Thursday Practice: OL Coming Together

If the California Golden Bears are going to upset the Arizona Wildcats this weekend, the Bears are going to need a strong offensive performance, specifically one from the offensive line…

While the stat nuts will focus on the array of fast skill players, the team is fully aware that the key that ignites the offense is anything but quick, graceful, and pretty: the offensive line.

The offensive line has no pretty or beneficial stats.

When the running game goes well, junior Shane Vereen gets all the credit. When senior Kevin Riley is hitting his receivers downfield, nobody gives love to the guys who gave him the opportunity to throw the ball downfield.

And yet, the big boys would rather not have it any other way. Labeled as question mark of the team back in fall camp, the offensive line is slowly coming together. Lost in last week's nightmarish 52-31 loss to Nevada was the improved play of the line: Vereen ran for a career-high 198 yards due to better downfield blocking, and the offense piled up 502 yards. Riley was sacked on back-to-back plays, but neither of those sacks was credited to the guys up front.

The offense's undoing against Nevada was turnovers, not poor line play. If the offensive line plays well and improves each week, then the team knows that they always have a chance.

"We have gotten better each week," said Cal offensive line coach Steve Marshall. "I have been pleased with our progress and everything like that. We have got to continue to get better."

The saying especially holds true for this week, when the Bears travel to Tucson. The Wildcats sport the nation's third best overall defense in the country, highlighted by an impressive run defense that is only allowing 86.3 yards per game.

"[Arizona] is a veteran unit," said Marshall. "They're pretty salty up front. They do a great job, which is kind of like last year. They have the same group. We had our hands full last year, and we'll have our hands full this year. They do a great job coaching the run games and run fits, and we have to find a way to distort them."

Head coach Jeff Tedford shares the same concern.

"They're relentless in their pass rush," Tedford said. "The two defensive ends can really get after you and put a lot of pressure on your tackles. They have a nice blitz package. They're a good front, and we're going to have to protect and try to stay out of situations where they're obvious passing situations."

One way that Marshall and Tedford plan to counter Arizona's defensive attack is to put the five best offensive linemen out on the field, regardless of size. To do that, you need lineman who are versatile – who can play multiple positions – and the Bears have a ton of that.

"We made a big emphasis coming through spring practice... a lot of guys have versatility," said Marshall. "[Mitchell Schwartz] can play both sides. Rich Fisher can play both sides. [Dominic Galas] can play guard and center. [Matt Summers-Gavin] can play both sides. They're extremely intelligent guys and they are willing guys, they are tough guys. We have some options that you try to build the depth to be able to handle the 'what-if' scenario."

"You're always trying to find the best five guys to put on the field. Our guys have really worked hard and I'm extremely pleased with them, from a [mental and physical standpoint]. It takes a lot to learn our offense, because it is a pro-style offense and there is a lot to learn."

One lineman who's proven his versatility is sophomore Dominic Galas, who has played both guard and center three games into 2010. Galas shares the same goal of improvement as the rest of his linemen.

"Nevada's in the past," said Galas. "We don't care about the turnovers or how well we ran or whatever. Our attention and our focus is on Arizona, and how we can improve our play against them. We learned from the tape, and now it's time to gear up for conference play, starting against Arizona."

The o-line may not be pretty, but they will get the job done.

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