BERKELEY-Facemask to facemask, two members of the Cal football team's 2010 recruiting class snarled at one another, crashing together again and again, hands and chests clashing, grasping and thumping. When it was all over, linebacker David Wilkerson wrestled running back Trajuan Briggs to the ground. Stalemate.
Briggs sprung up at the sound of the whistle and glared. About a half-second away from the first training camp fisticuffs of the season, the two locked eyes and then, walked away.
"That's a great sign," said head coach Jeff Tedford. "This is a game of emotion and intensity and they're going to compete. That's what they're doing. They're competing. As long as we keep our composure, you can compete hard, but at the end of it, you have to have some poise and you have to have good habits. You let your composure go, you do that in a game, and it's going to cost the team. We have to make sure we continue to remain poised."
Of the words thrown around to describe defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast, you'll hear "aggressive," "fast" and "swarming." But behind all of those is one, driving theme: intensity. That was the major theme of Monday's practice-the Bears' third of the fall.
"I love the real intensity and the speed that he brings with his new defense, that he brings into Cal," said linebacker Steven Fanua. "I really love a lot of the physicality that he brings, and everything behind it, the mentality that he brings, the intentions that he puts in our minds for us to go get that ball, and rush and swarm that ball, and play with just a beast mentality."
The protect-the-quarterback drill towards the end of the session was, by far, one of the more intense battles to which the media has been privileged, and, even after Wilkerson and Briggs locked horns, that bubbling ferocity continued to simmer.
"That's a real competitive drill, right there," said Fanua. "Basically, it's working on one-on-ones that we're going to see during the game, and I'm talking about linebacker versus running back. For linebackers, we've got to get through whoever's going to block us, and most of the time, during blitzes, that's going to be the running back. We've got to be able to work our moves to get past them to work that sack."
The Bears defense netted several sacks on the day during situational drills, including a joint effort by Gabe King and Ted Agu on redshirt freshman Allan Bridgford and three sacks by veteran Cameron Jordan, who got to starter Kevin Riley once and backup Beau Sweeney twice, the second time partnering with Kendrick Payne.
"Our offense is working hard, our defense is working hard. We're both trying to get to be the best that we can be," Fanua said. "As long as we keep giving each other competition, the way I see it, our defense is there to make our offense better and our offense is there to make our defense better. So, it's constant competition, and that's the only way that we're going to get ready for that championship game."
During the protect-the-QB drill, the 6-foot-1, 216-pound Fanua was matched several times against the firecracker tailback Isi Sofele, and came out the winner each time, discus-throwing the diminutive Sofele twice. After practice, Sofele chuckled about his bouts with Fanua, and maintained a positive attitude.
"As long as I stop him, save the quarterback, give him a couple seconds, we're good," Sofele chuckled. "Just got to slow him down."
Fanua was similarly jocular recalling his engagements with Sofele.
"He's my brother," Fanua smiled, tapping his fist to his chest. "Isi's a tough man, and I give a lot of props to him."
Tedford has been impressed by Fanua's push early in camp, and sees him as competing for some significant playing time when the first whistle blows this season.
"He is really aggressive," Tedford said. "Steve has a great passion for the game. He really plays hard and he's going to be a good player. He's going to definitely contribute for us. He's already a big special teams player, takes a lot of pride in what he's doing and he plays fast."
When it came to the actual business of running the football, Sofele and Covaughn Deboskie-Johnson each ably filled in for the still-sidelined starter Shane Vereen, who continues to nurse a sore hamstring.
"Every team has a big play-maker," Sofele said. "That guy's the guy that wants the ball all the time, does special things for the team. He's out there to lift the team up. (Getting first-team reps) has helped me a lot. We've got some strong competition out here. We don't know yet who's going to be out there, so we'll see, by the last day, who the second-string is."
The fact that whoever wins the running back derby would likely be the starter come 2011 is not lost on Sofele, who is more than aware of the legacy of the starter-in-waiting nature of Cal's one-two punches of the past.
"That enters my mind every day," Sofele said. "Every day I wake up, I just open that playbook, keep studying, try to focus and stay focused all day, especially in this camp. It's 24 hours, football, football, football. You've got to be mentally strong as well as physically. I'm trying to stay in there, trying to get that second spot as hard as I can."
Plowing the way for the tailbacks was an offensive line that maintained the lineup constructed after left guard Matt Summers-Gavin went down on Sunday with an injured knee. Tedford spoke after practice about the prognosis for his best big ugly, who suffered just a mild bone bruise in his right knee.
