April 13, 2004
BERKELEY, Calif. - With many of the returning members of the 2004 Insight Bowl championship team on the sidelines due to off-season surgeries and rehabilitation, Jeff Tedford has not had a full contingent of players to work with this spring.
But according to the Bears' gilded coach, that may have been a blessing. The veterans' absence has opened valuable opportunities for younger players to see more action.
"Spring practice is normally a time to evaluate your younger players, but this spring, we were able to give our younger guys more reps than usual," said Tedford. "Overall, it was a very productive spring. We got a lot of work done, with many of our redshirt freshmen really getting quality playing and learning time."
Tedford cited some pleasant surprises and standout performers during the spring.
Stevens, in fact, has placed himself in a position to compete for the starting job in his first season of active duty.
"Craig is extremely strong and physical at the point of attack," said Tedford. "He's a tremendous competitor."
Stevens, who first caught Tedford's eye during training camp last summer, will compete with veterans Garrett Cross and John Rust for the starting job.
J.J. Arrington, the Pac-10's leader in yard-per-carry average (5.7) last year, reported to spring ball in great shape and did nothing to alter his heir apparent status as Adimchinobe Echemandu's replacement at tailback. While still listed deep on the depth chart, one walk-on who has surprised in spring camp is redshirt freshman Brandon Hampton (Westchester High in Los Angeles).
Tedford also praised the team's young offensive linemen, who have benefited from the extra work due to injured veterans remaining on the sidelines this spring.
"Players like (sophomore) Scott Smith, (sophomore) Eric Robertson, (Delta JC transfer) Brian Deemer and (sophomore) Andrew Cameron have shown steady improvement, which hopefully will create more depth when we're at full strength this fall," said Tedford.
Another sometimes overlooked strength of the Bears is senior backup quarterback Reggie Robertson, who clearly demonstrated last year that he would be a starting signal caller on most Pac-10 teams. While he relinquished the job to ultra-talented JC transfer Aaron Rodgers (2,903 yards, 61.6%, 19 TDs, 5 INTs) five games into the 2003 season, Robertson continues to provide seasoned play and leadership for Cal. With Rodgers on the mend after off-season knee surgery, Robertson (798 yards, 62.6%, 9 TDs, 3 INTs) did not miss a beat this spring.
"We are so fortunate to have such a team player like Reggie," Tedford said. "That we can rely on someone with his talent and intellect as our No. 2 quarterback gives this team a luxury that very few teams in the country have."
Defensively, Tedford said he was particularly pleased with the play of two redshirt freshmen: defensive back Thomas DeCoud, who has shown "excellent coverage and playmaking ability," and defensive lineman Matt Malele, "who is finally healthy and benefiting greatly from the extra work this spring."
Another youngster receiving high marks this spring is returning cornerback Daymeion Hughes, who started five games as a freshman last year.
Cal's special teams figure to be improved this fall as well. Besides giving the Bears' a deep threat at wide receiver, DeSa has served notice this spring that he may be an impact player as a punt returner.
In addition, competition is fierce for both the placekicking and punting job. Australian import David Lonie is battling a pair of redshirt freshmen, Tom Schneider and Tony Binswanger, for the No. 1 kicking spot, while Lonie and senior Lucas Everett continue to compete for the starting punter job.
As the Bears' spring camp ends this weekend, the countdown continues towards the team's 2004 season opener at Colorado Springs against Air Force Sept. 4. Cal fans everywhere can take great pleasure in knowing there are only 144 days to go!