Out-of-town Q&A: California

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Want one way to know it’s officially time for the season start, at least in the world of the blog?

Simple: The return of the out-of-town Q&A.

Jonathan Okanes, the California beat writer at the Oakland Tribune, generously agreed to take the time to answer five questions about the No. 12 Golden Bears just a few days before Maryland opens the season in Berkeley.

You can check out his blog here (where I’ve gone ahead and answered five Maryland-related questions). You can also check out a swath of his stories during camp here on the paper’s main colleges page.

OK, on to the question…

1. Might as well start with the biggest name on the team. Does anyone expect tailback Jahvid Best’s camp injuries to be any sort of factor once the season starts?

JO: As of right now, Best says he’s not 100 percent, but close. Best doesn’t have the best track record with injuries, so I think the extent to which it will be a factor is somewhat of an unknown at this point. He’s been practicing without limitation for several days, and Jeff Tedford said he is healthy enough to return kicks as well. But the one thing Best hasn’t done is take a lot of hits in practice. Even if he plays a full game Saturday, I will be very interested to see how he comes out of it the next day.

2. Maryland got a good look at quarterback Kevin Riley a year ago, frustrating him for three quarters before getting blitzed in the final 15 minutes. How much better is he than at this time last year?

JO: The one thing Riley seems to have really improved on is his grasp of the offense and ability to read defenses. When Cal played Maryland last year, he was making just his fourth career start. Having almost a full year under his belt now seems to be paying off in terms of his comfort level this year. Also, Riley’s confidence is much higher now that Nate Longshore is out of the program and he is the undisputed No. 1 quarterback. He has really embraced this as his team and the players are rallying around him. That confidence and comfort level should help him in terms of on-field production as well.

3. For three straight years (2005-07), California wound up ranked lower at the end of the season than where it was in the preseason, and last season’s early promise fizzled a bit with the loss to Maryland. What’s different about this bunch that could keep it around the top 10 all year?

JO: Although that’s true, I’d say the only real season in which there was a big void of expectations was in 2007, when Cal was ranked No. 12 in the preseason and ended the year 7-6 and received just eight votes in the final AP Top 25. That was the season the Bears started 5-0 and ranked No. 2 in the country, only to totally collapse in the second half of the season. In 2005, they were ranked 19th in the preseason and finished 25th. In 2006, they were ranked 9th in the preseason and finished 14th, with a 10-3 record. That being said, there’s no question the expectations are as high as they were before the 2007 season, and obviously they didn’t handle those well at all.

They seem to have better team chemistry this year, with less “me-first” type of players. Also, the players who were around in 2007 have that experience to help them deal with things better this season. One other note about last season, I never got the feeling there were really great expectations, because they were coming off that collapse the year before. They actually began the season ranked 28th and finished 26th.

4. It seems like all of the Best highlights tend to overshadow a sound defense. Which two or three guys on that side of the ball are most likely to create headaches for Maryland?

JO: I actually think this is a defensive-oriented team, and their defense is one of the most underrated around. They were a top 25 defense last year, at least statistically, and they have eight returners back, not counting linebacker Mike Mohamed, who didn’t start last year but actually played more than any of the starters. The defense should be even better this year. They have their entire defensive line back, and that includes two NFL-caliber players. And they also have their entire starting secondary back, and that includes All-American cornerback Syd’Quan Thompson.

Perhaps most important, it’s their second year playing in the 3-4 scheme, and they seem more comfortable with it and able to do more with it this time around. As far as players, I’d say look out for defensive ends Cameron Jordan and Tyson Alualu, linebacker Mychal Kendricks and Thompson.

5. Like Maryland, the Golden Bears are youthful on the offensive line. Unlike Maryland, most of those guys were highly touted recruits. Nevertheless, is there some concern about that unit entering the season?

JO: I’d say there’s some. Indeed, their new linemen were highly recruited, but recruiting rankings are an unscientific art and you just never know. Both of their starting guards — Matt Summers-Gavin and Justin Cheadle — are new. Chris Guarnero will be making his first career start at center although he started three games at left guard last season before getting injured. I think there is some concern in this first game especially, given Don Brown’s history as an attacking, blitzing coach.

Thanks so much again to Jonathan Okanes from taking time out of a busy week out in Berkeley to help break down the Bears.

Patrick Stevens

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