"It's great news," Tedford said. "Just looking at it on tape, we were afraid it was going to be something worse than that. He got a bone bruise. He got hit on the side (of the knee) by a back, so when (the knee) came in, his knee went down and the two bones smashed together. They're thinking probably two to three weeks until he's back to doing some stuff. Anytime you see something like that, you hold your breath, so it's good news."
With Summers-Gavin's prognosis looking good, Tedford plans to continue to partner the 6-foot-3, 280-pounder with Cal's other top lineman, Mitchell Schwartz, on the left side of the line, while the versatile Donovan Edwards will anchor the right side of the line at tackle.
"We're planning on going with that," Tedford said. "I would say that (Summers-Gavin) will be ready by the opener. I think Donovan coming along like he did is a positive for us, so we put him at right tackle, and we feel that he's going to do a fine job there.
"We're trying to get our best combination up there, and Matt's proven that he can play really well inside and Mitch is a good player out there (at tackle). Donovan has come a long way. We've got a whole bunch of guys inside there, really competing."
Of particular note was senior Richard Fisher, who was able to spring several big runs during team drills against the No. 1 defense and held off a charging King to prevent a sack on Riley during end-of-practice scrimmage drills.
"He's doing fine," Tedford said of Fisher. "He's solid, he's solid. We got a lot of guys in the mix, though. The offensive line is very competitive, to find out who's going to be the top eight guys.
Though Fisher is the current left guard while Summers-Gavin recovers, Tedford said that the job of backup is far from decided.
"Nobody has the edge yet," Tedford said. "There's a lot of combinations, even some of the young guys-Alejandro Crosthwaite, Chris Adcock-they're doing a nice job. Tom Berry is doing a nice job inside and Bill Tyndall, he's doing a nice job picking up the tackle. There's a lot of guys in the mix. We've got to see how we're going to move them around."
The current starting defensive line remained much the same as it has since Tedford released the team's initial two-deep, led by the veteran presence of Jordan, who, during late-practice situational drills, chased Sweeney out of the pocket from the blindside and then finished the job with a double-tap on the sophomore signal-caller's shoulder, signaling a sack.
"Cam's a totally different guy," Tedford said. "He has a great work ethic, and when it's time to work, Cam has focus. It took Cam a couple years to do that. Cam's always been kind of the jokester guy that didn't take anything seriously, so you have to love the mix of that right now. He still has a great personality, he's fun to be around, but when it's time to work, he's working. He's a great example for the rest of these guys."
Bookending Jordan as of now are Deandre Coleman and Ernest Owusu, both of whom played big parts on stopping the run during 11-on-11s.
"Deandre's a load," Tedford said. "I would hope that they try and single-block Deandre. That would be advantage: us. That would be a good thing."
While the front three are relatively settled, there has been a notable-if unsurprising-change at cornerback, with the speedy Steve Williams playing opposite of Bryant Nnabuife, who had several pass break-ups during team scrimmage drills, including a nice blanketing of starting receiver Jeremy Ross.
"He played well today," Tedford said of Williams. "We feel pretty good about the guys at the corners. There's some guys there that have played and that have some experience who all had a great spring, and so far, he's taking over right where he left off during the spring. He had a solid day today, but we're only on the third day of practice."
Williams has been the consensus pick as this season's breakout-star-in-waiting after spending the majority of 2009 on the scout team, and showed why when, during 7-on-7 drills, he broke up a pass intended for No. 1 receiver Marvin Jones.
"I just try and go out there and compete," Williams said. "I'm not trying to stand out and be an individual separate from the team. I just want to compete and be the best that I can be. You get a chance to play, you've got to take advantage of that opportunity."
Williams is one of the faster runners on the entire team, a mantle he looks to be sharing with newcomer Kaelin Clay, who saw a number of reps with the second team at wide receiver.
"Probably Kaelin, either Kaelin or Steve Williams," said Sofele, a speedster in his own right. "That dude is fast. We got some pretty good freshmen this year, so who knows who's going to redshirt or not."
After hauling in a six-yard pass from Sweeney early in drills, Clay exploded for a 70-yard scoring dash on a pass from Bridgford, hauling the ball in at the opposing 40 and making a quick step to split the corner and safety before pulling away down the left sideline.
"I think all of them are pretty good," Williams said of the young receivers, many of whom he covered during practices with the first-string defense, including Keenan Allen and Coleman Edmond. "Everybody gives me a different route, a different look, a different type of match-up, as far as the receivers, so I don't really see it as somebody being the hardest receiver to cover. I just see it as a different match-up."
Junior receiver Michael Calvin, who last year struggled with dropping passes, made good on Riley's pronouncement on Sunday that he had shored up his hands by hauling in several difficult passes throughout the day.
