A Bay window opens on future
BERKELEY -- It’s nearly dark and football practice is almost over, but not before the California Golden Bears work on their short-yardage plays near the goal line.
Audio of amplified crowd noise fills otherwise empty Memorial Stadium, the offense crosses the goal line, shrill whistles signal an end to practice and the Bears are one day closer to atoning for a desultory season.
Oh, remember last year? Now, forget it, says Cal quarterback Nate Longshore.
“To be honest, I don’t even think about last year,” he says. “It seems like so long ago.”
The Bears started the season 5-0 and then ended it 1-6 before a victory over Air Force in the Armed Forces Bowl.
“Everybody knows about our crash last year, but that’s not going to happen again,” says Kevin Riley, another Cal quarterback.
So on top of getting their act together, the Bears have an additional issue to deal with -- a quarterback controversy. Or at least uncertainty about who will start.
It’s a two-player race. Longshore is a senior who has battled injuries and inconsistency. Riley is a sophomore who led the Bears to their comeback bowl victory.
Who to start at quarterback is not a question that’s limited to Cal as the Bay Area’s Pacific 10 Conference teams rumble through their training camps. Over at Stanford, Coach Jim Harbaugh is auditioning three players for the starting job.
Harbaugh, a former Michigan and NFL quarterback, said he understands why there is such interest in the most visible position on the field.
“Quarterbacks touch the ball every play,” he says, “and only one plays at a time.”
Only this week, Harbaugh penciled in Tavita Pritchard as the No. 1 quarterback on the depth chart, though he wouldn’t go so far as to name a starter for the Aug. 28 opener against Oregon State.
So why did he tap Pritchard?
“People asked, I was getting questions every day, so I just let them know where things stood right now,” Harbaugh says. “There’s still a lot of competition going on, at every position.”
Jason Forcier, a junior transfer from Michigan, and junior Alex Loukas are also in the quarterback mix, but blue chip freshman Andrew Luck has turned heads in camp.
Pritchard started seven games last year when he took over after T.C. Ostrander had a seizure, so he’s actually the incumbent. Pritchard is also the guy who was under center when Stanford defeated not just Cal, but also USC, in a pair of huge upsets.
The Cardinal finished 4-8 and while that’s not so hot, it’s better than many predicted for Harbaugh’s first season.
Pritchard ranked 10th in the conference in passing efficiency and Stanford was last in total offense, so the senior knows the goals are higher this year.
“Win more games, go to a bowl game,” he said. “It’s great having Coach Harbaugh, who’s played and competed on every level. He’s more of a realist when it comes to the offense. He knows not everything always goes right. The best advice he gives us is to think on our feet and when things don’t go according to plan, have composure.”
If getting into the end zone was a problem at Stanford, keeping the other guys out of it was a problem at Cal. In their last two regular-season games -- defeats at Washington and Stanford -- the Bears gave up a total of 480 yards rushing and 57 points.
But Coach Jeff Tedford acts as though he’s got a handle on it. Linebackers Zack Follett, Worrell Williams and Anthony Felder are among seven returning starters on defense.
On offense, Tedford must find some wide receivers to replace DeSean Jackson and Robert Jordan and a running back to replace Justin Forsett, and decide on a quarterback.
Tedford has long been lauded as a developer of college quarterbacks -- Kyle Boller, David Carr, Trent Dilfer, Joey Harrington, Aaron Rodgers and Akili Smith. With another week left in camp, Tedford says either Longshore or Riley needs to make a move and be in place for the opener against Michigan State.
“If not, we’ll make a decision who is going to take the first reps and then play it from there,” the coach says. “I’m not a huge fan of a two-quarterback system usually. It would be nice if someone separated himself, but it just hasn’t happened yet.”
Longshore passed for 2,580 yards and 16 touchdowns last year, with 13 interceptions, and played almost the entire season with a chipped bone in his ankle, an injury he kept mostly to himself. If Riley is more mobile, Longshore is a classic, drop-back passer, and one who isn’t interested in talking about his physical condition.
“Good enough,” he says when asked about it. “Are you ever completely healthy in football? If you’re out here every day, you’re not.”
Riley took over in the bowl game after Cal trailed, 21-0. He passed for 269 yards and three touchdowns, completing 16 of 19 passes. He also ran for a touchdown.
He’s a sophomore, but Riley is wise in the ways of quarterbacking, especially what’s going on in the Bay Area.
“When you win, the quarterback looks good,” he says. “When you lose, the quarterback looks bad. I think people always take that into consideration, just look at the Brett Favre situation. He’s unbelievable, my favorite, but at the same time he makes mistakes and loses games as well.”
Older and more experienced, Longshore figures fans’ playing the quarterback game is something of a national pastime.
“Everybody just needs some fillers until there’s games, you know?” he says. “With no games going on you just need something to talk about, now that the Brett Favre thing is over with. How about that?”
Everyone probably understands. Right now, it’s quarterback business as usual.