Fall Camp Day 11: Nickerson Steps Up

BERKELEY -- Daniel Lasco rips off two big runs on Thursday, as the Cal linebacking corps recovers from the loss of Nathan Broussard. Hardy Nickerson goes one-on-one with BearTerritory to talk about having to step up in Broussard's absence, and his injury-plagued 2013.

BERKELEY -- At virtually no point during last season was California tailback Daniel Lasco completely healthy, whether it was hamstring issues, a shoulder, or, what he brushes off as “nicks and bruises,” he wasn’t at 100%. Now, though, he said he feels “great […] you never know when your last play is, so you’ve got to take what’s given to you on any given day,” after the Bears’ 13th practice of fall camp on Thursday, in which he started team 11-on-11 third-down work with a 40+ yard touchdown run up the east sideline.

“Honestly in my opinion, I haven’t even done anything yet,” Lasco said. “The offensive line has opened up such big holes, and all I’m doing is running down the sideline. Like I was telling Kyle [McRae, Cal sports information director] earlier, he could have run through those holes and gotten there just as fast as I could.”

Lasco – who got regular, extended 11-on-11 reps for the first time in camp -- earlier had ripped off a long touchdown run in the first set of 11-on-11 third-down work, giving him two runs of over 30 yards.

The offensive line, though, for all its accomplishments over the past several days, did fail at a crucial point on Thursday, during the last set of 11-on-11 third-down work. The right guard jumped offsides, prompting a 53-yard field goal attempt from James Langford, which fell wide right. Following practice, the offensive line – which plowed the way for five third-down conversions on the ground – was subjected to a set of up-downs as punishment for the lapse.

“After practice, it’s just one of those things that, sometimes, throughout practice, you make some mistakes,” Lasco said. “The last play of the game, before we had the field goal, one of our right guards jumped offsides, and that was a crucial time in a game – from third down to having to kick a field goal when we needed to get some points on the board. We are starting to click, yes, but we’ve got to clean up the little stuff.”

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The linebacking corps – hit by an injury to MIKE linebacker Nathan Broussard -- is recovering from that blow, shuffling in Devante Downs and Hardy Nickerson with the first-team. Nickerson has taken most of the non-contact reps, while Downs has been thrown into the grinder when plays go live.

“The split is really by feel,” said linebackers coach Garret Chachere. “Hardy’s played football here. We know what he’s all about. We’ve got some guys that we’re not sure what they can do. We have a pretty good idea, but what they can do on Day One and Day Two and Day Three is different than what they’re doing on Day 10, 11 and 12. Therefore, I still want to keep putting those guys in and testing them. But, the older guys can’t get rusty. They can’t go days without practicing and playing. We don’t have All-American-type players here, but we have good players who can reach an All-American status with good practice.”

Chachere explained that Nickerson’s experience allows him to continue to take things a bit more slowly, given his foot injuries from last season, while Downs gets to see what BCS-level football is all about.

“With Nickerson, basically, what you’re seeing is a guy who’s played football, knows football, and a guy in Downs, who is at a new position, who has never played at a BCS level, and trying to give him as many looks as possible, to have him ready,” Chachere said. “Really, it’s not just him. It’s Ed Tandy […] we put Hamilton [Anoa’i] in there today at the MIKE. Today, we put a lot of guys at the Willy linebacker and the SAM, and I’ve always done that to make them versatile.”

Chachere said that the freshman Anoa’i has “been doing great,” as he “played around with him,” on Thursday, putting him at MIKE. He showed a natural ability to find the ball, even without Chachere having to tell him too much.

“I’ve been very pleased with him,” Chachere said. “His high school coaches did a great job with him, as far as being prepared, ready for football at the college level, and I was very, very pleased with him. He’s another guy who can play multiple, multiple positions.”

Downs had never played MIKE before (he played SAM in high school), and during the spring, played WILL linebacker, but he’s gotten a crash course over the first two weeks of fall camp.

“I’m making the most of it by taking all the knowledge I can get from [Broussard],” Downs said. “After every rep, he tells me what I did wrong, what I did well, and how he would do it. I’m paying a lot more attention to what coach Chachere is teaching me and Tandy. In the classroom, he’s asking who’s next to us, who’s behind us and what the safeties are doing. By knowing that, that’s what helps me with what I’m doing.”

Downs’ ability to apply what he learned from his spring as an early-enrollee to the MIKE position in large part because of how Chachere prepares his linebackers.

“I’ve always done that to make us versatile, so you don’t have to say, ‘This guy is the next-best SAM,’ and instead I can put in the next-best guy,” Chachere said. “I think, what happens is, that when all those guys know every position, if I’m an older guy, and all of the sudden, you come in, as a younger guy, I have confidence in you that you know what’s going on, because we’ve already gone through the rigor of practice.”

This season, the Bears are more prepared to deal with injuries than last year, given that players like Nickerson and Barton had to play a significant amount of snaps in the wake of the injury to presumptive starter Nick Forbes.

In 2014, Cal is deeper and more experienced in that depth.

