If the Cal football team is going to have any success this season, the Bears will have to lean on the strong right arm of quarterback Kyle Boller. But to do that, they’ll have to keep him upright.
The Bears gave up 32 sacks to opponents last season as Boller was battered mercilessly. He missed two games in the middle of the season with a back injury, then came back and suffered seven sacks in each of the next two games. By the end of the season, Boller was wearing ice packs all over his body following games.
Boller put on 25 pounds of muscle this summer, bulking up for his final season in Berkeley. But even all that extra padding won’t help if his linemen don’t keep the pass-rushers out of his face more often this season.
Heading the effort to keep Boller healthy is offensive line coach Jim Michalczik. One of the first hires made by new head coach Jeff Tedford, Michalczik has a lot of candidates for starting spots and less than a month to sort them out.
“We’ve got some serious battles to sort out over the next few weeks,” Michalczik said Friday. “Whoever can get the job done best is who will be out there.”
The left side of the line is pretty well set, with tackle Mark Wilson and guard Scott Tercero moving over from the right side, where they started next to each other for most of the past two seasons. Tercero is a senior who has started since his freshman year, although knee injuries have nagged him for the last two years. Wilson, a junior, has started every game for the last two seasons but must fill the extra-large shoes of departed tackle Langston Walker, a second-round NFL draft pick.
Tercero said while the switch to the other side of the ball has taken work, the familiarity with playing next to Wilson has speeded the process.
“I’m real comfortable with Mark after working with him for two years,” Tercero said. “I usually know what he’s thinking and how he’s going to react to certain situations.”
“There are battles going on at every position, and there aren’t any positions that are absolutely locked up,” Michalczik said. “But those two guys on the left side are going to be real hard to displace.”
The picture is far less clear in the other three spots. Ryan Jones, Jon Geisel and Chris Murphy enter fall practice with the lead on starting spots at center, right guard and right tackle, respectively, but each has someone behind them pushing for playing time. The evaluation period will likely last until the final week before the Aug. 31 opener against Baylor, and Michalczik will work his players as hard as he can to find out who’s the best.
While Michalczik concentrates on teaching blocking fundamentals, Tedford will design blocking schemes to maximize Boller’s protection. As offensive coordinator at Oregon last season, Tedford oversaw an offense that gave up a Pac-10 low 11 sacks all season. He said he will move the pocket around, rolling Boller out in both directions, as well as varying the depth of Boller’s drop on passing plays.
The players know they can count on a fair shake from Michalczik, who said he came in to the job with “no expectations. I wanted to be sure not to be biased when I came in.” For a player like Murphy, who came to Cal three years ago as a walk-on, a new coaching staff means a new start.
“(Michalczik) definitely came in here with a clean slate. He treats everyone the same and doesn’t play favorites,” said Murphy, who has been a backup the past two seasons. “It’s a long road when you come in as a walk-on, like no one wants to give you a chance. But he doesn’t care about that stuff.”
One thing none of the candidates are lacking is desire. Almost to a man, they have put on weight this summer thanks to new workouts designed by strength and conditioning coach John Krasinski. Tercero gained 15 pounds and now weighs 295, and similar results can be seen throughout the squad.
“I wish I had taken pictures of the players when I got here, because it’s amazing how much their bodies have changed,” Michalczik said. “They’re not as flabby and they’re all bigger. It can only help to have that extra muscle.”