NOTEBOOK: Muhammad Ready to Take Control

Khalfani Muhammad will be back this week both in the backfield and on kick return, while Freddie Tagaloa talks about his big challenge on Saturday, plus more from Tuesday's presser and practice.

TUESDAY LIVE THREAD

BERKELEY -- Not only was Khalfani Muhammad back in a white jersey on Tuesday for the first time since before the Oregon game – where he said he suffered a concussion – but he also found himself atop the heap at tailback for California, heading into this Saturday's clash against No. 11 UCLA.

"It feels good to really come back out here for the first time -- it's been a whole week -- and to come out here and get a spot, it just means a lot. We've got a lot of phenomenal athletes, and to be among them is pretty great," Muhammad said. "I'm feeling great, man. I feel good, I feel healthy, feel 100 [percent], so I just have to go out there and compete."

Muhammad said he's ready to take a full load on Saturday, and that the most carries he's ever had was 37, but those came in a four-overtime game back at Sherman Oaks (Calif.) Notre Dame.

"That would be phenomenal, but our type of offense, you're going to have to swap out a few guys, and we're all going to be playing. That's the great thing about this," Muammad said. "Lately, we haven't been doing too well in the run game, so we just need to keep working hard. Tony Franklin still has faith in us, so we have to go out there and just run the ball and see what we can do.

"Right now, that's what we're missing, is the run game. We've got to get that going, If we get that going, our offense is going to be pretty deadly. We've got the wide receivers doing their jobs, so we've just got to connect the two, and it'll be a phenomenal offense."

During positional work, if one running back erred in a drill, all of the backs – even coach Pierre Ingram -- did push-ups as punishment, but that hasn't stopped Muhammad from learning from his older teammates: Brendan Bigelow and Daniel Lasco.

"I've just got to go out there and play. We rotate a lot. They've been teaching me everything they know, so I feel confident and ready to go," he said.

Last week, Lasco and Bigelow combined for three fumbles, and in the past two games, Bigelow has put the ball on the ground three times, perhaps prompting the move of Muhammad up the depth chart.

"It's got to start there. We have to take care of the football," said head coach Sonny Dykes. "We can't put it on the ground, can't throw interceptions. We've got to do a good job of limiting negative plays. We can't get behind the sticks. We don't need a lot of second-and-14s. We need to get some second-and-six and second-and-four and second-and-two, so first down's going to be big for us. Part of that has just been our inability to run the ball this year. That's hurt us. We've got to run it a little bit better than we have. The thing with us, too, we've got to finish drives."

On Saturday, two promising Cal drives were thwarted inside the 10-yard line by fumbles – once from Bigelow, and once from Lasco.

"We take the opening drive and we start clicking, we actually look like a real football team, and drive it down and get down to the six-yard line and put the ball on the ground," Dykes said. "We do it again, get down to the one-yard line, and put the ball on the ground. We've got to quit killing ourselves."

Bigelow later fumbled a ball on kickoff return, and this coming week, Muhammad will be returning kickoffs, while receiver Chris Harper took over as the No. 1 punt returner.

"The kid wants to be a good football player. He's a great kid. I think in some ways, he's trying too hard, and that's part of his issue on Saturday," Dykes said of Bigelow. "He goes the wrong way on the third down, takes the handoff, he's fighting for extra yards, so it's kind of a mental mistake, that he went the wrong way and he was in the situation he was in because of a mental mistake, and then the same thing on the kickoff. The kickoff was six yards deep in the end zone, he brings it out and we don't have any angles on the blocks because the kick was so deep, and he gets hit. A player with a lot of confidence says, ‘I'll get the next one,' or, ‘I'll down this one and et the next kickoff,' and a guy that's searching and digging and trying to do too much sometimes, will make bad decisions, which will lead to fumbling or whatever the case may be. He's just got to get settled in and get a little confidence. We've got to find out what his strengths are and play to his strengths right now and continue to develop the entire part of his game, to really play to his strengths, as much as possible."

Asked whether Bigelow could see time at other spots that would get him in space, such as catching the ball, Dykes said, "You might see that, at some point, down the road."

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Both Harper and Treggs will practice a bit later this week at cornerback, said Dykes, and though neither has played the position in quite some time (Harper last played corner during the 2011 Elite 11 competition, and Treggs during his senior year at St. John Bosco), both are up for the challenge.

