Cal offensive line coach Steve Greatwood is tasked with re-making an offensive line that has lost three starters

The Cal offensive line has lost 116 man-games started heading into the 2017 season, and with just 10 scholarship linemen currently on the roster, veteran coach Steve Greatwood has his work cut out for him.

New California head coach Justin Wilcox has known Steve Greatwood longer than any of the other coaches on his staff. Greatwood coached at Oregon when Wilcox's older brother, Josh, played for the Ducks, but Justin arrived in Eugene during the one brief interlude where Greatwood -- who has spent 30 total years at Oregon -- was not in emerald and yellow.

“He was there before [I was at Oregon]," Wilcox said. "He coached there when my brother [was there], and he went and left for the NFL for a time, and then after I had left Oregon, he came back. I’ve known him for a long, long time. The guy that he is, the person that he is and how he treats people, and how good of a coach he is, is evident."

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Greatwood -- the National Offensive Line Coach of the Year in 2008 -- has produced seven NFL draftees along his offensive line during a nine-year stretch, including Kyle LongJake Fisher and Hroniss Grasu. Since 2005, Greatwood's lines plowed the way for 10 straight conference rushing title, ranking in the top 10 in the country in eight seasons, and setting school records for rushing four times in a span of eight years. Of the 37 years Greatwood has coached, all but five have come on the offensive line. He's been playing or coaching football at the collegiate or professional level longer than Wilcox has been alive.

In the second week of spring practice, starting center Addison Ooms admitted that hadn't heard much about Greatwood, before he was hired, "which is hilarious," Ooms said, "because he's a legend.

"Everyone's saying this dude coached at Oregon for 15 years [sic], coached Jackie Slater on the Rams. It's absolutely impressive. When you're talking to this dude, and he's showing you the drills, it's like, 'You may have created this drill.'"

"Don't believe everything you hear," Greatwood said, wryly, two weeks later, ensconced in his office, one of the few in the Simpson Center with a window. He wasn't thrilled with how his group came back from spring break, but two days later, the line made a complete 180.

"Wednesday wasn't a very good day, which is sometimes to be expected, when you come off of a long break, but I thought they re-captured some things today, so I'm more encouraged, coming back, after today," Greatwood said. "All in all, it's taking shape, it's taking shape."

The New Batch

While Greatwood may be one of the few coaches to actually see some light while he works, he came to Berkeley having to deal with a fairly dim outlook. Cal's offensive line, last season, ranked first among Power 5 teams in sacks per passing attempts (1 per 38.8, 16 total), but that group has lost its starting left guard of the past four years in Chris Borrayo (40 career starts), its starting tackle of the last two years in graduate transfer Aaron Cochran (28 games, 16 starts), and a four-year starter in right tackle Steven Moore, who started 47 of 48 games he played in his career in Berkeley. Also gone are Dominic Granado, who started 13 games in 2015 and played in six in 2016, and Vince Johnson, who played in 31 games over the last four seasons.

In 2014, Greatwood dealt with a similar challenge. Injuries forced Oregon to play 10 different players along the front, with eight different starting lineups. Still, the Ducks set a school record for the most rushing first downs (406). "It's thin, in terms of bodies," said offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin. "Honestly, I don't notice that, through the course of practice. We don't try and do anything because of that. Those guys, sometimes you've got a guy who will rep a series, and he's got to come back in and jump in at a different position the next series, depending on who all's healthy that day."

There has been plenty of shuffling. Patrick Mekari has played both left guard and left tackle, flip-flopping with Kamryn BennettGentle Williams has played guard and center. In total, Cal has just 10 scholarship offensive linemen on the roster, including starting center Addison Ooms, who was placed on scholarship after the conclusion of the 2016 season; Daniel Juarez, who's been out all spring; and Williams, who's missed time, as well, but came back for the final week and a half of practice. Of those scholarship linemen, only three -- Ooms, Mekari and Dwayne Wallace -- have started a game, with 25 starts between them last season.

It's less than ideal. Add to that the challenges of a coach, coming from a spread-to-run background, coming in to a line that's been spread-to-throw for the last four years, and trying to find a happy medium, and this job isn't an easy assignment.

"I think, first, it's just developing an identity about ourselves, of being a physical group," Greatwood said. "That's the one thing I want to instill. You get that by having confidence in your technique. Beau's been great, too, about basically keeping the installation at a minimum, until we feel like we've made enough progress in a particular play, to move forward. I don't want to just continue to move forward if I don't feel like we have the fundamentals down, because we're kidding ourselves."

If the pace of that install is pushed, Greatwood said, without time for reflection and learning, players start practicing bad habits, and that's the last thing this new staff wants, even if slowing down comes at the expense of installing a new offense.

