By Jonathan Palay
With the 2003 season fast approaching, there is little that is certain on Head Coach Jeff Tedford's practice field. Gone are laser-armed quarterback Kyle Boller and fleet-footed running back Joe Igber. The offense that racked up 355.7 yards and 35.6 points per game is all a distant memory. Yet Tedford walks around practice with a quiet confidence, as he grooms his offense for success that any Tedford-run team expects. Does Tedford know something we don't? There is no way Cal can approach last year's numbers on offense against what looks to be a brutal schedule. Or can they?
What Tedford is sure of, is that despite all of the turnover Cal endured this offseason, his offensive line returns three solid starters, and promotes two seniors who have been in the system. Senior standout Mark Wilson (LT) stays on the left side after a successful move from right tackle after the 2001season. Junior Jonathan Giesel (LG) moves alongside Wilson after starting 11 out of 12 games at right guard last season. On the right side, senior Chris Murhpy (RT) returns to complete the core of last year's line, which finished the year tied for the fewest sacks allowed (25) in the Pac-10. Seniors Nolan Bluntzer (C) and David Hays (RG) move up the depth chart to fill out the rest of the veteran line.
Anchoring the group is the 6-6, 295-pound Wilson, who was awarded All-Pac-10 honorable mention last season. A durable player who has started all 34 games the last three seasons, Wilson is becoming one of the best tackles in the conference. In front of every Boller and Igber there is a Mark Wilson. By all accounts a dominating presence on the field, Wilson intends to make himself even better according to Offensive Line Coach Jim Michalczik.
"If you have to go a yard, the first thirty-four inches are easy," said Michalczik. " It's the last two that are the hardest. That is the difference between being good and being great. Mark is working on the little things."
Teammate Giesel agrees that Wilson has begun to claw past those last two inches.
"There is a certain level of trust playing next to him (Wilson)," said Giesel. "If I need any help, I know I have a very good player next to me. We keep each other going and pumped up."
Wilson intends to cover the blind side of whichever quarterback is chosen to sling passes over his shoulders, and forge holes for whichever running back gains the right to run through. If he and his offensive line mates do their job, he is confident that the team can get the job done.
"You can't worry about anything behind you," Wilson explained. "We have three quarterbacks (Reggie Robertson, Aaron Rodgers, and Richard Schwartz) who can all play and a bunch of running backs who can all play. If we handle business up front, we are capable of exceeding last year."
You won't find many reporters in the Pac-10 willing to back up that statement. After all, Boller was a first-round draft pick and Igber became the first Cal back to rush for 1,000 yards in a season since 1993. Yet if there is pass protection, the quarterback will have time to make an accurate throw and if there are holes, the running back will have room to run. Everything an offense does, originates at the line of scrimmage with the offensive line. If a team gets that part right, it gives itself a far better chance to succeed.
Coach Michalczik, a Dennis Erickson disciple at Miami and Oregon State, understands the importance and senses that this group could be something special.
"Every day we are getting better," said Michalczik. "I'm looking forward to seeing how this group competes. As far as understanding the offense and technique, this group is way ahead of last year. Also we have a greater understanding of our role in the overall scheme."
With an otherwise inexperienced offense, that's good news for Tedford. He has a truly precious commodity, in an experienced, jelling front five. The offensive line has the most game experience on the team, so Wilson doesn't have to say much to get his fellow linemen in sync with the offense.
"I will lead by example," stated Wilson. "If I feel things aren't going smoothly, I'll help the coaches pick it up, but I don't have to say much."
That's life during the second year of Camp Tedford. The team has a far better understanding of where it's going and how it will get there.
"The players are more confident," said Wilson. "We've always had the talent, but we now believe in ourselves more. It's up to the individual to take the coaching and translate that into success on the field."
Not only does Tedford have one less question mark to answer with the offensive line in place, but he also has the framework for another successful offensive campaign. With Wilson and company doing the heavy lifting, maybe expectations to follow in last year's footsteps aren't so far fetched.