BERKELEY -- The words 'left tackle' and 'injury' aren't incredibly inspiring for any football team, least of all one which will be depending on the running game to mitigate some of the deficiencies on defense.
So, when California left tackle Aaron Cochran went down on Monday during a non-contact inside run drill, fans in attendance held their breath. On Tuesday, head coach Sonny Dykes said Cochran will be sidelined "for a couple weeks" with a sprained right knee.
Last season, Cochran started his first career game at Washington State, and after Brian Farley took his starting spot back for two games -- against Utah and Oregon -- it was only a brief interlude. Cochran started five of the final six games.
It's no coincidence that with the 6-foot-8, 350-pounder on the blind side, and with a change in offensive line philosophy -- the abandonment of the vertical pass set -- the Bears offensive line was as dominant as it's been in Dykes's tenure.
"The big difference [with the kick slide as opposed to the vertical set] is that they're on us way quicker," said defensive end DeVante Wilson. "We had to chase them when they were going back, but now that they're hard-setting us, it makes it a little tougher on us."
The change in technique, along with Cochran's emergence, turned the line into a formidable unit, one that's been universally praised as the strongest on the team going into the 2016 season, with Cochran a major factor in that assessment.
It took Cochran some time to find the light switch -- recovering from a knee injury that caused him to balloon up to over 380 pounds by the time he got to Berkeley -- but once the light turned on, it turned on in a big way. Going into camp, he was cemented in the left tackle role, now much more flexible, stronger and more athletic.
http://www.scout.com/college/california/story/1681815-countdown-to-kicko... "He really played good football the second half of the season," Dykes said before fall camp began. "The sky's the limit for Aaron. He's got a lot of talent. Really, really has developed confidence, really changed his body. He's just been one of those kids that you recruit, and you say, 'Well, it's going to be two or three years,' and he's exceeded our expectations. We had high expectations, and I think he's exceeded them up to this point, and I'm looking forward to seeing what he does. He's what you want as a tackle. He's big, he's athletic, he's smart."
Early in camp, he gave Wilson fits.
"I go against Aaron Cochran every day, and he's gotten 10 times better than he was last season," Wilson said. "His footwork, using his hands when he punches me and everything, it makes it tough on me."
While Cochran -- who sported a hip-to-ankle leg brace and walked on crutches on Tuesday -- may only be out for two weeks, there is the potential he could be out for longer. Fortunately for the Bears, they have a keen Swiss Army knife ready to step in, literally, at a moment's notice.
"I was doing a drill next to him, and I looked over, and the next thing I know, he was down," said true sophomore Patrick Mekari. "I've been working both guards and tackle and center, but when Aaron went down, coach called me over and said, 'You're starting. Let's go.'"
Mekari was a last-minute addition to the 2015 recruiting class. Having been scouted the summer before his senior year at a satellite camp at Fullerton College as a guard and center, Mekari was 6-foot-3, 285 pounds, and a Plan B for many schools. But, between that camp and January, Mekari had pulled down just two offers -- from New Mexico and Utah State, to whom he committed.
To say he was lightly recruited would be an understatement. Then, less than two weeks before National Signing Day, the No. 9 tackle in the state of California -- Johnny Capra -- flipped to Utah. The Bears found themselves in need of a lineman. The first call was to Mekari.
Within two hours of getting a call from offensive line coach Brandon Jones, extending a scholarship offer, Mekari flipped from the Aggies to join his brother, defensive tackle Tony Mekari, in Berkeley, less than a week before National Signing Day.
Since coming to Cal, Mekari has grown to 6-foot-5, 295 pounds. He's worked out at all five positions on the line, and played in six games as a true freshman. On Tuesday, he spent the entire day with the first unit, stepping into Cochran's very large shoes.
"The thing about him, he's probably the most polished kid we have," said Jones. "He takes a lot of pride in being a technician. I think Aaron's a hell of a player, but I feel pretty confident with what Patrick can do."
When Cochran went down on Monday, Jones made another call to Mekari.
"Coach called me to back him up, to go in next, and I was ready for it," Mekari said. "I was ready for the call."
