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BERKELEY -- At the end of practice on Saturday, the California football team let out a raucous cheer, in unison. It wasn’t because this was officially the end of camp. No, it was because they would be getting new hats in their lockers when they got back to the locker room.
“Easy crowd,” said head coach Sonny Dykes.
What’s not quite so easy is, as Dykes says, exorcising the demons from last year’s 1-11 season.
“We’re going to have to exorcise some demons around here, at some point and win a ballgame,” said Dykes of the season-opener in a week against Northwestern. “Against a Big 10 team on the road would certainly help get some of those exorcised.”
As for the Wildcats? Dykes has been watching tape since December.
Northwestern won’t have any tape of the new Cal defense, save for tape of defensive coordinator Art Kaufman’s defenses at Cincinnati and Texas Tech.
“I’ll bet they haven’t looked at our tape once, defensively,” said Dykes. “They’ll be looking at Cincinnati. They’ll look at it a little bit to make some personnel assessments, but more for scheme, obviously, than Cincinnati.”
The Pac-12 Network was in town to check out the Bears on Saturday, including former UCLA head coach Rick Neuheisel, who’s impressed early with Vic Enwere, and the running backs as a group.
“I don’t know if that kid from Texas is as good as he looks, but if he’s close, if he’s as good as he looks, that spells good stuff for the Bears,” he said.
Neuheisel also senses a big change in the way Cal goes about its business.
“This has more feel of a team than you ever felt last year,” Neuheisel said. “I don’t know what you make of that, but that was an enthusiastic group of guys getting ready to go to work. This is the 12th of 12 camps, and how many times have I said ‘tired legs’ in the last camps? For that enthusiasm, I don’t know if it’s because there’s something in the air, but that lends a person to have some optimism. It was the enthusiasm, the attention to detail, there were guys that were into it. Certainly, when you look out there and see Brennan Scarlett back in uniform, and Mustafa Jalil back in uniform, Stefan McClure back in uniform, that always is a good place to start. I think the fact that Jared [Goff] is clearly the guy – it’s not a competition anymore – as a guy that can take the next step in the evolution of a quarterback.”
Wide receiver Bryce Treggs would tend to agree.
“That’s a result of how close we came this offseason,” said the junior receiver. “All the hard work we put in, everything we went through together, has just brought us closer as a unit.”
There are also, now, more on-field leaders, as a result of some of the battlefield promotions that had to happen last year, and as a result of the returns of the likes of Scarlett and McClure, who were both named team captains on Saturday, along with Goff, running back Daniel Lasco, fullback Lucus Gingold and safety Michael Lowe.
“I would say, in terms of the receiver group, we’re deep, top to bottom, at every position, from X to Z, so that, alone has caused more leadership, because we’re pushing each other; we’re competing every day,” Treggs said.
On the topic of receivers, Neuheisel had an interesting observation in regards to Cal’s depth at the position.
“They have a bunch of very talented receivers who all understand the position, and I think that spells well,” Neuheusel said. “They actually have more Oregon receivers than Oregon does. When I was at Oregon, I was like, ‘Where are all the little, fast guys? The space guys?’ They’ve been kind of depleted.”
The depth on the outside was one of the factors that contributed to moving Treggs to the inside position, and after a full spring and fall there, he gave his estimation of how far he’s come.
“I think I’m doing pretty well out there, but there are some aspects that I still need to work on,” Treggs said. “I need to come out of my routes running, instead of looking at the quarterback, right away – little stuff like that – but for the most part, I think I’ve done pretty well.”
Treggs said he’s improved his out routes the most.
“You run them different on the inside than you do [on the outside], because you’ve got to stem the linebacker, just to hold him there, and I was really struggling with that in the spring,” Treggs said. “I really focused on that this summer, and this fall camp, I got it right. That’s an aspect that I really improved on.”
The receiving corps is so deep that one of the more standout athletes in that group from camp -- Patrick Worstell -- has spent the last two days at safety, and on Saturday, he spent the entire practice shadowing the safeties and making reads during team work against the scout offense, checking with defensive backs coach Greg Burns after every play.
“Fortunately, we’ve got a lot of good wide receiver depth, and walk-on receiver depth, in particular, so Pat’s a good athlete, a guy that’s worked really hard, and we’re going to take a look at him,” Dykes said. “I thought it might be a one-day deal, and the defensive guys liked him, and I went in, watched the tape, thought he moved around pretty well, and so I think he can help us.
“The good thing is, if he’s going to be a special teams player, going through the tackling and the stuff that they do defensively will help him have a bigger role on special teams, too.”
One reason for Worstell’s move to safety is the fact that Avery Sebastian has been slowed by a nagging injury for those past two days.
“He’s got a little bit of a pulled quad. It’s 100-percent his quad,” said Dykes, who went on to dismiss the idea that Sebastian has other ailments related to his torn Achilles last year or history of bone spurs in his lower legs. “I think his feet are fine. He’s had some foot issues in the past. The Achilles is fine, it’s just more of a quad right now.”
Sebastian will be brought along slowly, and in the meantime, Cormac Craigie has taken his place on the second-team defense, next to Griffin Piatt.
“We’ll see what he can do this week, in terms of practice, and then we’ll make our travel squad decisions based on whether or not he can get in there and practice some this week, and we can get him ready to play,” Dykes said of Sebastian. “We’re trying to figure out who’s No. 4 right now, and that’s going to depend on who’s going to be healthy. Craigie’s come back and been able to move around pretty good. He’s a little bit behind in terms of being able to make the checks. He knows what to do; he’s been in all the meetings. He’s a smart kid. It’s just a matter of taking that from the meeting room to the field. But, between Pat and him and Avery, hopefully we can find a fourth.”
Linebacker Hardy Nickerson got as many snaps in work at MIKE against the scout team on Saturday as he has all camp.
“Hardy’s making progress every day,” Dykes said of last year’s starting MIKE, who missed the final two games with a Lisfranc injury. “I think that we’ve really done a good job managing him. I think the biggest thing with him has been we didn’t throw him out there and do too much volume and blow him up. Hat’s off to Damon [Harrington] and Mike Blasquez and the training staff. We’ve kind of done the same thing with a lot of the guys that are kind of coming off of injury, so I think that’s been a real positive for us.”
Dykes did say, though, that against Northwestern, Nickerson would be limited.
“We’re not going to put him out there for 70 plays,” Dykes said. “He can have a role, play enough where he can help us win, hopefully. His issue is not anything other than his volume. I think we’ve just got to do a good job modifying and watching his volume and making sure he doesn’t get too much.”
Michael Barton continued to rep on the outside and at MIKE linebacker, but the Bears will likely keep him in the middle, as it appears Ray Davison will start opposite Jalen Jefferson.
“I think so. I think Ray certainly has a chance to play a lot,” Dykes said. “We’ll kind of see who looks the best, who picks all the stuff up this week, but Ray will definitely play.”
One last word from Neuheisel, who said that the Bears could be 100 times better than last season, and still win as few as four games, given the strength of the conference:
“That’s entirely possible, but I think what fans want is games to be still games when they get to the fourth quarter,” he said. “If they can stay healthy – in particular, on defense, because they’re not as deep as the great teams probably are – if they can stay healthy and take teams to the fourth quarter, you’ve got a quarterback (Goff) who can make things happen. For them to win four, five, six games this year would be a tremendous accomplishment.”
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