While spring practice has featured competition for positions throughout the offense, one of the more intriguing battles this spring has been at the left guard position. With Mike Tepper, Alex Mack, Noris Malele, and Chet Teofilo all being constants with the first team unit, sophomores Mark Boskovich and Richard Fisher have both seen extensive work with the first unit during the first three weeks of practice.
For Boskovich, who's returning to left guard this season after backing up Malele at right guard this year, the spring has gone well.
"I feel like the whole unit is getting better. We're making improvements day by day," said the 6-4, 300-pound Boskovich. "It's been competitive working with both the first and second units, which is good because you can't ever get comfortable when there's competition."
Under the guidance of assistant head coach and offensive line coach Jim Michalczik, the Bears' offensive line has always been one of the team's deepest units during the Jeff Tedford era. The depth of talent means that there's always a blend of experienced players with new players, and Boskovich has gained considerably from working with the first unit.
"With the ones, I'm working with (Alex) Mack and (Mike) Tepper and I'm getting more comfortable," said Boskovich, speaking about Tepper, who's moving back to left tackle from right tackle, and the returning All Pac-10 center. "Playing around them and seeing them work has been great. They know what they're doing and they're good at keeping us in check."
Even though the Bears are undergoing so much transition on offense with different quarterbacks and running backs and wide receivers, Boskovich said he, along with the other linemen, can't concern themselves with what's going on behind them.
"I'm locked into my assignment," said Boskovich, who's a political science major. "As a lineman you have to have trust that everybody is doing their job and that everything is going all right."
A Los Altos native, who attended St. Francis High School, for Boskovich, who was third-team all-state and a National Football Foundation Scholar-Athlete, his final college choices came down to two schools.
"It was between Stanford and Cal and I had the chance to walk-on at both," said Boskovich, who played in all 13 games last season, primarily on special teams. "I went to camp at Cal, and after seeing the campus and spending time with the coaches, and with my father having gone here, this was the place for me."
Being the son of a Cal grad, surely he grew up knowing all about the Campanile, Strawberry Canyon, Memorial Stadium, Top Dog, and the guy who stands on the milk crate yelling "Happy, Happy, Happy" all day long, right?
"Living in Los Altos, I grew up a Stanford fan." said Boskovich, who then quickly dispels any notion that he might have come to campus with a bunch of red shirts with the letter S on them or was annoying people with "All Right Now" as his ringtone. "But after I got older, I realized where the better institution was, where the better coaches were and which school had the better program."
Boskovich is effusive in his praise for Michalczik.
"He teaches technique and as long as you work to master it, it doesn't matter if your the biggest or the most athletic guy," said Boskovich, who plans to enter the season in the 300-to-305 pound range. "With great technique, you become a great player, then you can become great at your position. He also lets us know that we have to take it upon ourselves at unit and inspire ourselves to go out and perfect our technique."
Although he saw limited game time with the offensive line last season, as a backup to a player who was competing with an injury, he had to practice knowing that at any moment he might be needed to go into a game.
"You're always on your toes," said Boskovich. "Last year, I was the back-up for Noris (Malele) who was working through an ankle injury, so it put me in the mindset that I always needed to prepare, and I got to play a little bit and got some good experience."
Getting initial game experience can be different for a player who's used to playing in front of substantially smaller crowds in high school. Even if one spends a redshirt season on the sidelines as a freshman as Boskovich did in 2006, actually getting out onto field can be eye-opening.
"The games are a lot quicker," said Boskovich, who enjoys outdoor sports in his spare time. "In practice, everyone's going as hard as they can and playing from snap until the whistle, but it's different in a game. Everything goes a lot quicker and you're really trying to knock the other guy to the turf."
Although all of the competition at different positions could strike a distant observer as unsettling; from Boskovich's view it helps provide a dynamic that might have been missing from the team during the latter part of the 2007 season, which saw the Bears fall from a #2 ranking.
"We should never be comfortable whether we're #1 or #100," said Boskovich. "The idea is to get better every practice and for everyone to become accountable and do what they have to do."
