The Tipping Point

The Tipping Point

Finding balance is key for the Bears, who face the Pac-12's ninth rushing defense against Arizona, with rising freshman Chris Borrayo taking over at left guard and a now-healthy Matt Cochran making a move to the outside.

BERKELEY -- It’s been a season of change for the California football program. Not only is there a new staff at the helm, but a new way of doing things, both on and off the field, not the least of which are new schemes on both sides of the ball.

The results -- with a 1-7 record – are clearly not what head coach Sonny Dykes had anticipated. After talking this past weekend with a former USC head coach, though, he gained a bit more resolve.

“It was good just to talk to him and to hear kind of, sometimes you see a guy like Pete Carroll, and you think, boy, it’s always been easy for him,” Dykes said of his meeting with the current head coach of the Seattle Seahawks, before the Bears’ game against Washington this past weekend, featured on the Pac-12 Networks weekly show, The Drive. “He was talking about when he was at USC his first year, and he started 2-5, and just how he had to keep doing what he believed in and what he knew.

“All the overnight successes, there’s always a lot of failure that happens behind the scenes. He got fired at the Jets, he got fired at the Patriots, so he wasn’t an overnight success. It took him a while to figure out the formula, he had to keep grinding. He gave some really insightful advice, and I really enjoyed visiting with him. I think we share a lot of similar ways of thinking and approaching the game, so it was good to have a chance to go visit with him.”

Change is never easy, and of course it’s been anything but for Cal (1-7, 0-5 Pac-12) this season, as the Bears prepare to face Arizona (5-2, 2-2) this Saturday. From the topmost concerns of the administration – namely resurrecting the program’s sagging academic standards – to the most basic of fundamentals, such as the way the offensive linemen stand on the line of scrimmage.

For freshman Chris Borrayo -- who made his first career start last Saturday in Seattle – that change from a three-point stance to a two-point stance has been just about as jarring as the decision to pull his redshirt.

“It was really hard to get used to this,” Borrayo said. The biggest adjustment? “Trying to stay balanced in a two-point stance. In a three-point stance, I had my weight on my hand, so I could level myself, but here, it was a lot harder to get used to, especially with the run game, trying to take the right steps.”

As for the pulling of his redshirt with five games to go, at first, the change in plans was a bit startling, but Borrayo quickly came around.

“I’ll be honest: I was a little hesitant at first, because I wanted my redshirt, to stay here for another four years,” Borrayo said. “But, I talked to a lot of my folks back home, and a lot of people that I cared about, and they said it was a good idea, that it was smart, to take the chance while you have it, so I did.”

Borrayo’s gotten plenty of encouragement from new starting center Jordan Rigsbee, the bulldog of the offensive line.

“I have a lot of respect for Jordan because of that,” Borrayo said. “As a left guard, me, personally, he tells me a lot. I’m not really confused by this offense; I understand it pretty well, but whenever he tells me I do something wrong, or he notices that I take the wrong steps or something, he helps me a lot.”

As Borrayo learns the finer points necessary to be an effective starting left guard, former starting right guard Matt Cochran has made a speedy recovery from a high ankle sprain – which took thrice-daily trips to the Simpson Center to allow the training staff (to whom he attributes his quick return) to work their magic – and is now competing at right tackle.

“I told him last week I wanted him to come back and compete for the tackle spot,” said offensive line coach Zach Yenser. “The kid’s athletic enough to play on the edge, and we just want to see him outside and see how he responds to it. Like we’ve said since Day One, we want football players, anywhere and everywhere – not just left tackles and right tackles.”

Cochran played center during spring ball, with Chris Adcock out nursing a shoulder, and moved to the No. 1 right guard spot in fall camp, where he started the season for the first three games. Now, he’s a true utility man, able to provide depth both at center, both guards and at tackle.

“They kind of threw me in there [Monday] and we were doing some stuff. We’re doing the whole thing. From my understanding, they put me at tackle, I’m learning the position as if I’m going to take it and wherever that goes is where it goes,” Cochran said. “I kept using the word ‘awkward’ during practice, and I think I’m just going to keep using that until I really perfect the position, but as of right now, it’s film, practice and talking to coaches.”

Cochran is a consummate perfectionist, so it will take a lot of what in his mind is awkwardness before he truly feels like he belongs.

“Exactly,” Cochran smiled. “It’s going to take a while before I even get slightly comfortable at this position, but I don’t really care. Whatever it takes for me to be good.

“You’re isolated more, I feel like, and being interior, you get the center or another guard helping you out, maybe 90 percent of the time. At the tackle position, you’re literally one-on-one with the D-end almost 100 percent of the time, so that was kind of a different change for me, because I’m not really good at one-on-ones – I can say that confidently – it’s just an area that I need to improve on.”

Pass sets are particularly vexing for Cochran, as is blocking for the run in that two-point stance. Asked whether that may be one of the hindrances to the running game, Dykes deferred to his previous experience, where his Louisiana Tech teams had 1,000-yard rushers two of his three seasons as head coach for the Bulldogs.

“It hadn’t in the past. We’ve been pretty good places I’ve been, in a two-point stance,” Dykes said. “It depends on kind of what style of offense you came from. A lot of times, a three-point stance or a two-point stance aren’t that much different, because some guys are pretty soft on their hands, and other guys are heavy on their hands, and then you’ve got the De La Salle’s of the world that are coming off of a flat back, so a lot of that just depends on what style of offense you came from, and I think, in his case, it’s probably a little bit of an adjustment. He came from a downhill, running football team. But, it hasn’t been a problem for guys in the past.”

Run blocking will be crucial against the Wildcats, who own the best passing defense in the league, but the fourth-worst rushing defense, and Arizona has just nine sacks on the season.

“Their front is more of a run-stopping front,” Dykes said. “Their body types are not real long, angular, pass-rushing type guys. They’re going to get their pressure more from edge guys and blitzes, so it’s a little bit different than what we’ve seen. The last couple of weeks, we’ve seen more true defensive end types that are long, edge rushers. It’s a little bit different system, a little bit different style of play. They get their pressure on the quarterback a little bit differently than some of the other teams have.”

In this season of change, Borrayo perhaps unwittingly encapsulated the biggest challenge, when talking about switching from his three-point stance to a two-point stance: Staying balanced. Maturity is needed for a disciplined and effective run game, which has yet to develop. Because of that, Cal is dead last in the Pac-12 in red zone efficiency, scoring just 22 times out of 31 trips, with nine of those scores being field goals.

“I think a lot of it’s just youth,” Dykes said. “I think inexperience is a big deal in football, just because what happens when you’re young is you’re not particularly good at situations, typically, and especially the first year of a system, you’re not particularly good at situations, and situations really determine so much of college football, and so how you do on third down, how do you do in the red zone, those critical situations, and you have a tendency to turn the ball over. I think that’s part of it.”

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