Fall Camp Day Four Notebook

BERKELEY -- We take a closer look at the run game as the Cal football team readies for its first day in pads, when Vic Enwere can finally hit something.

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BERKELEY -- The Bear Raid of 2014 figures to look different than the Bear Raid of 2013. Apart from a quarterback who’s been through the ringer in sophomore Jared Goff, a returning offensive line and perhaps the best corps of wide receivers in the Pac-12, top to bottom, this Bear Raid will be able to run.

“Hopefully, we’re going to be able to run the ball,” said head coach Sonny Dykes after Thursday’s closed practice, California’s second in shoulder pads of fall camp. “I think we’re a year more physical, and bigger and stronger, up front, with more depth. We have a better sense of what we’re trying to do, and I think our backs are running more downhill, and I think that’s going to make a difference for us.”

It’s perhaps easy to point to the sputtering running game last season as a problem somewhere near the bottom of the list of issues that resulted in a 1-11 season – the worst in Cal history, but consider this: The Bears were 122nd in the nation in total defense, and 107th in rushing offense.

[Top 10 Story Lines Revisited Part 1]

Imagine, for a moment, if every defense Cal faced looked like Northwestern’s in the first half of the season opener: Terrified of a game-breaking running back, and back on their heels, only to be carved up by the passing game.

Brendan Bigelow -- cut last week by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after coming out early and signing as an undrafted free agent – didn’t become the back the Wildcats feared so much in that first half, and Daniel Lasco played hurt for much of the season. This year, Lasco is back, and behind him is dynamic Khalfani Muhammad and a pair of freshmen -- Tre Watson and Vic Enwere -- who have looked better and better each day of camp.

Enwere – every inch a power back – has looked a bit out of sorts early on, since he hasn’t really been able to hit anything. He was out over his skis, trying a bit too hard over the first two days of camp, but once the shoulder pads went on, Enwere has calmed down, and continued to improve on Thursday – the last day before Cal goes in full pads.

“I thought he ran the ball hard today,” Dykes said. “We got on him pretty good about trying to do too much yesterday, and thinking too much, and he’s a big guy. He’s a strong guy. He needs to get his pads headed north and south, make yards and finish runs. He did a really good job at doing that today.

“The thing about him, is he’s tough, he’s smart, he’s not scared and he likes to play physical football. That’s certainly something different than what we’ve had at that position.”

Dykes said that he hopes his offense can keep a fresh back in at all times, with three or four quality runners in his stable. With the foursome of Lasco, Muhammad, Enwere and Watson – not to mention perhaps sneakily the most complete back on the roster in Jeffrey Coprich -- he may very well have the numbers he wants.

“It can be hard on defenses, late in drives: Fresh guy comes in, defense is a little tired, so that’s the idea,” Dykes said. “The good thing is, we have those two freshmen, who I think are going to have a great opportunity to play early, and play significant minutes.

“Khalfani is much improved. He’s really done some good things. Lasco’s been consistent. When you look up, all of the sudden, a position that had a lot of question marks has some potential answers. We’ve just got to get those guys to where they’re ready to play.”

*****

The buzzword on Thursday was intensity, which Dykes said is directly attributable to the commitment the players showed this past offseason. The intensity, he said, starts with the men on the field.

“I think it’s leadership, and, I think, more than anything else, it’s a commitment,” Dykes said. “It’s just a commitment to coming out here and taking advantage of getting better. I think, at times, last year, we had to drag them out here, kicking and screaming a little bit, and they’ve been much more self-starters. It’s early, still. We’ve got to continue that intensity, but they’re ready to practice. They want to get better.”

[VIDEO: Highlights of Day Two]

Dykes noted that, though the intensity has been good over the first four practices, the Bears still have 25 more practices to go before traveling to Evanston, Ill., for a rematch with Northwestern. Cal is, though, moving in the right direction.

