New Staff Members Series: Gratitude a Common Theme
Over the past few days, Golden Bear Report had the opportunity to do a handful of in-depth interviews with new members of Cal's coaching staff, with head of athletic performance coach Brian Johnson, outside linebackers coach Keith Heyward, defensive backs coach Tre Watson and tight ends coach Geep Chryst. This starts off a series on these new coaches coming to Cal, starting with a common thread each of them talked about, gratitude.
The concept of gratitude came up unprompted in every single one of the interviews, as all four saw a team grateful just to get back on the field in the spring. In the aftermath of a year where as many things went wrong, gratitude guided the Bears into the spring, where they got the 15 practices of spring ball that they didn't have a year ago, a long with some much needed growth.
"I think that’s what 2020 supplied us with, a resiliency and understanding that we’re going to see a lot of things that we’ve never seen before," Johsnon noted "It’s huge for these guys that put in that type of work, and I think it shows a certain level of appreciation."
Johnson was the first of the new coaches to see the Bears and get to know the group as a whole. He oversaw offseason conditioning and the new nutrition program being put in for the team. He saw the team gain a collective 595 pounds as a result of bettered nutrition and the offseason work, and he saw it as a result of newfound perspective
"That’s another thing that Covid did, it gave us all perspective of what we had and what we didn’t have. I think these guys gained a huge appreciation for the cafeteria," Johnson said, "for the locker room, the facilities and the things here at Cal. You go through the recruiting process as a student athlete and even as a coach and you can take for granted some of the things we have. Then you don’t have them, and you have to go through a season without them and you see how big that was. I think these guys see how big it is to be in a weight room together, indoors where you have full access to the best equipment in the world. That’s another reason why you saw that type of growth, because when they realized they were going to be in the weight room for the first time in almost a year, everyday they walked in here there was a great energy, a great vibe with the coaches and the players."
Both Heyward and Chryst came in prior to spring ball starting, and they both have relatively mature groups. Heyward's OLB group includes two super seniors in Cam Goode and Kuony Deng. Chryst's group has three fifth-year players in Collin Moore, Jake Tonges and Gavin Reinwald. Both coaches saw the joy of getting back out on the field in their groups.
"In general, in my group that I’ve been around the most," Heyward said, "these young men practice gratitude. They like each other, which is essential for a team, because you’ve got to communicate."
"The biggest thing I saw was the joy or practice just for practice’s sake," Chryst added. "Sometimes when you’re talking about the grind of a fall camp or fifteen spring practices, you get into a bit of a ‘survival mode.’ I never saw that with this team or in the way Justin led this team or in the senior leadership and the upperclassmen."
Unlike the other three coaches, Watson was hired in the middle of spring ball, as Marcel Yates left for Oregon right before the fifteen practices began. His first day in Berkeley saw him watching his position group, where the energy of the defensive backs impressed him
"I was so excited and surprised on my first day here, even watching practice," Watson recalled, "to see guys running around with that much energy, coming off a shortened season and having that enthusiasm, like ‘we want to be out here, we want to learn,’ it says something about the leadership. It comes from the top down, from coach Wilcox to the seniors and leaders on this football team, that they show up every day to work, and the young guys gravitate to it."
In the aftermath of spring ball, Johnson has been putting the team through offseason workouts. While he noted that he could list a ton of players who have steered the attitude of the team to where they are now, the super senior group, plus another couple players, have been the main pieces spurring on the Bears with their appreciation of getting to practice or work out.
"If I had to pinpoint, it wouldn’t be an individual," Johnson said, "it would probably be a group, that super senior group, Josh Drayden, Kuony Deng, Cameron Goode, Elijah Hicks, Marcel Dancy, Daniel Scott, Mike Saffell, those guys, and there a lot of guys that are underclassmen that are emerging that I have been very impressed with. The guys that are super seniors that decided to come back and take another shot at this thing, one because it was going to help their aspirations of playing professionally in the NFL, but it’s more than that. You can see that there’s investment in this football and they’re coming back to see what they can do in a regular season under normal circumstances and try to win a championship."
Watson got to see that on a smaller level with Drayden and Hicks leading the defensive backs, especially since Cal's DB coach has a room that will have eight first or second year players when fall camp comes around. Those two have been a boon for Watson in making sure the standard is set.
"True professionals," Watson said, "guys that have an opportunity to go to the next level. They embody what it looks like to practice, tempo, mannerisms, body language, they’re ready to work and they practice with intent. That’s rarer to find when you get guys that are veterans, sometimes they want to take days off, but they show up everyday wanting to do work."
While Chryst doesn't have a super-senior per se, he has a senior group, as Moore, Tonges, and Reinwald have helped some of the younger players throughout the spring, namely Elijah Mojarro, Jake Muller, and Jermaine Terry.
"I’m fortunate that the tight ends room has three redshirt seniors who can provide a real perspective," Chryst said. "They just loved playing football, they loved being out there interacting with their teammates, all those things we may have taken for granted in seasons past, but right now you really appreciate that offense can go against defense, 11 on 11. We had fun just trying to get better at our sport, but also enjoy playing the sport. There was a real joy there and sense of accomplishment, and those are real powerful motivators to keep you going through the spring training and the summer player led practices, on in."
In the aftermath of spring ball, the Bears went back to a somewhat separated reality. Players are back in workout groups, as there's still a capacity limit in the weight room. The locker room still hasn't been open, though with vaccine availability opening to everyone 16 and up in the state, the Bears may be able to get back in there. The players aren't around each other as a whole group every day.
That said, Johnson is very enthused about what the leadership of this team can do, as their attitude permeates the whole group when the Bears return to normal.
"It’s going to be very gratifying as a coach to watch where this team could go once those guys get a little more of a grasp on this team" Johnson said, "and they can affect more than just the people in their group. We saw a little bit of that in spring ball, the mood and how they are when they’re with the entire team, and I’m excited about that super senior group."