"Last year, the ones might have gotten comfortable and there wasn't a lot competition for spots, and some people didn't feel like they needed to get that much better," he added. "This year the coaches have got lots of guys rotating in and out so it's more competitive. I hope that continues so people don't feel like their spot is sealed."
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With the running back and wide receiver corps about as healthy as they've been all spring, Cal's offense snapped out of its spring doldrums, with strong performances from its top running backs, solid execution from its short yardage offense, and Kevin Riley having one of his better passing days. The defense had several strong performances, especially from safety Gary Doxy who forced a fumble and helped in a deflection that led to an interception.
Slocum excelled in goal line situations,scoring on consecutive plays from the five when the offense was doing situational work. Seeing his first extended work during the spring, Vereen showed a terrific ability to string a play out and cut through the hole, as well as an ability to run out of tackles, and had a 32-yard run, which was the day's longest. Deboskie ran well off of the right side, showing discipline in not hesitating or dancing around or trying too hard to make a big play.
Although wide receiver Jeremy Ross was held out of practice due to injury, Saturday's practice saw Drew Glover, Alex Stroud, and Cameron Toler return to action which allowed the Bears the chance to give their receivers a lot of work as well. The offense spent a lot of time working on short passing plays, with the linemen and other receivers working on downfield blocking; an area where the Bears faltered last season. Michael Calvin and Nyan Boateng had most of the catches that went to wide receivers, with Boateng making a 5-yard touchdown on a screen pass where he broke out of a tackle attempt from defensive back Gary Doxy.
Other highlights included:
Kevin Riley throwing a deep square out to Michael Calvin for 30 yards;
Mansion throwing a screen pass to Vereen that went for 12 yards;
Gary Doxy tackling Vereen for a two-yard loss, combining with Charles Johnson on a 9-yard sack of Brock Mansion, tippng a Mansion pass that resulted in a Syd'Quan Thompson interception, and then causing a fumble by making a big hit on Will Kapp, who'd just caught a short pass from Mansion;
On the following play, Mansion going right back to Kapp for a 12-yard touchdown pass;
Solomona Aigamaua doing good work teaming up with Scott Smith to stop Vereen for a one-yard loss, then a couple of plays later dropping into coverage to break up a Mansion pass to tight end Garry Graffort;
Mansion throwing a pass to the end zone where tight ends Graffort and Tad Smith ran into each other trying to catch the ball, with Smith coming away from it;
Riley throwing a 5-yard touchdown pass to Will Ta'ufo'ou; and
Keith Browner recovered a Deboskie fumble;
The defensive work was solid as the Bears allowed very few big plays and generally did a good job of not letting running backs turn the corner on wide runs. While pass rushers didn't have nearly the free runs to the quarterbacks that they did last week, the Bears will were able to get a good pass rush, not just from their defensive line, but from linebackers, and even the secondary on occasion.
The Bears did some slight work with kickoff returns, with Deboskie and Slocum being returners on one kick, and Darian Hagan and Calvin setting up as returners on the other. Hagan, who'll be in the mix for a starting cornerback position this fall, looked very good on a 90-yard return for a touchdown. While it would have been a good return under any circumstance, because it is practice and because it is spring, players are generally encouraged to not be overly aggressive and not do anything that might risk an injury.
Cal also worked on its punting, and although Bryan Anger wasn't quite as spectacular as he's been earlier this spring, he did hit a high, hanging 50-yarder as well as a 42- and a 38-yarder. Working with a different long snapper later in practice as well as a pass rush affected his rhythm as his next three punts when between 32 and 38 yards.
The field goal unit had mixed success as late in practice, Jordan Kay made field goals from 27, 32, 37, and 47 yards, but hit the upright on another 37-yarder and missed a 47-yarder. Nick Demopoulos missed a 32-yarder and a 37-yarder.
While previous weeks saw the Bears using discrete first, second, and third units with some substitution in each, Saturday's practice saw primarily two units with lots of substitutions in each unit.
