Ruminations on Thursday's Practice

Stepping back from the details of what happened in practice yesterday, a few larger-perspective issues come to mind. These may not be facts that can be documented, but rather are impressions derived from watching many practice sessions from spring ball onwards.

Joe Ayoob has never looked better. Many of his passes yesterday were thrown on a line with real zip, and most were on target.  Yes, there were some mis-fires, but it’s much more important to note that even those were thrown with authority. We remember Tedford last year urging Joe “to just throw the damn ball” (paraphrasing) – and Joe seems now to be doing that.

He’s moving well in the pocket, and has long been noted as the most mobile QB Cal has with the possible exception of Kyle Reed, who probably won’t be a factor this year. Perhaps because of his athleticism, it appears that Joe throws better when moving into his throwing motion, and that’s a suitable talent for a spread-option quarterback.

Until Longshore’s recent back strain, and until Ayoob’s recent performances, it seemed a lock that Longshore would start at Tennessee.  But even given that, it was likely that Ayoob would get some playing time there, for several reasons. First, Tedford absolutely has to know if Joe – his erstwhile 2nd string guy going into Knoxville – has grown out of the inconsistencies that plagued his efforts last year. Second, Tedford must have been planning to get Joe some playing time as a confidence-builder, again as preparation for the long football season ahead. Tedford is nothing if not prepared.

These thoughts are consistent with Tedford’s recent remarks that playing time for two quarterbacks at Tennessee “was not out of the question.”  Of course that could be a smokescreen too.

As others have noted, Ayoob rarely had trouble in practice last year, it was game time that staggered him. Has anything changed?

Well, yes. Substantial playing time in 10 games last year, another year of age and maturity, Tedford’s intense coaching all through last year (and this spring and fall), all the game-planning and preparation last year, and evidence that Joe has maintained a good emotional balance through all the travails. It takes a tough kid to do that.

Add to that, perhaps most significantly, his recent passing is substantially better than it has ever been, be it in practice or game. That alone gives evidence of a growing confidence and comfort.

Predictions in this arena may be a fool’s errand, but what the heck. Joe is settling down in ways not seen before. If he gets a chance to play, he’ll be fine. If he gets a chance to play a lot, he’ll be a significant contributor by mid-season onwards.

Cal is working hard on the long downfield passing game.  A key focus of the spread-option offense is its ability to use speedy wide receivers, with whom Cal is amply blessed, to spread the field – to spread the defensive backfield – so as to create running lanes.  But to make that work, the downfield threat has to be real. To that end, Cal QBs and WRs are running lots of long downfield pass plays, working on spotting the open man, throwing with accuracy and loft, and getting the timing down.

Dozens and dozens of such passes were completed yesterday. One observer reminded us of years past when dropped passes – even in practice – were almost the norm. Not now. Yes, a few, but with this talented wide receiver corps, a dropped pass (that is catchable) is a rarity.

With Joe (and Nate) throwing lasers the downfield game is real.

Marshawn Lynch has added Burst to his game. Jim McGill in his practice review referred to these bursts as being Arrington-like, and that’s accurate. Lynch seems to be trying to cover the first ten yards downfield before even thinking about juking or evading a tackler. He is a very active runner, meaning shifty, side-to-side, constantly shifting his balance point so that he can cut any direction on the next step. Get those first ten yards, then anything can (and will) happen.

Lynch has been reserved from practice for a few days, possibly because he simply did not need the practice, perhaps to rest a bit, regain energy. In yesterday’s practice, he was once again not on the field for many of the early 5-minute periods that Tedford uses to structure practices. Observers watched for him, but initially there was no sign of him.

Then suddenly he was on the field at tailback; he took a handoff and burst up the middle for 25 yards. (In pads, no heavy hitting, so keep that context in mind). He ran back kickoffs, went out in pass patterns, and ran a variety of routes, always with that eye-catching style that betrays potential greatness. If his Burst becomes a staple, and if the spread ‘spreads’ the defense, Marshawn Lynch will have an awesome year.

