LOS ANGELES – Ticket trading among California players is always at a premium, but it takes on a greater importance the week they head south to play at the Coliseum or Rose Bowl, with 28 players on the current roster are from Southern California, including five starters.
“Everybody in the locker room is asking,” running back Isi Sofele said.
For freshman wide receiver Chris Harper, he is expecting at least 20 friends and family members in attendance for Saturday’s Pac-12 opener against USC (3 p.m., Pac-12 Network).
“They’re all going to come out for support, watch, and just help me play my best,” he said. “I’m really excited to go back home, but first we got to focus on getting the victory.”
Headed back to Berkeley with the victory has been hard to come by for the Golden Bears (1-2) under head coach Jeff Tedford, with only one win in 10 tries. Only one of the last six such games has been decided by less than 14 points, a 30-21 loss to UCLA in 2007.
The series with USC (2-1 0-1 Pac-12) has been especially brutal of late, with eight straight losses since what is perhaps Tedford’s signature win, the 34-31 triple overtime stunner in 2003 that ultimately kept the Trojans from playing for the BCS championship.
Sofele described the annual meetings with the two Los Angeles schools as “kind of a rivalry” because of the relationships among so many players dating back to Pee Wee football, 7-on-7, or high school.
“Everyone knows each other. They grew up together, played football against each other when they were younger,” Sofele said. “It’s a very exciting game for these guys.”
In just one example, Harper played with USC offensive guard Jordan Simmons at Encino (Calif.) Crespi and receiver Darrues Rogers, who will enroll in January as a greyshirt, on the 1925 All-Stars 7-on-7 team, coached by ex-Trojan standouts Keyshawn Johnson and Brian Kelly, and played against running back D.J. Morgan in a high school playoff game.
Ironically, it was those sorts of connections that helped bring Harper to Cal. He played with fellow freshman receiver Bryce Treggs on 1925, and worked with freshman quarterback Zach Kline at the Elite 11 finals in Malibu last summer.
That exposure of playing with 24 of the top quarterback recruits in the country dramatically increased Harper’s profile among college coaches, including the Cal staff.
“That was definitely one of the turning points in my life, when colleges started realizing that I could play football and where I started getting more looks because of all the quarterbacks that were committed to all these great schools and they could tell their coaches about me,” Harper said.
Already interested in Cal, he pushed Kline and Treggs to make the case to Tedford that Harper was deserving of a scholarship offer from the Bears. When it was finally extended during an official visit in December, Harper immediately committed.
It didn’t take long for the 6-foot, 170-pound speedster to justify his place, emerging as the slot receiver and also backing up junior Keenan Allen.
In three games, Harper leads the team with two touchdown receptions, while his 15 receptions for 183 yards are second only to Allen. But he insists there is much more to his game than screens and quick routes designed to allow him make defenders miss in the open field.
“As the season goes on and they start to trust me more, I feel like our offense is going to open up,” Harper said.
For now, his role is to use his speed and punish defenses when they focus their coverage on Allen.
“I just got to try to get open,” Harper said. “I got to help Keenan because I know they are going to be looking at Keenan. Me and Bryce have to get open so we can create opportunities for our offense to move the ball down the field.”
There is no shortage of confidence on that side of the ball after racking up 512 yards in a 35-28 loss at Ohio State. The challenge now is to take that momentum from one venerable stadium in the Horseshoe to the Coliseum.
Tedford promised extra time after the game for players to see their friends and family, but the purpose of the trip is clear.
“I’ve already told them in the team meeting don’t bother telling your family to come to the hotel Friday night because we’re there for business,” he said.
“It’s going to be a fun experience,” said Harper, one that would be that much more fulfilling with a win.
Dan Greenspan is the publisher of Cal Sports Digest and writes about the Pac-12 for Fox Sports Next. Follow him on Twitter @DanGreenspan.