BTTV: Key Matchup
BERKELEY -- A funny thing happened on Tuesday to the California outside receivers: They had a case of the drops.
The Bears had not had this many drops in a single practice since early in fall camp. Outside receivers coach Rob Likens -- with the added insult of his New York Yankees not making the playoffs – was not pleased.
"A lot of it, I thought, was guys taking their eyes off of the ball too early," Likens says. "We can get that fixed. They haven't been doing that. That was a one-time deal, I feel. We'll get that fixed. I'm not overly concerned with that."
If Cal receivers do take their eyes off of the ball, bad things could happen this Saturday against No. 2 Oregon, and a veteran, physical and active secondary. Though the Ducks only have three interceptions this year, Oregon ranks second nationally in turnover margin (2.3), and the defensive backfield is anchored by junior corner Dior Mathis, who put his track speed to use by picking off a pass deep in the end zone and running more than 100 yards down to the Virginia three-yard line on Sept. 7. Last season, the Ducks led the nation with 40 takeaways (25 picks, 15 fumble recoveries), with 32 of those by current players. They already have seven this year, adding four fumble recoveries.
"Their secondary is the best I've seen in five years or so," Likens says. "They're really, really good. They're good at press coverage, they break on the ball. What makes them so good is that they're competitive and they're tough. I think the pressure that they get on the quarterback gets the quarterback kind of antsy back there, and he throws balls up, and they make quarterbacks make bad decisions, with their front and the pressure they put on the quarterback. The DBs are so tight on the receivers that they're there to intercept it. They do a phenomenal job. They're as good as I've seen in years."
On Monday, though, the receivers made some of their own luck for quarterback Jared Goff. The true freshman starting quarterback went deep over the middle to James Grisom over top corner Stefan McClure during seven-on-seven work for a 45-yard touchdown, and just a few plays later hit a diving Chris Harper on the right side at the 15. On the very next play, Kenny Lawler ran a picture-perfect route down the middle, came free against Joel Willis, got seven yards of separation and hauled in a 30-yard dime from Goff for a touchdown.
"It was a great route," Likens said. "We've worked really hard on, we're not worried about setting guys up; just run fast and let the quarterback make the decision, and we just run to the ball and just go eat it up."
Several plays later, Goff checked down from covered options and found Stephen Anderson inside the red zone against linebacker Lucas King, who, like the other linebackers on Monday, spent much of the positional work periods doing cover and interception drills.
The first-team defense has been able to give a good look to the outside receivers during seven-on and full team periods both last week and over the first three days of practice this week. Over the first two days of this week, the defensive backs got the better of the receivers more often than not when Cal went good-on-good. There was a bit of that happening on Monday, as well, with a good cover by Kameron Jackson thwarting a forced ball by Goff to Drake Whitehurst, and a break-up in the end zone by Willis on a back-shoulder fade to Maurice Harris off the play action.
"Coach [Andy] Buh and those guys did a great job of getting those guys amped up and wanting to improve, wanting to come out and show that they can be a really good defense in this conference, which we all think they can," Likens says. "I know they're young, we all know they've had a lot of injuries, but the guys accepted the challenge, and you can see a big improvement this week in practice. It's absolutely helping us. Any time that we have to compete every single day at a high level, it turns it into a habit, and the worst thing that can happen is you have bad competition in practice, when you go against scout team, guys that don't give you competition. It just makes you lazy."
For the coach who crushes two Five-Hour Energy drinks before each practice, ‘lazy' is practically a dirty word, especially with the kind of speed that the Ducks bring on both sides of the ball.
"I'll tell you who they remind me of," says Likens. "When I was in the Big East, at Temple, the Miami Hurricanes had a great secondary and they had a great tradition of great secondary corners and safeties back in the 90s, and these guys remind me of them. They'll press you up, and they'll do a phenomenal job of press. One thing that they do that's kind of unique, is that they play a lot of catch technique, where they back up to a certain yardage and then anchor down and just try to grab you. They will grab you. They will pass interfere, it's just how many times are the refs going to call it. They keep everything in front of them and try to stop you with their body frame and they try to grab you.
"Like I said, you probably could call pass interference on them about every other play, but how many times are the refs going to call it? They do a great job of it."
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