FORT WORTH, Tex. -- Assistant coaches for Power 5 football teams get a lot of tape. They're the gatekeepers of a precious commodity: the head coach's time. Cal assistants, in several instances -- notably that of defensive end Cameron Saffle -- have taken leaps of faith on tapes they've gotten. Fred Tate has done it. Garret Chachere has done it, and, in the case of Bears wide receiver Chad Hansen, graduate assistant David Gru did it.
"Somebody walked in. I don’t remember how we got it," admits head coach Sonny Dykes. "Somebody walked in, said, ‘Look at this guy,’ we put the tape on, watched him, and I thought, ‘Wow, this kid’s a good athlete. He’s raw, but he’s a good athlete; he can run and he can make some plays.’"
That somebody was Gru.
“I would say that I look over, just from guys sending me stuff, I would say about 35, 45 a week,” Gru says. “You’ve got to give every guy their shot.”
Hansen had never really gotten his shot.
When asked about his high school recruitment, Hansen laughs. It's a weary laugh, but one that he can have from a place of relative comfort; he's made it now, at least, nominally. Going to high school at Moorpark (Calif.) -- a school known more for its track and field than producing Division I football players (counting Dennis Pitta, Greg Estandia and Chastin West as it's most notable alumni) -- Hansen was a first-team All-Marmonte League and Ventura County Choice in 2012, when he caught 49 balls for 882 yards and 12 touchdowns. He took home MVP honors in football and track, winning the Marmonte League title in the 100 meters (running a personal best 10.91 time at the CIF Southern Section Division 2 Prelims in 2013). He was fast, sure, with a 4.47 40 time out of high school, but he was a bit raw. His only scholarship offer was to Idaho State, so he went.
http://www.scout.com/college/california/story/1626027-cal-armed-forces-b... As a freshman, Hansen hauled in 45 balls for 501 yards, but still wanted more. He knew he could compete. So, he made what he describes as a “tough decision,” and eschewed a full scholarship, for a chance to walk on at Cal. He asked for his release. He got it.
“Obviously, it was a huge life decision, but the way it’s going now, I think I made the right decision,” Hansen says. “I think it was the best life decision for me, going and looking ahead to my future; academics, obviously, top in the world; athletics, elite. I decided to follow my dreams and go to the highest level possible, and I think I landed in a good place.”
Growing up in Southern California, USC and UCLA were always on his radar, and he grew up a Pac-12 fan, but he was barely in elementary school when the Bears were at the height of their powers in the early-to-mid-2000s.
“The Pac-12 has always been something I’ve watched,” says Hansen. “Growing up, dreaming, I’ve always dreamed of playing in the Pac-12. I grew up watching all the Pac-12 teams, but obviously, I had my favorites – UCLA and USC, because those were hometown teams – but growing up, I’ve learned to not like them as much.”
He sent out dozens of emails to Power 5 schools, after getting that letter of release. Late in the year, he got a bite on that film he sent out. It was from Gru.
“I was running track at Idaho State, during that time, just to stay in shape. That came later in the spring, after I got my permission to contact letter,” Hansen says. “I’d been sending out a whole bunch of emails to all the Pac-12 schools, and coach Gru was the only one that replied.”
That was in the spring of 2014.
With Dykes moving to wide receivers coach to replace Pierre Ingram, who took over in the spring of 2015 for Rob Likens (who left to become the offensive coordinator at Kansas), Gru has since taken on a larger role.
Now, Dykes says, Gru spends much of his time with the outside receivers, giving them the in-depth coaching that Dykes cannot during games and practices. Maybe – just maybe -- part of that was due to his scouting acumen.
“When I first saw his film, I just saw how long he was, and his size. I cross-checked that with his high school film, because I was wondering why no one had really looked at this guy, why he was at Idaho State,” Gru says. “There was obviously a lot of stuff that needed to get smoothed over, but he had a lot of upside. When we first looked at him, he had so much upside.”
Grad assistants must see mountains of tape, and when they make the decision to send that tape along to the positional coaches, coordinators and head coaches, they have to be right. Their reputation is, to some degree, at stake. Gru knew he had something he could mold.
“We get quite a bit, and it comes in all kinds of forms. We get it through social media, emails, letters and DVDs – we get all kinds of stuff,” says Gru. “You never want to miss one, so you have to give every single one a shot, and all of our guys make sure that there are guys that don’t fall through the cracks. You’re not going to find every single one, for sure, but Chad, I think, is the exception. For him to be playing the way he’s playing, a lot of it is the work that he’s put in. All he needed to do was even some stuff out.”