Calvin's highlights included a leaping grab over his defender at the opponent's 20-yard line during one-on-one drills and a 35-yard catch over Lee during which he made several adjustments to the ball in-flight before vaulting over freshman Adrian Lee to come down with it.
During situational drills at the end of the session, Calvin reeled in two tough balls, one for a first down from Riley and the second, a 10-yard strike from Sweeney on which Calvin saw plenty of contact, but still held on to the pigskin.
Another candidate for the unenviable task of covering the Bears' new stable of speedsters is 6-foot, 178-pound senior corner Darian Hagan.
"He's right there as a starter," Tedford said. "We don't have any nickel stuff in yet or anything like that, but right now, we just figure out who the guys are, and when we switch to nickel, then we'll see who'll play nickel. There's still some things that we need to do. We're in a very preliminary part of installation, and we'll start ramping it up a little bit tomorrow."
On the topic of nickel packages, the nation's No. 1 safety recruit Allen, who could possibly see action in those situations, has yet to see a defensive snap in camp.
"Keenan won't see any reps on defense through the camp," Tedford said. "Keenan's got enough to handle right now, and he's going to be a major player on offense. Right now, we need to have him focus on one side of the ball, and as he gets really comfortable with that, then we can see where he fits (on defense)."
Both Allen and Williams continued to see action with the return teams. Williams could very well be in the hunt to replace departed punt returner/corner Syd'Quan Thompson, though he prefers the relative order of running back kickoffs.
"I like kick return," Williams said. "Kick returns would be my preference, when you have guys blocking for you. You don't have to see who's coming or fair-catch it on kick return."
While Williams did not see the field at the same time as his former Dallas (Tex.) Skyline teammate and fellow corner Lee, the younger Texan acquitted himself quite well when he got the chance to shine, covering, among others, the explosive Allen.
"I'm letting him know how the world goes, just letting him know how I go," Williams said of Lee. "It's nothing really different from Skyline. I was the older guy at Skyline, and I used to show him how to play cornerback then, so it's kind of the same. I just show him around, show him how to play."
Lee's most eye-opening play was a stay-with-it pick on a pass from Bridgford, intended for Ross, who made a great effort trying to shake the young defensive back before Lee was able to snag the over-thrown ball.
Another standout in the secondary today was senior safety Chris Conte, who partnered with fellow starting safety Sean Cattouse to provide at times stifling run support, made several big open-field tackles and broke up a pass after Riley was flushed from the pocket in a third-and-seven situation his own the 25-yard line.
"He's a senior, he's a veteran," Tedford said. "He's doing a nice job at the safety position. He got a tipped ball today, but that wasn't, I mean, you could have made that play. He didn't have to jump."
All joking about this reporter's 10-inch vertical aside, Conte has seemed far more at home at his natural position than he has in previous years at cornerback."
Also standing out on run support was sophomore linebacker Robert Mullins.
"Mullins is doing fine," Tedford said. "He made a real good play on one of the plays down here, filled the gap really well. He's finally healthy for the first time. He's been really nagged with injury over his whole career, and finally he's getting to where he's really moving around well."
On the linebacking front, true freshman Nick Forbes had a fine day as well, highlighted by a crushing hit on Deboskie-Johnson for a loss to stuff the run against the second-team offense.
"Nick Forbes is going to be a good player," Fanua said. "I see a lot in him, and I have a feeling that he's going to be a real great player for Cal."
Linebacker D.J. Holt was held out of practice due to a "little twinge in his hamstring," according to Tedford … Vereen is listed as day-to-day, and, while Tedford "would like to have him out there," he does not want to return the star tailback to active duty too early, lest he re-aggravate his sore hamstring … During team drills early in practice, Dominic Galas spelled Chris Guarnero several times playing center for the first-team offense … During receiver dive drills, Edmond and Allen displayed the surest hands … True freshman quarterback Austin Hinder threw some of the prettiest touch balls during one-on-ones with his receivers, though he lacked the zip of the more experienced signal-callers on the depth chart, including Sweeney and Brock Mansion … The top two tight ends look to be Anthony Miller and Spencer Ladner, both of whom made clutch grabs in traffic on third-and-seven situations with Ladner breaking through a swarming secondary for a long TD … Payne was a consistent presence in the backfield during team drills, getting good penetration in stopping the run and flushing the passer … Derrick Hill also showed up well in stopping the run, chasing down a tailback for a loss outside … Even with the pressure on the run turned up, Briggs showed just why he's called "Baby Marshawn," lowering the shoulder to bust through tackles and carrying would-be tacklers on his back until the whistle sounded … Briggs and Yarnway were the top go-to grinders in short-yardage situations.