It was only the first scrimmage, but it looked like the same old story.
Cal’s defense dominated its offense the same way it dominated its opponents last year, by using the cornerbacks to shut down receivers one-on-one and using everyone else on the field to stop the run. Pre-season All-American defensive end Andre Carter made four tackles, including one for a loss and one sack, and senior cornerback Harold Pearson returned an interception for a touchdown.
The offense was sporadic at best, stagnant at worst. Sophomore quarterback and team focal point Kyle Boller completed just half of his passes, but looked much more comfortable in the offense than at any point last season.
His stats were dragged down by four drops by his receivers, including one by senior Phillip Pipersburg dropped that would have been a 70-yard touchdown pass on the day’s opening play.
“Kyle threw the ball on the money all afternoon,” Holmoe said. “We just had too many dropped balls, and that's something we need to work on.”
Junior back-up Eric Holtfreter completed 11 of 16 passes for 92 yards and the day's only touchdown pass, a 15-yarder to sophomore James Smith.
The day’s poor play by the wideouts is an ominous sign considering the lack of experience at the position.
Even with Boller’s expected improvement, someone has to catch the passes he throws. None of the tight ends have proven to be threats in the passing game, nor have any of the backs. So unless a couple of receivers can distinguish themselves as reliable before the opening game on Sept. 9, it could be another long season of watching the offense sputter for Bear fans.
“We're not where we want to be,” Boller said after the scrimmage.
“I think the defense just played a good game,” junior receiver Sean Currin said. “We're still pretty much putting the pieces together.”
Holmoe said receivers Geoff McArthur and Chase Lyman have shown the ability to catch and run with the ball and may earn playing time as true freshmen. In addition, junior Chad Heydorff should be able to return to practice within ten days after straining his hamstring, rather than missing 3-4 weeks initially throught.
The strength of the offense should be the running game, and head coach Tom Holmoe has said he plans to lean heavily on the running backs and offensive line to move the ball down the field. But like the passing game, it was hit-or-miss Wednesday for the backs. Sophomore Joseph Echema busted out for a 20-yard run, and gained 42 yards on 12 carries for the day, but fellow sophomore Joe Igber averaged just a yard per carry in the scrimmage. He started his day with a 13-yard run, but then lost 9 yards a swing pass that actually counted as a run.
The starting offensive line was patchwork, as senior center Reed Diehl was held out with a hand injury and sophomore right guard David Hays (who was himself a replacement for the injured Scott Tercero) hurt his knee on Tuesday and was also absent. Diehl is expected back for the opener against Utah, but Hays had arthroscopic surgery Thursday and could be out for the season.
“Everything was going great for me. I had the opportunity to be a four-year starter,” Hays said. “Most likely the surgery will push the recovery past the season.”
Holmoe was a little more optimistic about his player’s recovery.
“I've got to have a little attitude check with him,” Holmoe said. “He's a sophomore in college, not a medical student.”
Tercero, a sophomore, is working his way back from a knee injury and has lost more than 10 pounds at camp, but has yet to take part in contact drills and probably won’t be ready until at least the third game of the season. Senior Chris Click will probably move over from the reserve tackle to play at right guard until either Tercero or Hays are ready.
“We're obviously in kind of thin straits,” said offensive line coach Ed White.
The biggest and most pleasant surprise of Wednesday’s scrimmage was the play of the team’s three candidates for the place-kicking spot. Freshman walk-on Tyler Fredrickson and sophomores Mark Jensen and Jeremy Hershey, who shaved their heads in an apparent show of positional unity, combined to go 20 for 21 on field goal attempts, with only Jensen’s 52-yarder drifting wide right. After horrible performances last year from the kicking position, even an average year would be a huge lift for the team.
NOTES: Linebacker Matt Nixon had two tackles for losses in the scrimmage, and may have put himself farther up the in the crowded depth chart for the position. With the departure of last year’s starters Sekou Sanyika and Keith Miller, along with the injured Matt Beck, the linebacker spots are wide open.
“We'd like to see some separation,” Holmoe said this week. “We have about five players who are really solid on the inside, but it would be nice to see a few elevate their game and establish themselves as starters.”
Juco transfer Chris Ball figures to be the starter in the middle, but Nixon is making a bid at the position.
Junior Scott Fujita holds an edge over sophomore Calvin Hosey at weakside linebacker.
On the strongside, junior J.P. Segura is attempting to hold off challenges from sophomore walk-on John Klotsche and senior Jason Smith, who transferred from Vanderbilt in 1998.