BERKELEY -- The California football team got a bit of a reprieve on Wednesday evening, seeing about 12 minutes cut off of the end of practice as the Bears try to stay healthy and fresh for Saturday's tilt against Colorado.
"We took a period out, switched a couple things around. It's that time of year," said head coach Sonny Dykes. "We've got to scale back a little bit. We've been practicing longer than we're accustomed to, part of it's because we've had a lot of guys injured, and we're trying to get enough guys reps. We've been a little leg-weary, so we needed to back it up just a little bit. We told [the players] it was going to be a little bit shorter. It was 12 minutes shorter, so it wasn't anything significant."
As has been the case the past two days, the trio of Daniel Lasco, Darren Ervin and Khairi Fortt were still in red jerseys, though Lasco and Ervin both played large parts on offense during full 11-on-11 work against the scout team defense.
"Lasco I think will be a go. He's sore, but he's been sore and has still been able to make plays. Same with Ervin. I think Ervin will be closer to full speed," Dykes said.
As for Fortt, the forecast seems a bit unclear.
"Waiting to see. He's pretty sore today, but we'll see what he can do tomorrow," Dykes said. "It's one of those injuries that, some days, he feels pretty good, others he doesn't. Hopefully, he'll feel a little bit better tomorrow. He was a little bit more sore today than he was yesterday."
One player who the Bears won't have to worry about is inside receiver Richard Rodgers, who has looked better and better each day this week insofar as his comfort with catching the ball with his surgically repaired hand.
"Rodgers ran around, caught balls. He did some good things yesterday, did some good things today," Dykes said. "It was good to see him. I think he's getting more accustomed to catching the balls with his hand. I thought he looked pretty good."
Linebacker Johnny Ragin -- who left Tuesday's practice with a leg injury – was back on the field and playing with the second-team defense.
"He was out there again today. He's a little sore. That's more of a shin deal," Dykes said. "He got hit on the shin. He's fine. He's just kind of got to work through it."
Over the past two days, tempo has been the point of emphasis for the offense, and on Tuesday, quarterback Jared Goff was particularly sharp both in short-yardage and long throws downfield.
"We've got to do a good job executing," Dykes said. "That's always a key for us, is to execute. We execute better when we play faster and when we play in a rhythm. That's always the case, offensively, for us, especially with a young group. We're just trying to get our rhythm down, get our guys comfortable playing fast, and when they do that, normally, we execute a little bit better."
One player who's shown a bit of renewed vigor has been Brendan Bigelow, who's seen time both in the backfield and at the inside receiver position, as he did last week against USC. He in fact started the day with the running backs during ball security drills on Wednesday.
"He has. He's playing faster, and I think that's key for running, is to play fast," Dykes said. "He's a fast kid, and if you're a physical kid, you want to play physical; if you're a strong kid, you want to play strong; if you're a fast kid, you want to play fast. I think he's getting more comfortable, his decision making is better, and as a result, he's playing a little faster."
As for the run game as a whole, Dykes has been pleased with the increased effectiveness over the past three games, during which the Cal offensive line has allowed 2.33 sacks per game and plowed the way for an average of 4.6 yards per carry, while committing just five penalties – four of them by left tackle Christian Okafor.
Before the past three games, the Bears offensive line committed 17 penalties in seven games.
"It's been good. It's been better. It still can get a lot better than it is," Dykes said. "It's a young group, and I think they're starting to be more comfortable, playing with more confidence, less busted assignments, which I think is important. As a result, those guys are run blocking better. I think they're coming off and finishing blocks better, playing a little more physical than they were, and that's what that group's got to do: Play consistent. We've had too many penalties with that group at times this year. We've had too many missed assignments. Haven't finished blocks and done things the way we need to, but I think we're making progress."
For the second straight day, former Bears safety Josh Hill was prowling the sidelines, talking to several Cal defensive backs and linebackers.
"It's good to have him out here. It's good to see him. I haven't really had much of a chance to visit with him, yet, but I know he's highly respected and had a great career here, and he's a good player," Dykes said. "I think he has been talking to them a little bit, so we want him to feel at him, and I'm looking forward to getting a chance to visit with him."
One of those defensive backs – Damariay Drew -- showed up several times on Wednesday, turning in a one-handed red-zone breakup. Other top performers included Todd Barr. The redshirt sophomore defensive end got lots of penetration on the scout team offensive line, including a touch sack on Austin Hinder and providing enough heat to force Hinder to throw into coverage on another play, where Hinder forced a ball down field and into the hands of second-team safety Maximo Espitia.
Fullback Lucus Gingold caught a red-zone touchdown pass in the from Goff, and also hauled one in for the scout team offense, as both he and Jacob Wark continue to pull double duty.
Dykes noted that Colorado will make running the ball a challenge, forcing the ball to the outside, where Goff hasn't thrown much in recent weeks, focusing on the shorter routes and the middle of the field.
"They want to put pressure on you and force you to execute, particularly on third down," Dykes said. "That hasn't been a strength of ours, so we've got to do a better job of executing on third down, winning one-on-one battles, because we're going to see some man coverage, and we've got to make competitive catches when they challenge us, and give us opportunities to make big plays. We've got to win those one-on-one match-ups. We've got to execute when they pressure us, and we've got to be able to run the football. That's the thing that they've done a pretty good job of, most of the year, is they're going to out-number you in the box, especially if you're a spread team. They're going to have six in the box a lot and force you to throw the ball and get the ball on the perimeter, so we're going to need to execute."
If the Bears take to the air, they'll face a secondary that's been uneven, to say the least, with the league's second-worst passing defense and third-fewest interceptions.
Colorado also has the worst third-down defense in the Pac-12, allowing opponents to convert 39.9% of third-down opportunities, which should be a welcome relief for the Bears, who have the fourth-worst third-down conversion rate in the conference.
Dykes was asked what he thinks about the Buffaloes' tradition of running their mascot Ralphie out of the tunnel before games.
"Pretty cool tradition. That's one of the cool things about college football, and so I'm just going to make sure I'm a long way away. I don't want him getting loose," Dykes laughed, before saying that he himself has tried to get a similar tradition resurrected in Berkeley, which once had a real grizzly bear trot out before games, decades ago.
"I've been trying to get that done. I haven't been able to get much traction," Dykes smiled.
WEDNESDAY: Running Ralphie
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