BERKELEY -- To borrow a team joke, the theme of Monday's shells-only practice for the California football team was, 'Go go Gadget linebacker!'
The young man that the Bears affectionately call 'Gadget' -- freshman outside linebacker Chris McCain -- was in the backfield almost as much as the quarterbacks, as he pulled into the lead for the starting weak side linebacker spot, ahead of sophomore Dan Camporeale.
"It's been a couple months since spring ball and I really thought from the first play, that I didn't even really do that well," said McCain, who's gained about 20 pounds since arriving in Berkeley. "I saw plays that I could have done a lot better, but I feel, from spring ball, I feel like a new man. I feel like spring ball was just a process, where I came in and was still learning the playbook. Now that I've got the playbook down, I know my assignments better. I know what to do now.
"I still need to put on a little more weight, but I feel a lot stronger and a lot faster. I feel like I'm doing what the coaches ask me to do, whatever they want me to do, I feel I'm getting the job done. I just have to continue to eat right, continue to study the playbook and get bigger, stronger and faster."
One thing McCain doesn't need to work on improving is his range. The 6-foot-6 defender's arms are so long that head coach Jeff Tedford likened him to extend-o-armed Inspector Gadget.
"I think he's doing OK. He's so wiry. There's been players who've been built big like that that are wiry, but just good football players. He's got leverage. He's got long limbs," Tedford said. "I call him 'Gadget.' His arms, you try to throw it in the flat or do something, he'll be right there, you think you have him, and then zoom, there goes that arm and bam, he knocks it down. He's got really long arms and he really knows how to use his hands to keep leverage."
Early during the first set of team periods, McCain blew by second-string left tackle Bill Tyndall -- working with the first unit in place of Mitchell Schwartz, still sidelined with a balky hamstring -- to sack second-string sophomore quarterback Allan Bridgford.
One play later, fellow North Carolinian Gabe King dropped starting tailback Isi Sofele for a loss, and that was just the beginning of the defensive dominance.
"Real fast. It was great," Tedford said of the tempo. "We put some pads on them, a lot of people making plays on both sides of the ball. It was an excellent practice."
"They're doing good, but one of the things is that they're playing with the fours. Sometimes those offensive guys don't know who they're blocking, so it's a little bit more sophisticated offensively and defensively, we're just putting things in," Tedford said of his young defenders. "But, they're playing hard. They're running and they're doing a good job. I'm really pleased with the effort and the energy. We had a long practice today, and sustained it all the way through. I thought their energy was great."
Tedford has been impressed with Scarlett and Moala, to say the least, but he reserved a bit of enthusiasm for when he gets to see how they perform in full pads.
"We'll see. What they've shown so far, they look like what's advertised," Tedford said. "Scarlett reminds me of Cameron Jordan, the way he can run, his arms, he can get off the ball, he can run."
McCain stepped up to stop physical running back C.J. Anderson, Scarlett stuffed newcomer Darren Ervin, and the trio of Jalil, Viliami Moala and Puka Lopa plowed the way for a sack on fellow 2011 classmate Kyle Boehm at the hands of freshman linebacker Nathan Broussard. That was followed up by walk-on transfer tailback Mike Manuel getting blasted for a loss by Jalil and Lopa, and a sack on Boehm by Moala on the next two plays. Clearly, the defense was in rare form.
"Moala, I don't think we've ever seen anyone here like Moala," Tedford said. "[Brandon] Mebane, we've had some good guys here, but Moala, just, he holds point so well. Now, when we actually get in pads and get after the legs, Wednesday, we'll play real football."
During the second set of team drills, defensive back Kameron Jackson came up with a 42-yard interception return for a touchdown on a pass from Boehm. Both Jackson and McClure flashed at times on the day, but did show their youth upon occasion. Freshman safety Avery Walls displayed no fear in sniffing out a couple of plays in the backfield and applying pressure, and stuck his nose right into the fray with some of the bigger wide receivers and tight ends during one-on-one drills.
"Stefan looks to be a special guy right now," Tedford said. "He's done a great job in coverage and he's very competitive. He's really stood out. Avery's doing a real nice job, a real nice job. Those two will play. I would say, right now, those two will play."
To put a nice big bow on the day, McCain sniffed out a double reverse to childhood friend Keenan Allen in the final team period.