“I mean, believe me, I’ve thought about that, last night,” Chachere said. “There is a next man to go up. We have more depth. We have guys that are more in position to be ready to play, guys who can contribute if called upon, and I think that has a lot to do with coach [Sonny] Dykes and everybody – the two coordinators and all the coaches and the entire team, the players getting prepared. They’re not saying, ‘We weren’t ready,’ or ‘This guy wasn’t prepared,’ or ‘Coach, I didn’t think I was going to play,’ or any of that. When that happens, the coach knows that the guy he’s pointing to, the kid says, ‘I’m ready,’ and we keep on going.”

Chachere said that Barton is “always part of the mix inside,” after having been moved earlier in camp to the weakside linebacker position.

“The Willy is tied in a lot to the MIKE,” Chachere said. “With that, he kind of gets mental MIKE reps. When we’re in the meeting room, I ask him questions about the middle linebacker position. It doesn’t matter what your position is, with us. If you play strong side linebacker, I’m going to ask you about the weakside linebacker position. Everybody has to know it, because you never know who has to go in, and, if I’m a MIKE, and you come in at SAM, I can help you get lined up. I can say, ‘No, you need to be here. This is what’s going on. That helps and gets everybody going.”

Chachere is also trying to get some younger linebackers ready to play, given the role that injuries played last year.

“To make it through the season, a lot of guys are going to have to play while other guys are injured and recuperating and getting ready to come back,” Chachere said.

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One of the players who is recuperating is Nickerson, who dealt with two foot injuries last season that cost him a lot of much-needed speed.

“All last year, actually before the season started – the week before we played Northwestern – I fractured my sesamoid in the bottom of my foot,” Nickerson said. “I played on that the whole season. It was a little tender the whole season, and it got a little bit better towards the end, but the USC game, that didn’t lead to this injury (the lisfranc injury) – it was two, totally different injuries – but it was a season that I played injured, pretty much.”

Nickerson would go to class in a boot and practice in a shoe, with his injured foot taped up, as he tried to tough it out through the sesamoid fracture. He then missed the final two games recovering from surgery, and the doctors told him that the sesamoid fracture would heal on its own.

“I had a shank in my shoe and all that stuff to try to mask it and make it not hurt, but at the end of the day, it’s football, and you have to show up and bring your best,” Nickerson said. “I just wanted to play, and I played.”

The foot hasn’t been a problem yet, Nickerson said, and the only reason it didn't heal during the season was that it was taking a regular pounding. He was on crutches from November to mid-January, and during that time, he was focused on lifting with his upper body, working his other leg and doing cardio on the arm-bike. Once he got to the boot, he started working on the elliptical machine and the underwater treadmill, which “really got me back,” he said. To this day, he still works on the underwater treadmill, every morning, just to warm up.

While he was slated to move to the outside this fall, Nickerson didn’t start taking reps until Broussard was backed off a bit before the injury, so he hasn’t had to make a big transition.

“I feel a lot faster,” Nickerson said. “The biggest thing, for me, is just getting the control back, with my foot, getting the trust back in it, and just making sure that, when I stick my foot, I’m really coming off. No real tenderness, some soreness, but I’m ready. It’s completely healed. I got cleared before camp.”

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Sophomore starting quarterback Jared Goff took few reps on Thursday, as the staff continued to evaluate freshman quarterbacks Luke Rubenzer and Chase Forrest. During the first set of 11-on-11s, Rubenzer benefitted from a huge block on Arthur Wainwright to dash for a long run. Later, Hudson served as the star of Forrest’s seven-on-seven drive, hauling in three passes, including a nine-yard score in the flat.

“He’s alright,” Chachere said of Wainwright, who got his bell rung on the crack back block by Hudson. “He went back in. That’s football. The thing is, the offensive guys like him, because he talked a little bit with them, but then he was like, ‘Let’s go,’ and they were like, ‘Let’s go.’ He and Ray were walking off, patting each other on the helmet.

“He is a kid that brings a mentality to us, that he’s all about ball, and this is what happens in ball, and sometimes you get on the short end of the stick. Some other kids in some other places that I’ve been might have fought right there. He wasn’t about fighting. Sometimes, you get it in football – you catch it – and that’s what happens.”

Chachere has also been impressed with newcomer Jake Kearney.

“Kearney has been someone that we thought would be heady and athletic and have football savvy, and he’s got all those things,” Chachere said. “Wainwright is a guy that I thought would bring toughness, bring a mentality to the position and to the team that’s welcome on any football team, and a guy who’s giving it as all, and glad to be at Cal, wants to be at Cal, and giving his all for Cal. He’s been all that. Those two guys have been nothing but a pleasure. I think not only for the linebackers and the defense, but the team has welcomed them, because of what they have added to the position and to the team.”

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Harrison Wilfley saw time at defensive end on Thursday, and provided some good pressure on Rubenzer.

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Freshman receiver Erik Brown worked with the outside receivers primarily on Thursday. He had been working on the inside and outside over the first 10 days of camp.

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Left tackle Steven Moore was back in action during 11-on-11s, as was safety Avery Sebastian. Jordan Rigsbee played right tackle with the first-team offense.

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Redshirt freshman cornerback Darius Allensworth notched an interception against Goff, ending his final 11-on-11 drive late in practice. Griffin Piatt also recorded an interception. Stefan McClure recorded a red-zone breakup in one-on-ones.


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