Hansen redshirted last season, but during spring ball earlier this year, he flashed. And then he flashed some more. Every day, he kept chipping away. Maybe he wasn’t just a quick, rangy kid from the suburbs of So Cal. Maybe, the staff thought, he could play.
But, at the start of this season, all but had the entire mid-summer afternoon queue for Space Mountain standing in front of him at receiver. He could be a slot guy, but the Bears had Bryce Treggs and tight end Stephen Anderson, both seniors. Outside, Cal had seniors Darius Powe, Maurice Harris and Trevor Davis, with redshirt junior Kenny Lawler, as well, continuing his mockery of Newtonian physics. Coming in as part of the 2015 recruiting class were speedsters Kanawai Noa and Brandon Singleton, the big-bodied Austin Aaron and four-star Dallas (Tex.) Skyline superstar Carlos Strickland. Where did a guy who had no Power 5 offers out of high school fit? Honestly? He didn’t care.
Hansen was just fast. He was getting behind defenders. He was winning one-on-ones against the first-team defensive backs. He was leaping for 50-50 balls and coming down with them.
“I didn’t really try to think about that,” Hansen says of the depth chart. “I just tried to focus on my play every day in practice, and I knew that if I worked my butt off in practice, I would be able to find my way into a game here or there, and try to make the most of every opportunity, I guess.”
Find that opportunity, he did. During the 21-point comeback engineered by junior quarterback Jared Goff, Hansen hauled in four catches for 91 yards and a touchdown. During the second-half onslaught that saw the Bears score on each of their final seven possessions, he caught three passes for 85 yards, his final grab a 17-yarder to get Cal across midfield on their final drive of the game, which ended with a Matt Anderson game-winning field goal.
Of course, it did take some work to get him to this point.
“It’s just the little things,” says Gru. “It starts with all the little, intricate procedure stuff, like running out of breaks, and your pad level, playing at full speed. After you try to smooth over those kinds of things, you start picking up this confidence, which is the ultimate goal for a receiver, is to play with confidence, with fire. From watching his film, he didn’t have any of that, and we saw that if you smooth something over with his receiver ability, he might be able to develop that, and he really has, and a lot of that is because of him. He puts in the work. If you watch, and wait after practice, he’s there, waiting for other coaches to stay behind, throw him balls, and he’s always asking questions in meetings. Really, what it comes down to, is work. I tell these guys that they will definitely, 100-percent, get what they deserve, and I think that he’s getting what he deserves.”
Indeed, now with 17 catches for 219 yards on the season, he’s beginning to get a little bit of swagger, a wee bit of wiggle, that the older, more seasoned receivers have, so much so that Dykes said that Hansen is “one of the guys we’ll count on, significantly,” next season, when all but Lawler are slated to be gone, and Lawler’s NFL fate still undecided.
“Now, he’s playing with confidence. He’s a big, strong, fast guy, who’s got good ball skills,” says Dykes, who’s coached the likes of Wes Welker. “All of those things are things that you want from a wide receiver. He just needed to get confidence and believe he could play at this level, and he certainly can.”
With Goff likely headed to the professional ranks, multiple sources have said (though Goff has denied any decision being made), and the loss of so many key receivers, Hansen will soon find himself as one of the more experienced hands in the receiving corps.
Strickland and Aaron have redshirted this year, with Strickland dealing with a hip injury coming into fall camp, and Aaron suffering a collarbone injury in the second-to-last practice before Cal left Berkeley for the Armed Forces Bowl. Noa has played significantly both on the inside and outside, but Strickland, after getting early reps, has been sidelined with injury for much of the season. JuCo wide receiver Jordan Veasy Veasy will come in as an almost exact one-for-one swap-out for the skill set the Bears will be losing in Powe, but he has not taken any Division I snaps. Tennessee transfer Vic Wharton has still yet to practice, as he continues to rehab a knee injury, but it’s expected he’ll make an appearance in spring ball.
“It’s nice to know that you have somebody there that has experience, and also has the confidence,” Gru says. “We’re really starting to trust our younger guys. Our older guys did a good job of setting the example, so I think the curve for these younger guys is going to be really, really fast. You watch them progress much faster. We had to start from scratch with the older guys, but the younger guys, they’ll watch. We have everything cut up right, and they can pick it up fast. We’re really excited about our young guys, because they’re going to progress really fast.
“We feel like it’s going to be hard to lose that many guys, because of continuity, but we feel really, really confident about the future and these guys. We really feel like they’re going to shine.”
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