Quarterback comfort with the new offense is still a question, but Cal is working hard at improving that. In practice yesterday, quarterbacks lined up in offensive sets with receivers, tailbacks, and the odd fullback – then ran a great variety of skeleton plays, one after the other, in rapid succession. No time to think, just time to make the call and execute the play. This was clearly a drill designed to make plays as routine and automatic as possible, and to increase QB comfort level with each. Repetition builds confidence, and yesterday there were lots of reps.

That kind of exercise is probably crucial given the wide variety of sets, options, and plays the team now employs. As USC coach Pete Carroll observed, just adding the shotgun snap to an offense is difficult, partly because any lack of precision in the snap and catch can lead to drive-killing fumbles. And those fumbles are still happening in Cal’s practices, though mostly with 2nd and 3rd team guys.

It’s great to see Marcus O’Keith back on the field looking healthy, elusive, - and fast. MOK ran back several kickoffs with excellent speed and elusiveness. Even given the lack of full-on tackling, it’s clear that MOK can be a major contributor if he stays healthy.

Speaking of kicking, JC transfer punter Andrew Larson put on a show. In kickoff drills, in the 7 trials for which data is available, he averaged putting kicks 2 yards deep in the end zone – and one of them came down on the back edge of it. His hang times were in the 3.9 to 4.1 seconds range, a bit low for the kick coverage team to get down field (4.2 to 4.4 is better). These results may derive from the shorter kicking tee mandated this year that decreases a kicker’s ability to get under a ball to give it loft.

The team ran some drills with the crowd noise machines turned on, but they don’t seem to have a setting for the sound level of 107,000 fans. This makes us wonder how many amps of speaker power would be necessary to get there.


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If you haven't done so already, subscribe to The Bear Insider so you can participate in this active online Cal community and get access to the members-only content from the nation-wide Scout.com network.

Bear Insider staff writers visit the Insider discussion board regularly, and are available to discuss questions you may have about this article and Cal Athletics.


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Joe Ayoob has never looked better. Many of his passes yesterday were thrown on a line with real zip, and most were on target.  Yes, there were some mis-fires, but it’s much more important to note that even those were thrown with authority. We remember Tedford last year urging Joe “to just throw the damn ball” (paraphrasing) – and Joe seems now to be doing that.

He’s moving well in the pocket, and has long been noted as the most mobile QB Cal has with the possible exception of Kyle Reed, who probably won’t be a factor this year. Perhaps because of his athleticism, it appears that Joe throws better when moving into his throwing motion, and that’s a suitable talent for a spread-option quarterback.

Until Longshore’s recent back strain, and until Ayoob’s recent performances, it seemed a lock that Longshore would start at Tennessee.  But even given that, it was likely that Ayoob would get some playing time there, for several reasons. First, Tedford absolutely has to know if Joe – his erstwhile 2nd string guy going into Knoxville – has grown out of the inconsistencies that plagued his efforts last year. Second, Tedford must have been planning to get Joe some playing time as a confidence-builder, again as preparation for the long football season ahead. Tedford is nothing if not prepared.

These thoughts are consistent with Tedford’s recent remarks that playing time for two quarterbacks at Tennessee “was not out of the question.”  Of course that could be a smokescreen too.

As others have noted, Ayoob rarely had trouble in practice last year, it was game time that staggered him. Has anything changed?

Well, yes. Substantial playing time in 10 games last year, another year of age and maturity, Tedford’s intense coaching all through last year (and this spring and fall), all the game-planning and preparation last year, and evidence that Joe has maintained a good emotional balance through all the travails. It takes a tough kid to do that.

Add to that, perhaps most significantly, his recent passing is substantially better than it has ever been, be it in practice or game. That alone gives evidence of a growing confidence and comfort.

