BERKELEY -- Two weeks ago, after the California Memorial Stadium lights abruptly shut off, spelling the end for the Bears' first practice of the Ohio State week. During a speech to the team in the north tunnel, head coach Sonny Dykes -- out of the biting chill and mist of the Berkeley night – warned his players that it was cold and flu season. They had better wash their hands, he said, as often as they could. With plenty of players already on the shelf due to injury, Cal didn't need any more casualties at the hands of the bugs and germs that call dorms and apartments home.
True freshman linebacker Johnny Ragin III had already felt the first of many tummy rumblings, but he was still able to practice. He didn't play at all against the Buckeyes, and spent the past week on the shelf, battling that same bug.
"It was just a sickness," says Ragin. "It was just the flu that kind of held me out. I was under the weather for a little bit, and I just wanted to give my body a chance to really recover and not get anyone else sick."
On Monday, Ragin – a native of Wilsonville, Ore. – got back in pads for the first time, as he started preparing to face what was once his dream school: No. 2 Oregon.
"It felt nice, taking that time to recover," Ragin says. "I got some fresh legs out there and had a good time today."
After committing to Cal in late January, Ragin hosted the Ducks coaching staff and received a last-minute offer.
Ragin had turned in the No. 24 SPARQ rating in the nation the summer before his senior year, and would wind up finishing sixth in the state of Oregon with a shot put throw of 48 feet, 2.75 inches, following that up with a state javelin title and a state championship as part of the 4x100 relay team. When Oregon came calling, Ragin was prompted to reconsider his pledge to the Bears, albeit briefly. The school he'd always wanted to attend finally saw what plenty of other programs had seen.
"It's always difficult, but I sat down with my mom and made sure I was at peace with my decision. I was settled from there," Ragin says.
The Bears coaching staff helped him firm up his final decision.
"They just told me that I could succeed here, and that this would be a great fit for me," Ragin says. "They're a really personable coaching staff, and very respectful. They're just a great group of guys."
As it stands, Ragin is one of the seven true freshmen to see playing time this year, joining starting quarterback Jared Goff, tailback Khalfani Muhammad, defensive tackle Jacobi Hunter, safety Cameron Walker, linebacker Chad Whitener and linebacker Edward Tandy.
"I can't remember any time playing this many true freshmen," Dykes says. "Part of that's been because of some depth issues we've had. Obviously, Goff was going to play and Jacobi was going to play. I don't think any of us were really counting on maybe anyone other than Johnny Ragin and the linebackers who have played in addition."
With injuries to linebackers Nick Forbes, Khairi Fortt and Michael Barton, as well as a secondary which has lost Avery Sebastian and Michael Lowe, those freshmen have had to step up earlier than expected. Ragin, though, was ready from the moment he stepped onto campus, and has played in two of Cal's three games so far.
"It's just being mentally ready, and being physically ready, preparing myself on and off the field and being ready when the opportunity presented itself," says Ragin. "I came to play, to make some plays and help the team out as early as possible. They're throwing me in there and seeing what I can do."
Having already heard the record-setting decibels of Autzen, Ragin isn't in for as much of a surprise as his fellow first-years.
"I think our guys are excited. I'm excited," says Dykes. "It's great. It's good to go out of town and play games. I've always enjoyed coaching on the road, and we'll see how this team handles it. That's a little bit of an unknown. We'll see how we can handle it. It's a tough environment, they've got a good home crowd and they've got a great record at home. It'll be a challenge for us, but I think our guys are excited. I'm looking forward to getting up and playing in a great atmosphere and playing in front of good fans. We're up for the challenge."
Dykes says that playing so many youngsters will benefit the team, down the road, when those freshmen turn into sophomores and then juniors, having already played some of their first snaps in hostile environments.
"I think if you sit back and look at the guys that are performing at a high level, they play a lot as young players, so I think that's encouraging," he says.
The first big road test for the second-youngest team in the nation of course, comes this weekend, at the ever-hostile – and ever-noisy – Autzen Stadium, a place Ragin has not been since his official visit to Eugene nearly eight months ago.
"It'll be nice to go back home," Ragin says. "I've got a lot of people rooting for me and rooting for the Bears. I'll just go in there and try to get a win. We're pretty well prepared, so we've got to keep working hard this week and hopefully pull out a win."
On Monday, Ragin ran a bit with the second-team defense, but was held out of most contact, wearing a red jersey. He started out with the punt rush team on special teams, and during kickoff cover work, took his first big lick at the hands of receiver/wildcat quarterback Kyle Boehm -- all 6-foot-3, 215 pounds of him.
"Just getting back in, getting a little pop, everything settled in after that," he smiles.
While the atmosphere in Oregon likely won't phase Ragin, he's spending almost as much time rounding up enough spare player guest tickets to accommodate his 25-plus person cheering section.
"My mom's been down for a couple games, and she's had a good time," he says. "It'll be the first time going back home, but I've seen my family and stuff. They've come down here and I haven't been home since Summer Bridge started, so I'm excited to get back to Oregon."
Luckily for Ragin, he hasn't had to engage in any horse trading with the older players.
"The guys are good about that," he laughs. "They're helping me out if they're not using them."
Reflecting on where he was eight months ago, Ragin is more than happy with rebuffing the Ducks. His coaches and teammates have made that choice quite easy, in retrospect.
"It's pretty great, coming here," he says. "The combination of athletics and academics really can't be beat. The coaches have been great, and my teammates, the guys are great too. The older guys are bringing me up and teaching me all along the way."
Home Sweet Home
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