Aug. 16, 1999
TURLOCK - Back in 1996, Pete Destefano was among the starting 11 in his first game as a Golden Bear, lining up at safety against San Jose State in Spartan Stadium. And it seems like he has been there every since.
Unlike many young players, Destefano did not have the luxury of learning the finer points of the game out of the spotlight. The Bears lacked veterans in their secondary, and Destefano was quickly tossed into the mix. Now, whatever mistakes he made would be seen in front of 50,000 fans instead of just coaches and players up on Witter Field during practice.
"He kind of had to play before his time," said secondary coach Randy Stewart. "We didn't have anybody, he was a good player and he was thrown out there to learn on the job. Most people get a chance to sit and develop. He had to go out there cold and learn by doing it and take his lumps."
Destefano started one other time as a freshman - in the Big Game against Stanford - and picked up nine more starts as a sophomore. Now with 21 starts to his credit entering his senior year, he helps give the Bears one of the most experienced defensive backfields in college football.
Although the progression was painful at times, Destefano is now recognized as one of the best as his position in the country. An honorable mention All-Pac-10 choice last year, he was selected the No. 24 safety in the nation by Lindy's magazine this summer.
"It was definitely a learning experience the first couple of years," Destefano said. "This year, I'm trying to fine tune everything. I think I have a pretty firm grasp on how things should be and how things are going. Right now, it's a matter of trying to perfect the game. I come here everyday with the attitude to learn something I don't know."
Having an experienced secondary is not lost on Stewart, especially when it comes to Destefano
"It's probably the biggest benefit you can have," Stewart said. "Not only is he getting better with what he's doing, he understands our system. Everybody is really learning from him. We know this: we've got a guy whose going to do it right, so everybody else is going to get better around him. He's doing a great job with the young guys. When they come off the field, he'll visit with them and help them clean up some of the things he went through the first three years."
Unlike in Destefano's early years with the Cal program, the starting lineup in the defensive backfield now features three seniors - Destefano, safety Damian Marzett and cornerback Deltha O'Neal - and junior corner Chidi Iwuoma. The experience those four possess is certain to pay dividends this season.
"It wasn't that way just a couple of years ago," Destefano said. "We were the inexperienced young group that didn't know if we would make it to be seniors.
"Being a veteran group, we know each other's strengths," he added. "I think we're already at the top. Talent-wise, I think we're one of the best. That's a really good feeling. We're never looking to plateau. We're always looking to keep going. When you're young, you don't know where your pinnacle of success is. We're still searching for that."
For someone who has been on the field as much as he has, it's good to know that his learning curve is still in motion.
Camp Notes: Defensive end Andre Carter was held out of practice again Monday due to a slight hamstring strain. He will like be out of action for at least the next 3-4 days, ensuring that his injury heals well before the Sept. 4 Rutgers opener ... the Bears put on pads for the first time Sunday afternoon after three days of practice in shorts ... Cal has scheduled two scrimmages in fall camp - Wednesday at 4:30 p.m. and Saturday at 9 a.m.