OL: Let's Roll

Matt Cochran and the rest of the offensive line is leaner, meaner and faster as the Bears head into a season-opening clash against Northwestern.

During fall camp, California offensive line coach Zach Yenser assembled his charges in the film room to watch video of then-No. 23 Louisiana Tech's 59-57 loss at the hands of then-No. 22 Texas A&M.

The Bulldogs trailed by 27 points early before mounting a wild comeback in the second half, capped off by a 13-yard TD pass to Ray Holley to cut the lead to two points with 38 seconds left.

In total, Louisiana Tech ran the ball 42 times and passed the ball 59 times. The Aggies, for their part, ran a total of 86 plays from scrimmage.

"We were watching the line on DVD, just how fast," Yenser says. "It popped up on the screen where we had 110 plays. They're like, ‘Coach, did you guys go to overtime?' Naw, that's regulation, man. And we were just pop, pop, pop, pop."

Everything about this Bear Raid offense is predicated on speed. It starts with the way the Bears work out.

"I want our guys fast, I want them strong, but above all else, I want our guys to be tough," says strength and conditioning coach Damon Harrington. "I want them to be tough. I want them to know that it's kind of like, I equate it to the military – the Navy SEALs. They have to go through so much stuff in order to become a SEAL, that, when they're a SEAL, any type of adversity they face, it's nothing. They've already gone through it. They know how to handle it, and that's how I want our guys to be."

There is no running laps, no meaningless, straight running. It's all about agility. It's all about quickness. It's all about speed, and applying that to the game of football.

"The game of football, you've got to be able to change direction," Harrington says. "That's how we run. Anything agility – when you really have to bend and move and change direction – that's what we do. The straight-ahead running, I mean, how often is a guy going to run straight ahead and never make a break, never make a cut? Not very often. That's the primary focus of our conditioning."

Everything about this Bear Raid offense is predicated on speed. It starts with the offensive line. The biggest, slowest, most lumbering monsters on the field are the limiting reagent. The Bear Raid can only go as fast as them.

"We only play as fast as us five up front," says Yenser. "That's the bottom line."

Early this fall, the Bears offensive line was slow, and it was unstable. Projected starting right tackle Bill Tyndall was unavailable as he recovered from offseason ankle surgery. The right guard spot was still unsettled after 15 spring practices. The center spot was still up for grabs, between Matt Cochran and Chris Adcock. There were essentially only two spots decided: Freddie Tagaloa at left tackle and Jordan Rigsbee at left guard.

Just six days into camp, Cochran moved to right guard,. At right tackle, replacing Brian Farley (who in turn replaced Tyndall) was redshirt freshman Steven Moore.

"Freshman year, I played left guard," says Cochran of his first season on varsity at Atwater (Calif.) Buhach Colony. "But, I played more nose tackle. That was the first time I'd ever played any O-line, basically, because I'd been a D-tackle my whole life. It's unfamiliar, but I'm liking the interior line, so it's all technically the same."

Cochran has dropped as low as 288 pounds after coming into Cal at 352, and now sits at a comfortable 301, dropping excess poundage in order to be as swift as possible.

Moore and Cochran's first two days on the right side were rough, as six of the seven sacks during team periods and scrimmage situations came through the right side. The offense was sluggish in the first scrimmage, plagued by miscues on the line, as well as unforced penalties.

What happened after that first scrimmage?

"We got yelled at a lot, I can tell you that much," Cochran says.

That night?

"No, every day," he says. "I haven't been grinding like that for a while. That's the one thing I like about coach Yenser. Especially compared with coach M (Jim Michalczik). I know a lot of people try not to make the comparison, but they're very critical of your actions on the field and what happens on film. Everything that you show on film makes up who you are as a player, so I like the way he went about that. He critiqued us a lot, and we all got better from it."

What the line showed on film was a marked lack of cohesion.

"I think the whole O-line, together, is just starting to gel more," says Yenser. "When an O-line starts becoming kind of what we talk about – the five guys up front becoming a fist – it's just hard to beat. Those guys are starting to become [that]. A lot of them haven't played together. It's finding the combinations and getting comfortable with the guy you're playing next to and trusting. It's huge. We always talk about trusting each other and who has your back. I think the whole O-line as a unit is starting to gel."

For Cochran, the switch to guard may have only been a move of a few feet, but the way he saw the game needed some adjustment.

"It took us a while to actually get into a rhythm," Cochran says. "That just had to do with us getting in the film room, studying our plays, studying our footwork, watching La Tech and watching how they actually ran the plays perfectly, so that we can try to mimic them. I think, after all that practice and after all that film work, we've gotten a lot better and made a lot of improvements in areas of need."