"It's all these little, minute details of footwork and hand placement and targeting, but when they start to master those things, then the success will come, and the confidence will grow, and then, however you want to term it, when you do that, then that physical brand of football shows through," Greatwood said. "That's what I'm looking for."

Still, Baldwin said, this group is advancing at a relatively quick pace.

"Just sometimes, [you see] all five guys looking in unison, all five guys stepping in the same direction," Baldwin said. "When you see those O-lines that have that, they all are very much, it looks very much in tune, and it's five guys playing as one, and truly doing things at the same time, at the same levels, in certain things they're doing, so you can see those guys truly playing together in unison, able to bump off on switch calls in protection, able to do different things like that, that sometimes takes a little longer. That's where, to me, it's been a pleasant surprise, [compared] to certain years, where I feel like that can take a little longer." At times, there are echoes of what Greatwood did at Oregon, but, at this point, only echoes.

"I'm going to coach the same way whether I'm at Alabama, Oregon, Cal -- it doesn't matter, the way I'm going to approach these kids," Greatwood said. "I think kids want to be coached, and anybody that isn't basically on them, every movement that they make, and working to correct them or praise or whatever you have to do, is doing those guys a disservice. I'm going to coach them the same way I coached my guys at Oregon. I'm going to be as positive as possible. I'm not a real negative kind of guy, coaching, unless, we all have our breaking points, I guess, so to speak. We have what we have, here. There's no cavalry riding over the hill to bail us out. This is the group that we're going to go to war with next fall, and they have to have confidence in themselves. They have to believe in each other, and they've got to believe in me, as far as that the things that I'm teaching them are going to work, and hopefully, we can all continue to move forward in that direction."

Finding Swagger

Wilcox's description of Greatwood was carefully worded, when he spoke about hiring him in late February.

“He’s demanding, but what he’s asking you to do is in your best interests, and he’s not demeaning; he’s demanding," Wilcox said. "I have the utmost respect for him as a person.”

Confidence was a big issue last year for redshirt freshman Jake Curhan. A year ago, the 6-foot-7 right tackle out of Larkspur (Calif.) Redwood graduated early to enroll in the spring. It didn't go as planned.

"I got a high and mid ankle sprain the first 15 minutes of the first practice," Curhan said. "I played through most of the rest of that practice, then went with the trainers afterwards, and nothing was broken, but I missed 11 practices last spring. It kind of sucked, because the first thought process everyone has is, as soon as you come in, and lose a lot of practices, everyone thinks you're soft, and it's pretty annoying and frustrating."

Curhan admitted to getting a bit blue during that period of time. Even though he wasn't far from home, the rigors of adjusting to college life, college academics and rehabbing his ankle began to weigh heavy on him. "It got pretty tough, just having to sit out all of those," he said. "But, at the same time, sitting out for all those actually helped me kind of settle my nerves that I had, coming out on the first day. As much as it sucked, I would have done the experience the same way."

Even with all that missed time, Curhan traveled and dressed for every game last season, and was the emergency tackle. That emergency never came -- Mekari was able to step in when Cochran went down with an ankle injury before the opener against Hawaii -- so now, Curhan has four years of Greatwood, and potentially, four years at first-team right tackle, where he's spent all of spring.

"I think coach Wood wants me to get comfortable over there," Curhan said. "It's tough, because everything's faster, but it's really nice, because everyone on the line right now has some experience, playing in games. It's nice to play next to all those guys, and having them be able to help me out. In addition, coach Greatwood, he really helps us walk through different looks and try to figure out what's going on. I definitely think I've been doing a better job this year than I was able to do last year, coming out of a not-football-oriented high school, at looking at a defense. Coach Greatwood and all the guys next to me have definitely helped speed that process up."

By the fourth practice this spring, Curhan laughed, he'd already racked up more hours on the field than all of last spring. He's one of the only players who hasn't switched positions at all this spring, along the offensive line.

"He's extremely intelligent," Greatwood said. "I think he's a tough guy. He's a competitive guy. Physically, I think Jake needs to continue to improve his strength levels, particularly in his core. He's a big-bodied guy, and a lot of times, those guys aren't as strong as they need to be, through their core and lower body, to continue to play with great posture and pad level. Those are the things we've talked about. He's working to cut some weight, actually. I'd like to see him get -- and I told him when I first met him -- 20 pounds off by the time we entered fall camp, which he's making some strides on. Jake's a kid that cares, and his technique is improving all the time."

"There are certain guys that, these are some of the most reps they've taken in a row," said Baldwin. "I keep using the words 'battling' and 'grinding,' because no matter how many plays we end up running out here, no matter how thin we supposedly are at certain positions, they're grinding it out, and he's one of them that's doing that. I just appreciate that work ethic, and that mindset and that attitude." Improvement is the watchword of this spring, for nearly every position, on both sides of the ball. 