"I know the techniques of receivers, so I know what to look out for," Harper said.

"I haven't played [corner] in two years," Treggs said. "I'm welcoming this. If it's what the team needs, I'm willing to do whatever it takes to help the team."

With defensive back depth as thin as it's been all season, both Jason Gibson and Damariay Drew served as second-team safeties, while Michael Lowe and true freshman Cameron Walker were the first-team duo.

"It's tough to see people go out, especially when they're producing for the team," Lowe said. "It's something that we just try to stay positive with and keep moving forward."

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Earlier in the day, head coach Sonny Dykes said that he's never seen such a rash of injuries plague a team before. The injured list reads like a who's who of those the new coaching staff had hoped would not only contribute, but lead the Cal defense this season: Defensive tackle Mustafa Jalil (knee, out for the season), cornerback Stefan McClure (out this week with a knee), linebacker Nick Forbes (has not played this season due to a lingering back issue), safety Avery Sebastian (11 tackles and one pick before going down in the second quarter of the Northwestern game), SAM linebacker Jalen Jefferson (out this week with a head injury), cornerback Joel Willis (out for this week with a head injury) and defensive end Brennan Scarlett.

Dykes said that he'd be "surprised" if Scarlett played this season, and that it's likely he will redshirt.

"He had a hand injury, had a bone graft in there that has to attach and grow over, and we've been waiting for clearance for that to occur," Dykes said during his weekly press conference. "I think we're past the point of no return in a lot of ways. Those all heal at a different rate, and I'm not sure that that's healed as fast as we'd like for it to, or certainly as fast as the doctor would like for it to, so he's had a rough go of that. We just want to let him get well. We obviously wish he was playing. I know he wants to play. It's not any of those issues where the kid doesn't want to play. That's not the case at all. It's just a matter of getting well."

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On offense, the Bears have lost starting center Chris Adcock to a season-ending knee injury, and are still without starting right guard Matt Cochran, who's dealing with a high ankle sprain.

"Since I've been coaching, we've never lost an offensive lineman to an ACL in practice, and we lose Adcock," Dykes said. "It's just never happened in practice, because a lot of that has to do with the way we practice, and we're very deliberate in that approach so that doesn't happen.

"We've never lost a player to an Achilles injury. We lost Sebastian. Sione Sina had a bad surgery. Nick Forbes has been a back issue that lingered that we didn't think was really going to be that big of a deal. [Nathan] Broussard blows an ACL in kickoff coverage in practice. What can you say? It's just kind of compiled itself. Jalil, basically, has a knee injury that has never gotten right. You'd like to be able to say, ‘Well, it was because they weren't in condition, they're not lifting enough in their shoulders,' or, ‘Are we going to have to adjust the way we lift?' or whatever, but when you sit down and you look at it all, I don't think you can draw a lot of conclusions from the injuries."

As for how the offensive line is handling losing two of its starters, including its center?

"We've responded really well. Alejandro [Crosthwaite] stepped in at right guard and didn't miss a heartbeat, and [Mark] Brazinski's doing the same thing," said starting left tackle Freddie Tagaloa. "Heading into spring, Brazinski was our starting center, so we got reps with him the first two weeks, and then it switched over to Cochran. Having those first two weeks was good, since he's our starting center now."

Tagaloa will be facing his stoutest test of the season this weekend in Bruins defender Anthony Barr, who's second in the conference in forced fumbles (3), sixth in sacks (3) and first in tackles for loss (8.0). After seeing his starting position threatened two weeks ago when the coaching staff used Christian Okafor to push the 6-foot-8 true sophomore, Tagaloa feels the better for it.

"I responded well. It's something that I needed, honestly. You can become complacent, and everybody needs a wake-up call, and I thank Sonny Dykes for doing that," Tagaloa said.

On Tuesday, the staff used several players to test Tagaloa and simulate Barr's speed, including true freshmen Ray Hudson and Ray Davison.

"A guy my size – 330 – can move, but a guy like Anthony Barr is so quick. It's all about footwork," said Tagaloa. "We had guys like Ray Hudson, and yesterday, I had some of the running backs give me a rush off the edge just to get ready for how fast he is."

Tagaloa also took double reps on Tuesday, as both the starting left tackle and with the second-team offensive line.

"You've got to get ready for Anthony Barr. This is a game you get up for," Tagaloa said.

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