Aug. 20, 2001
TURLOCK - When Cal entered its season-opener a year ago, only two receivers on the roster - Phillip Pipersburg and Sean Currin - had ever caught a pass in a Golden Bear uniform, combining for 27 total receptions.
So when Cal reported to its 2000 training camp, head coach Tom Holmoe and his staff were essentially starting from scratch with a new batch of wideouts. The recruiting haul brought in the likes of Derek Swafford, Charon Arnold and Chad Heydorff from the junior college ranks and freshmen Geoff McArthur and Chase Lyman from the high school level.
The task facing the coaches was to quickly develop these newcomers and get them ready to play right away. Together, all seven players would eventually rotate in the lineup throughout the year. Often due to injuries, the combinations on the field seemed to change from week to week, and it took most of the season before quarterback Kyle Boller and his receivers fell into a comfortable zone.
But heading into this year, situation is much more stable. Out of that receiver group, the Bears only lost Pipersburg to graduation. As a result, the receiving corps brings a good amount of experience and expectations have risen accordingly.
"We're pretty much the same group with a couple of freshmen in there," Swafford said. "It's good to have a lot of the same guys around. It's a big benefit because none of us had any Pac-10 experience before last year. Then when we got some, it helped us out. Coming back with that experience will be a positive."
Swafford, a junior, led Cal with 25 catches despite missing the first three games of the year (and much of the next two) with a back sprain. But over the last six games, he averaged better than four receptions per outing.
A healthy Swafford proved he could be an impact player. He had five catches for 61 yards, including a 22-yard TD grab in the first overtime, vs. UCLA. He also scored the go-ahead touchdown at USC and caught an 81-yarder for a touchdown against Oregon State.
"They key thing is to stay healthy and compete at the highest level," he said.
The oldest player on the squad - he turned 26 last January - Swafford came to Cal after playing second base in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization for five years. But when he realized his baseball career wasn't taking him any closer to the Major League level, the former prep running back returned to football, this time as a receiver at Ventura JC.
A year later, Swafford was in Berkeley and has since taken many of the younger players under his wing.
"I try to be a leader, especially being older," said Swafford, whose scholarship is being paid for by the Pirates. "I don't say much. I try to do it more with actions. I'm not really a rah-rah-type guy. I'd rather lead by example."
As opposed to last year when most of the receivers were new, this season the new face belongs to offensive coordinator Al Borges. The wideouts worked with Borges during spring practice to learn his system, and they spent the summer trying to perfect the patterns on their own. Now that training camp is underway, Swafford said that he believes everything is starting to come together.
"I think our offense is pretty complicated," he said. "You have to keep practicing and practicing. But being able to have gotten together with Coach Borges in the spring and learn the offense then has helped a lot."
Given Borges' 15 seasons as a collegiate offensive coordinator and the experience of at least full year of Pac-10 play for Cal's receivers, the combination should definitely pay dividends this fall.
Golden Bear Notes ...
With today being Cal's seventh day in Turlock, the Bears relaxed their practice schedule this morning, the only field workout was a one-hour session in shorts with the special teams, the Bears went back into pads in the afternoon ... OT Langston Walker, who sprained his left ankle in last Saturday's scrimmage, will likely be held out of practice until the team returns to Berkeley as a precaution ... CB Jemeel Powell came out in pads for the first time Sunday, he had been nursing a groin injury ... the temperature in Turlock took a dip Monday with the high only reaching into the mid-80s after nearing 100 degrees last the weekend ... Cal's final preseason scrimmage is set for Wednesday at 11 a.m. in Turlock.