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Initially the Bears went with nine-man units going against each other, before switching over to elevens. With the nine-man units, the Bears worked more on their running, with no wide receivers on offense and no cornerbacks on defense. As they went to 11-player units, so many people were switched between units that in the end there was very little difference between who worked with which units.
The usual disclaimers apply: there were so many players coming in and out that it was hard to track changes for everyone; the coaching staff is trying to get looks at a lot of people in different situations, so who's with the A unit and who's with the B unit is not necessarily indicative of what the depth chart might be like, and there are some players who didn't participate due to injury.
Offensive Unit A: Michael Calvin, Nyan Boateng, Cameron Morrah, Tad Smith, Mike Tepper, Mark Boskovich Richard Fisher, Alex Mack, Noris Malele, Chet Teofilo, Chris Guarnero, Kevin Riley, Tracy Slocum, Shane Vereen Will Ta'ufo'ou
Defensive Unit A (with 9): Cameron Jordan, Tyson Alualu, Mika Kane, Derrick Hill, Devin Bishop, Anthony Felder, Worrell Williams, Eddie Young, Marcus Ezeff, Bernard Hicks, Syd'Quan Thompson, Brett Johnson, Darian Hagan
Offensive Unit B: Nyan Boateng, Michael Calvin, Skyler Curran, Cameron Morrah, Garry Graffort, Richard Fisher, Kevin Bemoll, Justin Cheadle, Chris Guarnero, Mark Boskovich, Mitchell Schwartz, Matt Laird, Sam DeMartinis, Matt Summers-Gavin, Todd Huber, T.J. Emery, Justin Prueitt Brock Mansion, Covaughn Deboskie, John Tyndall, Shane Vereen, Will Kapp
Defensive Unit B: Rulon Davis, Keith Browner, Kendrick Payne, Ernest Owusu, Scott Smith, Justin Gates, Jonathan Karacazoff, Solomona Aigamaua, Scott Smith, Shea McIntyre, Matt Russi, Charles Johnson, D.J. Holt, Eddie Young, Michael Mohamed, Darian Hagan, Bernard Hicks, Jesse Brooks, Charles Amadi, Chris Conte, Gary Doxy
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Sometime between Friday and Saturday, the Memorial Stadium Momentum Turf was vandalized with some sort of red paint and/or dye. The dye was put on the Cal script at midfield and there was something in red that was written onto the white numbers at the 10-yard line. Although team personnel declined to state what was written on the 10, there was speculation that it might have had to something to do with a nearby university (hint: their men's basketball coaching situation is in utter chaos right now).
Because the substance was slow-drying, there were two options. Either set up cones around Memorial and wait until after practice to clean everything up, which could have affected the practice routine since the Bears use all parts of the field during a practice or begin to clean everything up immediately, even if it means running into practice.
Practice observers witnessed the odd sight of Cal's football practice being run, while a team of people from Cal's facilities management department worked at cleaning up the turf. As players were running drills, the midfield logo was being hosed off, while staff members worked to scrub off the stains. To their credit, they were able to quickly remove most of the marks by early in the practice, while waiting until after practice to clean off to more troublesome areas.
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As spring practices begin to wind up all across the country, it's also the time of year when the various committees that oversee postseason awards begin releasing their watch lists.
On Friday, Cal center Alex Mack was named to the 2008 Outland Trophy Watch List. The list is released by the Football Writers Association of America, from which its All-America Committee will select the Outland Trophy winner, which goes to the best interior lineman in college football. Mack is one of 70 players on the list.
Other Pac-10 players on the list are Eben Britton (Arizona), Jeff Byers (USC), Alex Fletcher (Stanford), Brigham Harwell (UCLA), Andy Levitre (Oregon State), Fili Moala (USC), Jeremy Perry (Oregon State), Fenuki Tupou (Oregon) and Max Unger (Oregon).
To see the whole list, go to the Outland Trophy website's press release.
The 2008 Outland Trophy announcement will be on December 11th.
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