“It’s a good start,” Dykes said. “We used to hear guys out here talking about other things besides football, and I don’t hear that anymore. They talk about football, they’re coaching each other, they’re having fun competing against each other. I think with the influx of the junior college players and the freshmen coming in, a lot of these guys realize they’d better raise their level or they’re not going to be playing. There’s a tremendous amount of competition, pretty much across the board. That kind of brings out the best in anybody.”

*****

Dykes said that Thursday’s practice was “really, really intense and physical,” and saw defensive tackle Mustafa Jalil double his workload from Wednesday’s session.

“He did a lot more today,” Dykes said. “He did double today what he did yesterday, so we’ll see how he feels and what we’re doing with him. We’ll probably back him off a little bit and continue to monitor him and bring him along.”

Linebacker Nathan Broussard -- who missed last season with a torn ACL – was backed off on Wednesday, and “didn’t do much today,” Dykes said. Both he and center Chris Adcock -- who has taken nearly every first-team snap after a season-ending knee injury last season – will likely have reduced duty over the next two days in pads, with an eye towards having them ready for the first game.

“It’s something we’ve talked about. We’ll see how those guys are,” Dykes said. “There’s a handful of guys we might try to back off a little bit tomorrow, but we’ll see.”

*****

Linebacker Hardy Nickerson, Jr., who missed the last two games of 2013 with a foot injury, is being brought along slowly, as well, but instead of returning to the MIKE position – which has been largely the province of Broussard – he’s worked at outside linebacker.

“Hardy did more today than he’s been doing,” Dykes said. “We’re progressing him along and it’s good to see him out there, doing a little bit more every day.

“He’s going to play in the box, a lot. It depends on kind of what we’re going to see from week to week, and where those guys play. We try to teach them all three positions, and we can roll them through there, depending on what we’re going to see.”

The linebacker group, led by always-steady veteran Jalen Jefferson, as a whole, has been solid, with several of the new additions contributing.

“There are a lot of guys coming in and out, a lot of new faces, but I’m pleased with what I’m seeing out of the group,” Dykes said. “Devante Downs is a guy that’s really starting to show up a lot at that position. I thought Arthur Wainwright showed up a bunch more today. He’s still learning what to do, but he can run and he’s physical. Jalen’s been pretty consistent so far.”

*****

If there are two constants on the team, they have been Jefferson and Goff, who has added a lot to his repertoire over the course of offseason workouts, using his shoulders and eyes to manipulate defenders and adding arm strength – thanks to 10 pounds of muscle – to the point where any throw more than 20 yards down field is as sure a bet as a five-yard hitch.

“Night and day. This time last year, he’s trying to learn the routes, and he’s on the same page with the guys now,” Dykes said. “They really did a good job this summer of working on their own, and staring to develop an understanding and a trust between him and really all of those guys. They’re just on the same page and speaking the same language, and they’re pretty clear, when they see something they want to try to do, so when you get that is when you start to make a move, offensively.”

The ball comes out of Goff’s hand sooner and crisper than last season, and his midrange accuracy has been nonpareil.

“We show signs of executing at a fairly high level, and then we get into third-down situations and we weren’t very good, so we’ve just got to be more consistent,” Dykes said.

*****

With preseason all-everything receiver Chris Harper upgrading his speed and physicality, and the emergence of now-eligible Hawaii transfer Trevor Davis, the X-receiver position is turning into quite a battle.

“Trevor’s just a consistent dude,” Dykes said. “He’s much improved from the spring. He’s in the right place at the right time, all the time. He’s been very consistent. That’s a good position for us, right now, with he and Chris there at that X spot, kind of battling to see who’s going to be the guy who gets the most reps.”

*****

Fresh off of a big commitment earlier this week, California head basketball coach Cuonzo Martin took in his first football practice on Thursday.

READ MORE ABOUT THE COMMITMENT OF OSCAR FRAYER
Mac and Cheese, A Broken Arm and a Cal Offer
VIDEO GALORE: Frayer Stays Home
Frayer Chooses Cal
National Impact: Breaking Down Frayer’s Commitment
Beyond the Commitment: Leaving a Legacy
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