Predictions in this arena may be a fool’s errand, but what the heck. Joe is settling down in ways not seen before. If he gets a chance to play, he’ll be fine. If he gets a chance to play a lot, he’ll be a significant contributor by mid-season onwards.

Cal is working hard on the long downfield passing game.  A key focus of the spread-option offense is its ability to use speedy wide receivers, with whom Cal is amply blessed, to spread the field – to spread the defensive backfield – so as to create running lanes.  But to make that work, the downfield threat has to be real. To that end, Cal QBs and WRs are running lots of long downfield pass plays, working on spotting the open man, throwing with accuracy and loft, and getting the timing down.

Dozens and dozens of such passes were completed yesterday. One observer reminded us of years past when dropped passes – even in practice – were almost the norm. Not now. Yes, a few, but with this talented wide receiver corps, a dropped pass (that is catchable) is a rarity.

With Joe (and Nate) throwing lasers the downfield game is real.

Marshawn Lynch has added Burst to his game. Jim McGill in his practice review referred to these bursts as being Arrington-like, and that’s accurate. Lynch seems to be trying to cover the first ten yards downfield before even thinking about juking or evading a tackler. He is a very active runner, meaning shifty, side-to-side, constantly shifting his balance point so that he can cut any direction on the next step. Get those first ten yards, then anything can (and will) happen.

Lynch has been reserved from practice for a few days, possibly because he simply did not need the practice, perhaps to rest a bit, regain energy. In yesterday’s practice, he was once again not on the field for many of the early 5-minute periods that Tedford uses to structure practices. Observers watched for him, but initially there was no sign of him.

Then suddenly he was on the field at tailback; he took a handoff and burst up the middle for 25 yards. (In pads, no heavy hitting, so keep that context in mind). He ran back kickoffs, went out in pass patterns, and ran a variety of routes, always with that eye-catching style that betrays potential greatness. If his Burst becomes a staple, and if the spread ‘spreads’ the defense, Marshawn Lynch will have an awesome year.

Quarterback comfort with the new offense is still a question, but Cal is working hard at improving that. In practice yesterday, quarterbacks lined up in offensive sets with receivers, tailbacks, and the odd fullback – then ran a great variety of skeleton plays, one after the other, in rapid succession. No time to think, just time to make the call and execute the play. This was clearly a drill designed to make plays as routine and automatic as possible, and to increase QB comfort level with each. Repetition builds confidence, and yesterday there were lots of reps.

That kind of exercise is probably crucial given the wide variety of sets, options, and plays the team now employs. As USC coach Pete Carroll observed, just adding the shotgun snap to an offense is difficult, partly because any lack of precision in the snap and catch can lead to drive-killing fumbles. And those fumbles are still happening in Cal’s practices, though mostly with 2nd and 3rd team guys.

It’s great to see Marcus O’Keith back on the field looking healthy, elusive, - and fast. MOK ran back several kickoffs with excellent speed and elusiveness. Even given the lack of full-on tackling, it’s clear that MOK can be a major contributor if he stays healthy.

Speaking of kicking, JC transfer punter Andrew Larson put on a show. In kickoff drills, in the 7 trials for which data is available, he averaged putting kicks 2 yards deep in the end zone – and one of them came down on the back edge of it. His hang times were in the 3.9 to 4.1 seconds range, a bit low for the kick coverage team to get down field (4.2 to 4.4 is better). These results may derive from the shorter kicking tee mandated this year that decreases a kicker’s ability to get under a ball to give it loft.

The team ran some drills with the crowd noise machines turned on, but they don’t seem to have a setting for the sound level of 107,000 fans. This makes us wonder how many amps of speaker power would be necessary to get there.


©Copyright 2006, BearInsider.com and Scout.com. All rights reserved.

If you haven't done so already, subscribe to The Bear Insider so you can participate in this active online Cal community and get access to the members-only content from the nation-wide Scout.com network.

Bear Insider staff writers visit the Insider discussion board regularly, and are available to discuss questions you may have about this article and Cal Athletics.

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