BERKELEY-The Cal football team's offensive line has been arguably one of the biggest question marks early in this 2010 season. Every day at practice, they get more than an earful from coach Steve Marshall, who's voice can be heard even before one enters the Memorial Stadium gates. All that gravelly verbal torment has but one purpose: to get the Bears' big uglies read for their sternest test of the season.
They will be the first line of defense against a hard-charging Arizona pass-rush, the bulwark against the No. 22 rushing defense in the country. And they're going to be in for a fight.
"Well, you hit it right on the head," Marshall said when asked about the Wildcats' stout run defense. "They're a veteran unit. They're pretty salty up front. They do a great job, which is kind of like last year. They got the same group; they only lost the one (Earl) Mitchell kid that got drafted in the second round last year on the defensive line, and they replaced him with a guy (who's) just as good."
The Cal offensive line has been the focus of scrutiny this season, especially after two mediocre rushing games against inferior competition and near-constant positional changes. But after last Friday's loss to Nevada, things may actually be looking up. At least it sounds that way when you listen to Marshall.
"Well, we've gotten better each week," Marshall said. "I don't know if that, you know, I've been pleased with our progress and everything like that. We've got to continue to keep getting better. We have a couple nice schemes and Kevin's got us in a couple great plays when the guys up front have executed. When a plan comes together, it's an 11-man operation; the receivers do a good job blocking and every run is like that, as is pass protection."
Of course one of the biggest reasons for some of the shuffling, which has seen 6-foot-5, 280-pound Donovan Edwards plugging in at right tackle-across from all-conference left tackle Mitchell Schwartz-has been the absence of last year's starter Matt Summers-Gavin, who has seen sparing action after missing the majority of fall camp with a bone bruise.
"Donovan and Matt are about the same size, and Donovan has played extremely well through the first three games," Marshall said. "I've been very, very pleased with Donovan, as I have Mitch. I think Mitch is one of the better tackles in this league, and Matt can be, too. Really, his (Summers-Gavin) natural position is guard, but we need him at tackle right now, and his attitude's been great. We'll see kind of where it goes, as he continues to progress with his health and just getting the amount of reps he needs to be effective on the offensive line. It's not one of those positions where, as a college guy, you can go in there-and not practice-and play. It's just, in this league, with the competition, where everybody's very good, as is Arizona."
With now almost a full month of practice under his belt, Summers-Gavin should see significantly more playing time against the Wildcats as the Bears open up their Pac-10 schedule.
"He's doing very well, Matt's coming along a lot," Marshall said enthusiastically. "He's making strides, and I anticipate him playing-as we get into Pac-10 play-quite a bit. I've been pleased with him. You know, it's kind of like his training camp. He missed all of camp and he's really only been out there 12 practices, so he's getting better and better. I saw, this week, some things that (indicate) he's getting back to his normal quickness, back to his normal self, so, as the season goes on, I see Matt playing quite a bit."
Edwards hasn't been the only lineman to stand out in the early goings. Guard-center Dominic Galas has opened many eyes in the first three games, at times surpassing starting center Chris Guarnero and playing with a notable mean streak at guard.
"One of the big emphases coming through spring practice is that a lot of guys have got versatility," Marshall said. "Mitch can play both sides, Richard Fisher can play both sides, Dom has played both guard and center, Matt can play both sides. They're extremely intelligent guys, they're willing guys, they're tough guys, so we've got some options that, as you build through, you try and build depth to be able to handle-you always go with the what-if scenario-what if this guy gets hurt, who's the next-best alternative. That's really the reason behind moving guys around: you're always trying to find the best five guys to get on the field, and so, our guys have really worked hard and I'm extremely pleased with them from a mental standpoint and the physical. It takes a lot to learn our offense and play multiple positions in our offense, because it's a pro-style offense and there's a lot to learn."
A big part of that offense-as has been the case for the past decade-is the running game.
"Our running game has got to be a staple," Marshall said. "It always has to be part of what we do, because it creates the play action and those types of things. As long as we're running the ball effectively, we'll always have a chance to make plays-not only in the run game, but in the pass game."
Starting tailback Shane Vereen ripped off a career-high 198 yards on the ground against Nevada after two lackluster performances against UC Davis (67 yards, two TDs on 14 carries) and Colorado (59 yards and one TD on 16 carries). In each of his first two games, Vereen did not break off a run longer than 12 yards, while against the Wolf Pack, he turned in runs of 13, 35, 50 and 59 yards, the last two reaching the end zone.
"I saw him make the safety miss. Twice. He's coming back. He did a great job getting the ball to the safety; we got to the safety a couple of times," Marshall said. "The first game, we got everybody blocked but the safety. He made him miss in the first game and he made him miss in the Reno game, which is good to see, because it looked like he's back to the way Shane is."
Last year in Berkeley, Vereen posted 165 yards on 30 carries with a touchdown in Cal downed the Wildcats 24-16 against a line of Ricky Elmore, Mitchell, Lolomana Mikaele and Brooks Reed. Though Mikaele didn't start-the graduated Donald Horton took that distinction-he did play a lot in 2009 and has racked up 25 games and four starts in his two previous varsity seasons.
"We had our hands full last year and we'll have our hands full this year," Marshall said. "They're a very good front, they do a great job coaching their run game, and we've got to find a way to distort them. We've got some things that we hope will work. We've got to really work hard and execute well, because they have a very, very good run defense. Iowa couldn't run it, and Iowa's been a good run football team for a long time, so we definitely have our work cut out for us."