August 16, 1998
TURLOCK - For junior inside linebacker Matt Beck, fall camp 1998 brings an acute sense of anticipation, both from individual and team standpoints.
In his first two seasons with the Golden Bear program, Beck has put up some impressive numbers: 103 tackles as a freshman in 1996, 21 tackles for loss in 1997 and a school-record six tackles behind the line of scrimmage against Oklahoma last September.
But before Cal opens its '98 season against Houston on Sept. 5, perhaps the day Beck has been waiting for most is today - the first time the team puts on pads and begins to hit at its training camp on the Stanislaus State campus. Although Beck paced the Bears with 6.9 tackles per game last season, that number was down from 9.7 stops per game his freshman year. The main culprit was an injured nerve in his shoulder, a condition that kept him out of contests against Washington State and UCLA and limited his effectiveness down the stretch.
To let his shoulder heal, he was kept out of much of spring practice. However, Beck has been participating fully the past three days as Cal has worked out in shorts. But this afternoon at 2:30 when the Bears up pads on for the first time is when he'll find out if he has completely healed.
"My shoulders are all right," the rugged 6-4, 230-pounder from Grass Valley insists. "But I'm a little conscious about when we put pads on. I'll feel my way through it and see how things are. I'll see if I can hit and take on the strong blocks with full aggression and strength. So far, I'm doing OK."
Now in his fourth year in the program (he redshirted in 1995), Beck is slated to begin his third season as one of Cal's starting linebackers. A two-time honorable mention All-Pac-10 pick, he enters this year considered one of Top 20 inside linebackers in the country by most of the preseason football magazines.
As one of Cal's veterans on a defense that returns nine starters, Beck can sense that something special may be developing for this year. For the first time since he has been with the Bears, he and his teammates don't have to figure out a new defensive system. Instead, they are able to build on what second-year coordinator Lyle Setencich installed last year.
"This is actually the first camp I've to where we didn't have to learn a whole new playbook," Beck said. "It was nice being able to come here and know things from the get-go. We already have our base down. We've already gone through a whole year of this scheme, so now we're just trying to refine that and add more difficult things. This year, we're starting at a higher level and it shows.
"It will make a significant impact because teams won't be able to assume that we're going to be in one coverage. They're going to have to deal with a few other coverages that we are able to throw at them. It opens up a lot more ground for us, and it develops a lot more for (opposing) offenses to think about."
Those teams come at the Bears quickly this season. Houston's Ketric Sanford was ranked as the No. 20 tailback in the country by one publication and Oklahoma's DeMond Parker gained more than 1,100 yards last year. In between is defending national champion Nebraska, which is ranked fourth in the preseason Associated Press poll. And according to Beck, the prospect of playing teams high caliber teams keeps everyone more focussed this camp.
"I think it moves from the coaches through the players because we know we have some big games right away," Beck said. "It's exciting not just for team, but for the program. It lifts our spirits and keeps things moving. When we get tired and are in our sixth day of pads and we think about taking a break, then you wonder if Houston, Nebraska or Oklahoma is taking a break. But they're going the same things we are."
So, for Beck and the rest of the Bears, there is still a lot to accomplish before the team winds up its two-a-day sessions in Turlock next week. But that sense of anticipation has them eager to show what they can do once the season officially gets underway.