Battle of the Backers

Where was the piped-in crowd noise on Monday? What's Vince D'Amato's long bomb range? Who's battling for time in the battered linebacking corps? We break down that and more in today's practice notebook.

READ MORE FROM MONDAY IN OUR LIVE MESSAGE BOARD THREAD

BERKELEY -- Notably absent from California's first two practices of the Oregon week has been the piped-in crowd noise that was a staple of Jeff Tedford road practices. Bears head coach Sonny Dykes said Monday that that's no mistake.

"The way we do our stuff, offensively and defensively, really, we don't need to play the crowd noise stuff," said Dykes, who's staff uses hand signals on the sideline to send plays in, while the center calls the cadence and snap count. "That's part of the reason why we do that, so we're not making a big adjustment when we go play on the road, which we're going to do half the year.

"Signals and also, too, the center with the snap count and all that stuff. That's a big part of the reason why we do it, so you're not practicing one way all the time and trying to practice a different way for the three days before you play on the road."

There was a bit of noise, though, as practice ended, as the team let out a loud cheer before breaking for dinner.

"I don't know. I don't know what it was. Those guys are just excited," Dykes laughed. "We had a good practice. We had some good energy. The last two days have been really positive. I've been pleased with the way our guys have been working."

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Perhaps the most energetic player on the field – at least on the defensive side of the ball – was redshirt freshman linebacker Michael Barton, who took the vast majority of the first team WILL reps.

Before Barton went down with a sprained knee, he led the Bears in tackles over the first two games, with 17 stops. As it stands, he's only eight back of the current lead, held by the man he's replaced on the first unit -- Khairi Fortt.

"He's kind of bounced back around," Dykes said. "He and Khairi are kind of in a battle right now for that linebacker spot. We'll see. He's got a great knack for knowing where the football is. We'll see how that plays out and see who gets the start, based on who practices the best this week."

After a bye week which saw the left tackle spot seemingly up for grabs between Freddie Tagaloa and Christian Okafor, the true sophomore was back at his post on the blind side for the entirety of practice, while Okafor had a bit of trouble during OL-DL drills with speedy second-team defensive end Puka Lopa.

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With an offense based on pure speed, Dykes exhorted even the special teams to "hurry, hurry" during practice on Monday, as the unit will face just as much game-breaking ability from the Ducks' kickoff and punt return teams as the defense will face at Autzen Stadium.

Oregon currently ranks third in the Pac-12 in kickoff return (23.9-yard average) and third in punt return (13.8-yard average), but as has been the rule with Dykes teams, the Bears have seen a veritable renaissance in the third phase of the game. Cal currently ranks second in the league in punting, with sophomore Cole Leininger helping the Bears to a 42.5-yard net average, while redshirt senior Vincenzo D'Amato has been the leg behind the best kickoff team in the conference (44.7-yard net average).

On Monday, D'Amato split the uprights on two straight mortar blasts, hitting field goals from 51 and 55 yards out.

"It's been good. I think both [Leininger and D'Amato] have performed at a high level. It's been encouraging," Dykes said. "They both have been pretty consistent, so I think that's what you're looking for out of those two guys. They're going to have to do a good job this week. Oregon's good at the return game. We're going to need to do a good job of kicking it to spots and covering and making sure that we give our guys opportunities to get down the field, because they've got a good punt return and a good kick return, so we've got to make sure those guys kick the kinds of balls that we can recover."

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Defensive backs coach Randy Stewart emphasized footwork for his charges on Monday, and it paid off. In defensive scout skeleton work, Kameron Jackson broke up a pass in the front corner end zone, but by all rights should have had a pick. He displayed frustration after the drop, but his teammates more than picked him up throughout the rest of practice.

After sticky-handed receiver Maurice Harris gave a repeat performance of his top-play one-handed grab from the Northwestern game early in practice, defensive leader Stefan McClure sniffed out a post on the right sideline, jumped the route and easily picked off a Jared Goff missive. After linebacker Lucas King broke up a pass intended for Stephen Anderson in the red zone, though, Harris came right back and hauled in a leaping touchdown grab over Joel Willis for an eight-yard touchdown.

In seven-on-seven work, Harris reeled in another score from Goff, only to see the true freshman quarterback sail the next red zone attempt over Richard Rodgers in the back of the end zone. The very next pass was picked by Willis.

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The defensive line showed some life on Monday, with Todd Barr flashing several spin moves to get around the outside. He and Antione Davis even teamed up during unit work to get around 6-foot-8 Tagaloa.

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There was a greater emphasis on the Bone formation during Monday's practice, and it met with quite a bit of success, notably with Khalfani Muhammad ripping off a big run into the red zone thanks to good downfield blocking by Kenny Lawler and a key block at the point of attack by fullback Lucas Gingold.

"We've got to try and be creative in how we find ways to run the football," Dykes said. "It's a formation for us that allows us to get some one-on-one match-ups and get some good numbers in the box. It's something we've got to continue to work on to get better at. Really, up front, we've got to continue to improve and get better running the football."

[VIDEO: Lasco Talks Run Game]

Could the Bone formation lead to a more robust running game than we've seen over the first three weeks of the season? That may wind up depending on the success the Cal defense has in keeping the high-octane Ducks close.

"I think, part of it is, we've had to score a lot of points. When you get down in games like we have, you've got to try to catch up pretty quickly. The way the games have played out, I think that that's contributed to the lack of a run game in some ways. We've got to do a better job of blocking up front and running better, and all the stuff that goes along with that."

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