Mekari has, for better or worse, been molded by his big brother, Tony, who stands 6-foot-2, 285 pounds. In their first fall camp together, Jones and defensive line coach Fred Tate made sure to match the two against one another. Patrick won, prompting Tate to chirp, “go up in the stands and watch your brother practice.”
The younger Mekari recalled that, when he was a sophomore on varsity at Westlake (Calif.), the two would go against one another every day. He wouldn't hazard a guess as to how many times the two have locked horns over the years.
"I'm at tackle now, but there have been a couple times I'll down block him and he'll chip me after the play," Patrick laughed. "It's all out of love."
http://www.scout.com/college/california/story/1694171-curhan-offensive-l... The years of going nose-to-nose have sharpened the younger Mekari, and now, when Cal needs him to step up -- whether it's for two weeks or longer -- he's ready for the challenge. He could go from being a recruit with just two offers heading into National Signing Day to a starting Pac-12 left tackle, with his first start potentially coming in Sydney, Australia.
"It's not easy to get where I am now," he said. "It was a long road, and obviously, I've had a lot of help, but I've been used to being the underdog. Even coming out of high school, I didn't get my first offer until after my senior season. I've been looked over a lot, but it's been a great journey, and I'm just excited to see what I can do now."
So is Dykes.
"That's why we had Patrick there, was in case something like this happened," Dykes said on Tuesday. "We felt like he was ready to play. We felt like he was probably the sixth-best O-lineman. We repped him at center, we repped him at guard, repped him at tackle, and the good thing was, when somebody went down, he was ready to step in and go. That's good planning."
With Mekari now standing in for Cochran, the next tackle up, Dykes said, would be Vince Johnson, who, after making a big leap last season, seems to have plateaued.
But, Dykes said, the Bears have options.
"We're just trying to figure it all out," Dykes said. "Vinnie can certainly do it. We feel good about him doing it. I think he would probably be the next guy."
One option -- though Cal is loath to use it -- is true freshman Jake Curhan, who has come on strong over the last three practices, bullying opposing defensive ends in one-on-ones and showing a high level of technical proficiency that's unusual for a true freshman, particularly one who came from a program -- Larkspur (Calif.) Redwood -- that has produced just one other Power Five player in recent years -- Arizona's Alex Kosinski.
"Jake's been really good," Dykes said. "I think he's been kind of a pleasant surprise, I think, for all of us. He's a kid that w liked coming out of high school. The high school competition he played against probably wasn't the best, so it was hard to get a real gauge on where he was going to be."
http://www.scout.com/college/california/story/1694487-practice-8-cal-lef... Curhan, an early enrollee, didn't take a single full-contact rep in the spring, and began to question himself a bit.
"He was on the verge of destruction," Jones said. "He really questioned why he came early. He could have been going to prom and all that stuff, but he's grown up a lot. He's grown up a lot. He knows I'm going to coach him hard, and that I want his best, and that's what he tries to give me every day."
It is unusual for a true freshman offensive lineman to play, for a variety of reasons, ranging from the increased complexity of collegiate blocking schemes, to conditioning, to the physical overhaul many true freshmen have to undergo to get rid of bad weight and then rebuild their bodies into strong, lean, effective machines able to take on full-grown men, instead of high school defensive ends who won't ever see a snap after the Friday night lights have turned off.
Curhan used the spring, and his senior year, to lean up, re-shaping his body, and given the sub-par competition Curhan faced in high school, it's "absolutely" a shock that he's as proficient as he is, this early, Jones said. Dykes added that Curhan is "ahead of the curve."
"He's got a chance to be really special," Jones said. "I think he's just kind of a motivated kid. He wants to be really good. He puts the work in. I think that was the big knock on him, that he didn't play anybody good. I think he uses that as motivation to come out here and have some success."
Dykes and the staff would prefer to redshirt Curhan, who checks in at 6-foot-6, 335 pounds, but if the depth has to be tested, pulling that redshirt isn't out of the question.
"He's just playing with a ton of confidence," Jones said. "He's physical and he's just so massive. His steps are good, his pass sets are good, he's a lot more fast-twitch than even I thought he would be ... We might end up swinging him at tackle. For sure, next year, he's going to be in the mix to start."
"He went through the summer conditioning, and came out of summer going, 'I can do this,'" Dykes said. "I think he's ahead of schedule.