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BERKELEY -- When a young Evan Rambo came home from his first Pop Warner practice, he was cranky. He loved football, sure enough, but he didn’t like the running. He didn’t like the work. His father wasn’t pleased.
“Rambo’s don’t quit,” Donnie Rambo told his son.
Now, Evan may have been a bit too young to have seen First Blood, but the mantra stuck. When he and the rest of California’s freshman class were wiping stinging sweat from their eyes, trying their level best to not put their hands on their knees, with their lungs burning during one of the hottest Bay Area summers on record, Rambo heard his father’s words echoing in his head.
“I just go back to what my dad told me, when I was little, playing Pop Warner. I was struggling, the first day out there. He said, ‘If you’re out here, you go 100 percent. There’s no quitting,” Rambo recalls. “Just do what you can, 100 percent, and leave it all on the field. Rambo’s don’t quit.’”
On Tuesday, the now-6-foot-3, 190-pound Rambo scored his fifth interception in the month of August. You’ll notice, of course, that the Golden Bears don’t have any real games scheduled this month. Real bullets won’t start flying until Sept. 5, against Grambling State.
“He started camp faster than most, with the four interceptions in three days, so that was good,” says safeties coach Greg Burns. “Now, he’s getting used to the speed of the game and the tempo. I think those are the next two biggest things. Now, he’s got an idea. He could have had an interception today, but I’ve got to watch the film to see if he didn’t read it fast enough – those types of things. Now, I think the next biggest step is the tempo of the game.”
Rambo’s five picks – including four over the first three days of fall camp – have been impressive, with head coach Sonny Dykes saying that he’s never seen that kind of production in fall camp, regardless of age
“The picks come from me reading the offense and the players I’m supposed to be guarding,” says Rambo. “It’s starting to make me feel a little more comfortable being here. It’s starting to feel like I can do this. The speed of the game has started to slow down. I know what I’m supposed to do, and I can go out there and be competitive.”
Rambo’s quick start – and the defense’s overall resurgence during fall camp – are a welcome relief, even to the offensive players.
“From my point of view, and from the offense’s point of view, we’re not upset about it,” says junior quarterback Jared Goff. “It’s good to see. I think it’s definitely made us better, having some push-back over there.”
“In order to have a good team, going into the season, you can’t have the offense winning every day, or defense winning every day,” says senior guard Jordan Rigsbee. “That means one of them is lacking. This camp is the first camp since I’ve been here that every day, people were scrapping. There were days where the offense would win, and there would be days where the defense would come back and win the next day. In the past, it hasn’t been that way.”
In the past, the Bear Raid would dominate. Because of Rambo and his classmates, things are different, now.
The Bears have ranked dead last – 125th – in the nation pass defense in each of Dykes’s first two seasons at the helm, and when he sent his assistant coaches out to recruit for the class of 2015, it was with one main directive: Get more help in the defensive backfield.
“I would expect, if they stay healthy, all of them will play,” Dykes said of his eight new cornerbacks and safeties – Rambo, Antoine Albert, Billy McCrary, Khari Vanderbilt, Jaylinn Hawkins, Derron Brown, DePriest Turner and Malik Psalms. “We knew it was an area we needed to address, and during recruiting, you don’t ever expect to find seven [sic] of any position, and we just kept finding guys that we liked. We added some guys late with Khari Vanderbilt. He was a guy we kind of found late, and added. It’s good to have that many guys that are young, that are good players, because they’ve all shown signs of doing some good things. I’m pleased.”
Six of those eight – including Rambo – made it onto the initial post-camp depth chart, with Rambo and Vanderbilt set to back up Damariay Drew at boundary safety, and McCrary and Turner expected to play significant roles on special teams.
“He’s been on a slump, but he’s picking up the defense pretty well,” Burns of Rambo. “He’s learning both safety positions – field and boundary – and he’s a smart kid.”
Burns saw Rambo’s athleticism early, while playing quarterback, receiver and defensive back for Los Angeles (Calif.) Verbum Dei. He also saw the smarts and the work ethic shine through.
“He struck me as a good kid who’s a ‘Yes sir, no sir,’ type of guy,” Burns says. “From a character standpoint, that’s huge in recruiting.
“When he went to La Salle, he played receiver and DB. But, his junior year film is what intrigued me the most, because you saw everything. He’s at quarterback, he’s touching the ball every snap, he had athletic scrambles and those types of things – you saw the athleticism there.”
“He likes to play. He’s confident, he’s not afraid of making a mistake,” says Dykes. “So many times, freshmen are a little bit hesitant and he’s triggered really well. I think that’s what’s making him stand out. He’s a good athlete, he’s got good length, he can run. But, he is playing with confidence. He’s triggering, he’s running to the ball, and as a result, he’s been real active.”
The new blood in the defensive backfield didn’t come in blind. The newest Bears knew the numbers. They knew they’d have a lot on their shoulders. They just didn’t quite know what they were in for, during their first summer.
“I think when those guys all started working, he kind of grabbed the reins a little bit with that freshman class,” Dykes says. “He was one of the guys that just kind of took over and had a lot of leadership with the group.”
During one particular day, his classmates remember, as the newcomers went through a four-stage conditioning cycle, through the tired and the burn and the pain, it was Rambo’s voice that rang loudest, and it’s kept on ringing.
“There’s four stations, all conditioning, fast-paced, and it finishes with shuttle drills, 300-yard shuttles, 10, 20, 30, 40. We did three. Those aren’t fun,” says McCrary. “He’s real vocal, making sure everyone pushes their hardest during those times.”
“He goes first, and he pushes us to keep that energy up,” says Turner. “When the guys are tired, he pushes us to keep our energy up, because that’s the kind of energy we need all the time. Different guys lead in different ways. Rambo’s not the only leader. He’s just more vocal. There are guys who lead silence, by doing the reps to their fullest, and I don’t want those guys to go unrecognized. Rambo is definitely a good leader, picks up the energy.”
“He’s the one out there yelling at everyone, saying, ‘Let’s go, let’s get this money, we got this, let’s go, let’s go,’” McCrary adds.
“I wasn’t out here, but I’d heard that, comments like, ‘Gosh, he seems like a good leader,’ and ‘He’s getting guys going,’” Burns says. “Those were the things that I heard through the summer workouts.”
Rambo’s don’t quit, after all.
“It’s about mentality,” says Rambo. “You start to mentally break down, and you just have to say to yourself, ‘OK, I can do this. You know you can do this,’ and then, pick up my brothers.”