Speed. Perfection. Execution. For the next week, Yenser drilled those into his linemen. By the time the second scrimmage came, the Bears offense was so punishing, so relentless, that the defense was back on its heels.

"I think it was just a matter of communication," says Cochran. "It took us a while to actually get our eyes to where our assignment was. That just had to do with me going from the center position to a guard. I wasn't used to looking outside and having to echo calls down the line and things like that. I was just used to going ahead and making the call myself and listening to whatever goes on afterwards. It was a big change for me."

Not that the shuffling's stopped. If Adcock goes down, it's entirely possible that Cochran moves back to the middle.

"The cool thing about since we've come in and installed what we do is that I expect all of our guys – I expect a tackle – if Freddie could come in and play right guard – that's our whole philosophy," Yenser says. "Where can you help out? With a couple guys out, just kind of getting rest, getting fresh, where can you help out, understanding – we understand all five positions, and that's what I've talked to them about: Understanding the whole concept of the play. We even know, on screens, what the receivers are doing, because of how it affects us, and just understanding the whole concept of the play, as an offensive lineman."

Redshirt senior Mark Brazinski has been snapping with the second team, and it will depend on how comfortable Yenser feels with the second right guard whether he or Cochran would be the next man up in the middle.

"Right now, I think Marks' done a really good job at No. 2 center. It's not saying that, if Adcock went down or whatever, that Cochran wouldn't move back over there," Yenser says. "Then, how confident do we feel about the guard? It's just playing pieces, pieces of the puzzle, kind of figuring it all out. I feel like we have nine guys – eight or nine guys – right now that we can win football games with."

Beyond the top five of Adcock, Cochran, Rigsbee, Moore and Tagaloa, Yenser cited Farley, Brazinski, Alex Crosthwaite, Tyndall and redshirt freshman Christian Okafor as the other candidates to fill those remaining slots.

Okafor has perhaps been the biggest surprise along the line, and has made the biggest strides.

"Oke has improved. Oke's very smart, and he looks the part, first off," Yenser says. "He's just as smart. He understands. He's not very vocal, but he'll come up and ask questions, but he's so athletic for how big he is. He's still just a young pup, but he's made huge strides.

"Oke, a lot of stuff for Oke is mental. He gets frustrated very easily. If a play goes bad, it could affect him two or three plays, where, on the offensive line, you talk about short-term memory. You've got to get back up and do it again, and when he has that attitude, he's really good."

As important as speed is, it's the little details that will take this line to the next level, and it all starts in the middle.

Any time Brazinski, Adcock, Cochran or Donovan Frazer is doing drills, they're snapping the ball, perfecting the shotgun snap that has been a bug-a-boo for the last two seasons.

"It has to be a mandatory. You have to do it. They snapped every day of the summer, they made it a mandatory, and we've made it, hey, whatever drill we're doing, centers are snapping," says Yenser. "Don't do a wasted rep. Centers, you're never going to be on the field without snapping a football, so I don't care if you're setting or whatever – if we're doing individual drills, you're snapping a ball. I don't care if we're hitting a sled, one-on-one blocks, whatever – you're snapping a ball. We just kind of make a point of it."

Speed and details, though, are useless without execution – consistent, relentless execution.

"If we're slow in practice, it's our fault," Yenser says. "We take that upon us. My goal – I tell the guys up front – we're looking to snap the ball every 11 seconds. That's how we should line up. We might not – it might not be that speed every single time – but we're getting to the ball and we can snap the ball every 11 seconds. That is our thought process up front.

"We're getting there. We're going to be able to snap the ball in 11 seconds. It might be freeze, it might be this and it might be that, but we're going to make you think we're snapping the ball every 11 seconds."

The biggest X-factor going into this week's season-opening clash against Northwestern will be that rapidity. With all the film the Wildcats have of this offense from three years at Louisiana Tech, they don't have any film of these athletes in that offense. They've never seen Brendan Bigelow, Chris Harper or Bryce Treggs in this offense. They've never seen Daniel Lasco or in this offense. It's not just talent or speed anymore. It's both, and it all starts up front.

"It feels good, because the O-line, they start realizing that tempo is a game-changer," says Yenser. "When you're on the sideline, and the O-line's looking at you, saying ‘Let's go faster, let's go faster,' it's a game-changer. It's a completely different game when we start playing with tempo, when we get rolling. That's all we talk about. It's that first, first down. We get that first, first down? It's on. Let's roll."

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