all that," Tedford said. "Third and one or two, third and three to six, third and seven to nine, third and 10-plus, it's all those, then your first and second downs are your normal-down situations, your high-percentage, which you have, and that's where the bulk of your offense is. Then, you have to go situational from there. Plus-40 to plus-30, plus-30 to 20, 20 to 10, 10 to about the three and three-and-in, that type of thing, you have stuff there as well. Then, you have plays depending on your personnel: What's your health like that week? Are you going to use two tight ends? A single back? What're the match-ups? Your offense is this big thing that you choose from. You don't necessarily have to use it all. They're the system, the terminology, the plays that you can use, depending on who you're matching up against, who you want to get the ball to and how you get them the ball. That's what you pick and choose from."
So, what are those 150 plays? What ties them together? When asked if the return of Michalczik and Kiesau would signal a return to that power run pro-set style, Tedford said that the playbook never went away from it in the first place.
"That's really what we've been, actually," Tedford said, "There's not much that's changed since they were here."
The numbers would seem to refute that assessment. From 2002-06 with both Kiesau and Michalczik on staff, Tedford's teams averaged 5,355.2 yards of offense per season. From 2007-10, the Bears averaged 4,822.5 yards of offense per season. In 2010, Cal posted the lowest number of total offensive yards -- 4,007 -- in Tedford's tenure.
The foundation of returning to those early years, of returning to that elusive singular identity, may very well lay at the feet of Michalczik and his offensive linemen. Throughout spring ball, the former Raiders offensive line coach maintained that everyone on the line had work to do. Though good-natured and jovial, he never seemed satisfied.
"Jim's not real eager and up-front about saying how anybody's doing well," Tedford smiled. "He's always the pessimist. He's a pessimist. He's like, 'Oh, I don't know …' and we'll say, 'Jim, they're doing good! That guy's playing well!' 'Not where he needs to be, yet.' He really does have high standards."
Not returning will be offensive tackle Sam DeMartinis, who was at the Media Day helping take photos with the sports information staff.
"You guys know Sam DeMartinis, right? He's in the entertainment business now," Tedford joked.
The San Francisco Chronicle's John Crumpacker, back on the job after hip replacement surgery, quipped, "Alright, Sam, entertain us!"
"I wish I could," DeMartinis smirked. The 6-foot-6, 290-pounder graduated in the spring and chose to end his playing career in favor of getting his feet wet in the media business.
Over the past three weeks, the offense and the defense have been practicing together, building on the earlier 7-on-7 work and individual study, particularly by the linemen, who have had to re-learn some of Michalczik's calls in the case of the veterans, and have had to get acquainted with a new system when it comes to players who never played under Michalczik during his last stint in Berkeley.
That sense of never being satisfied that Michalczik brings to the table is likely to merge with the bad taste left in the team's collective mouth following the first losing season since the 1-10 campaign in 2001 that spelled the end for former head coach Tom Holmoe.
BearTerritory asked Tedford what he, as a coach, can do after nine years on the job, to keep the program fresh, and to maintain the same kind of edge he came into the job with.
"I think having a season like we had last season really provides a lot of focus and I think part of it is, just the focus that we've always had, but we may have to back up a little bit," Tedford said. "To be more efficient, sometimes, I'm not sure that working harder, harder, harder, harder, harder is so much the answer. Working smart, giving the guys time to recover, all that type of thing, are things that I've kind of learned. Sometimes, you can try so hard to get something done, and then it turns around and has a negative effect, so I've learned every year that I've been coaching, so I'm kind of taking that approach this season, and that is to make sure that we practice smart, our kids are healthy, they're fresh, they know what they're doing, they can play fast, they can trust each other, they play with enthusiasm, all that type of thing. There's got to be some fun involved."
If a part of this team's DNA is to indeed be fun, then, how will the coaching staff go about instilling that? Surely, it's not as easy as flipping a switch. It requires a commitment to, in the simplest of terms, just going for it.
"No, that's not true; it depends on the situation," Tedford said. "You don't want to be stupid. It's got to be educated, and you've got to play the game smart. Field position, depending on the game, field position is critical, and you want to take educated risks without a doubt. But, you've got to feel good about your play, you've got to feel good about your match-up. Every game is different. It really is. What the weather's like, is it windy, what's going on? That type of thing."
Should the defense remain stout, as it did for all but a few occasions last season, that would enable Tedford and the rest of the offensive braintrust to be a bit more liberal with the play calling.
"It's very possible," Tedford said. "
-- Cal will practice on Sundays this fall, taking Mondays off, so that the team can "put the game to bed earlier, start prepping and give the kids a whole day for academics," Tedford said.
-- No word yet has been given on how many practices will be open to the media during fall camp, however, the Bears will hold several practices on Evans Diamond in order to prepare for playing in AT&T Park. Tight end Jacob Wark should feel right at home, as he spent this spring splitting time between football camp and playing for the Berkeley Nine.
-- Asked if there were any other position changes on tap after the successful conversion of Spencer Hagan into a tight end/H-back (bolstered by almost 30 pounds of weight gain to 220 solid pounds under Blasquez), Tedford said that there would not be, unless there became a dire need for depth. Specifically addressing defensive lineman DeAndre Coleman's possible switch to offensive tackle, Tedford said that would not happen, though he did admit that "Biggy" would make a "great tackle."
Tedford was not sure whether the big, powerful Briggs could switch to fullback.
"I'm not sure if he could," Tedford said. "I'm not sure if he could play anything right now until he gets healthy. I think it's his ankle. He runs with a little limp."
-- Tedford said that Cal will likely take two to three tight ends in the 2012 recruiting class and between three and four wide receivers.
"It depends what happens," Tedford said on the wideout numbers. "We have to play that by ear and see what happens in camp, if everyone stays, what the whole situation is. That's constantly changing. If you just took the seniors, you have Marv, you have Michael Calvin and you have Coleman Edmond. So, your number would be three just right off the top, and then you just never know how the rest plays out."
Stay tuned for Part II of this series leading up to the start of fall camp, where BearTerritory will speak with Tedford about the lessons learned from last season.