"I think, right now, I'd like to see these guys just continue to grow and be a more confident group, have more of a swagger about them," Greatwood said. "I think that will come, as they develop technique, develop strength, develop greater confidence in what we're doing, and they see the progress in their work, I think they'll become a more confident type of group. I just want to see them play with a little bit more of a swagger about them."

So far, as Obi Wan Kenobi once said, the line has taken its first step into a larger world.

"More than anything, just communication and playing together, and honestly, that group has taken some pretty big jumps, considering new terminology and maybe some guys with experience, but maybe some guys without much experience, especially when you get into the two-deep of it, but you're definitely seeing some things," Baldwin said this week. "It just takes time, to really mold together, but I think, compared to a lot of years I've been in, I think the way we've come together, in certain things in the run game, it's come probably faster than sometimes I'm used to, which is a pleasant surprise. I know coach 'Wood would tell you, just like any of us, that we're far from there, and they're going to keep grinding that way."

A Front Five

Baldwin trusts Greatwood to the degree that he's essentially blindfolded when it comes to offensive line personnel. That's Greatwood's department.

"Coach 'Wood has been doing this a heck of a [lot] longer than me, and understands what he's doing," Baldwin said. "I trust -- not even trust; I know -- that he's going to have the right five guys out there at the right spots, and I'm not going to think about that. He knows exactly what he's doing." With so few scholarship linemen -- and even fewer with experience -- the Bears can't depend on any reinforcements, either; at least, not many. Tackle is particularly thin, but the two linemen coming in as freshmen -- Michael Saffell and Poutasi Poutasi (unfortunately for Cal, he only counts as one Poutasi) -- are both interior linemen.

Saffell does provide depth at center, where the backup right now is redshirt sophomore Ryan Gibson. If Ooms goes down, Gibson will be backed up by, well, whoever's available.

"Last year, I played two games at every position, except center, so I was kind of ready to play whatever position they needed me at," said Mekari, one of two other players (including Williams) who Greatwood wants to get snaps at center. At the start of his recruitment, then-offensive line coach Zach Yenser saw him as a center, so there is at least some experience there. "I don't have one position. Wherever they need me, I'm willing to play. I just want to make the team better. If that's left guard, I'll play that. If it's receiver, I'll play that."

One of the second-team tackles -- J.D. Hinnant -- has caught more passes last year (one -- a two-point conversion) than he's played games at offensive tackle. If Mekari wants a look at receiver, he'd have to beat Hinnant, first.

"I've been impressed, so far, with Patrick Mekari," Greatwood said. "He's doing a really nice job. Technically, we're playing him both at guard and at tackle. I'd love to get him some reps at center, too. He's one of those guys who's very versatile, intelligent, athletic. I'm pleased with Kamryn Bennett, right now. Those two guys are playing pretty good right now, for us. Addison Ooms is doing a nice job at center. Our biggest issue right now is developing some depth at that position. Ryan Gibson's doing it, and doing a good job, but he's still a young guy, still needs to get bigger and stronger, but right now, he's our backup center. I need to get three or four."

Williams, Greatwood hopes, "will be a huge piece of the puzzle."

Another big piece? 6-foot-5, 345-pound Semisi Uluave. Having delayed his Mormon mission to come to Cal as a massive four-star prospect -- arguably the biggest (literal and figurative) get in the 2015 class, Uluave has yet to start a game. He played in five games as a true freshman, and four in 2016, despite arriving to much fanfare. "He did, he did, and probably his career hasn't lived up to that, at this point in time," Greatwood said. "I'm hoping that he'll just continue to improve. We need him to be a great player for us, and I like, right now, his motivation. I think that he's realizing that, hey, it's time, 'It's time for me to step up and be counted,' and technically, there are some things that he has to get done, just to make himself a more physical player. Again, he's an intelligent guy that could swing a lot of different positions, and I hope that eventually, he could end up being a starter for us at some place."

When the Bears take the field on Saturday at 11 a.m., for what will likely be a glorified open practice with scrimmage situations -- not a true spring game -- the front five will likely be, from left to right, Mekari, Bennett, Ooms, Uluave and Curhan. Behind them? Hinnant and Bennett at left tackle; Mekari at left guard; Gibson, Mekari and Williams at center; Wallace at right guard; and Mekari and Uluave at right tackle. 

"I came in as a guard/center, and I was just put wherever they needed me," Bennett said. "I think I relied a little bit more on my athletic ability than coaching, and once the coaching came, I got better at it. So far, coach Greatwood, he brings a different kind of coaching experience to the table. He's been around the game for 30-plus years, and what he brings in the film room is improving our football IQ, so being able to defenses a lot better, and we're reading them on the fly."

That's the task set before Greatwood: To re-construct the Bears' offensive line, on the fly.

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