"It's all about being patient," McCain said. "Coach [Kenwick] Thompson tells us if our outside man blocks down, just be patient, make sure nothing crosses your face, and if anything crosses your face, that's your man. I just had to make sure I was patient and didn't over-run the play, because I know that's what they like to do, they do a little tricky here and there, but I felt good. Stopping Keenan is really not that easy. You saw the juke move he put on the DB, so stopping Keenan is not easy at all. For me, getting Keenan, it feels like being back at practice [in high school]. I've stopped Keenan maybe one or two times in practice, but other than that, there's no chance. Back in high school, no chance. No chance at all."
The defensive dominance underscored the absence of speedy wide out Kaelin Clay, who underwent knee surgery on Monday to clean up some meniscus damage in his knee, incurred on the first day of fall camp.
"Kaelin Clay had surgery today. He had a minor meniscus that they trimmed up, and so we're thinking that's good news, actually. As far as we know right now, it's shorter than longer. It could be a three-week thing. He could possibly be back for the first game," Tedford said. "It wasn't a repair. It was just, I guess, I'm not a doctor, but I guess what they say is, if you need to stitch it up, that's a repair. If you just need to trim it, it's just going in and fixing it. Like a haircut. You trim a little bit off the edges, a little bit off the top."
The primary beneficiaries of Clay's absence were Coleman Edmond and a pair of walk-ons in Bryce McGovern and Jackson Bouza. Edmond continued to make a strong case for playing time, even when Clay returns, snatching several clutch grabs while going up against the top defensive unit and in one-on-ones, came up with a nice turn-around catch to beat defensive back D.J. Campbell. Edmond also showed off some good judgment and speed in kickoff return drills, though there were no defenders in place during the period.
Towards the middle of practice, Edmond hauled in a five-yard completion from Mansion and fought off hard-nosed Adrian Lee to retain possession. The senior did, however, fall victim to true freshman corner Stefan McClure, who showed great anticipation and instincts in hitting Edmond right as a pass from Bridgford arrived to force the incompletion.
In the backfield, Tedford acknowledged the absence in camp of tailback Trajuan Briggs. Briggs, who battled lingering injuries last season, still has yet to regain his pre-surgery form after breaking his leg during his senior year of high school, and likely is the first victim of the logjam at the tailback position.
"Not in camp. Wasn't one of the 105," Tedford said. "We have seven tailbacks in camp, and we've got to look at the young guys."
Behind Sofele, No. 2 back Covaughn DeBoskie-Johnson, who dropped about 10 pounds since spring ball, seemed back to his old self, ripped off several big runs against the top defensive unit. During one particular rumble late in practice, DeBoskie-Johnson, hit the hole hard, spun off a defender and gained about eight yards after contact.
The one back at the forefront of most observers' minds, though, was true freshman Brendan Bigelow. During kickoff return drills alongside Manuel, Ervin, freshman tailback Daniel Lasco and freshman defensive backs McClure and Joel Willis, Bigelow ran very smoothly and effortlessly, bobbing, weaving, making cuts and changing direction. Bigelow even saw a handful of snaps with the first unit, though did make several mistakes, capped off by a goal-line fumble that ended practice.
"Mainly, just the, everything that we have in right now already in three days, you don't want to overwhelm them," Tedford said of the young tailbacks. "We put [Bigelow] in every now and then, but we're really trying to put him through a lot of drill work to make sure he's physically ready to go, and he's doing a nice job there. Right now, we haven't been able to, it seems like when he's been in, the ball's been on the ground and he's kind of gone the wrong way a time or two. Right now, we still need to bring him along. When we get pads on, we need to orchestrate some things in order to get him the ball and let him see what he's going to do."
During the opening period, Tedford audibly praised the pass-catching abilities of Ervin and DeBoskie-Johnson, and immediately afterward, Sofele made an eye-popping one-handed leaping grab. Team periods saw all of the tailbacks split wide at one point or another. Bigelow saw one pass thrown his way from starting quarterback Zach Maynard, but the freshman slipped off the line and saw the pass sail out in front of him and out of bounds.
Maynard had an uneven day, at times showing off his unique escape dimension and solid decision-making, and at others taking off to run a bit too soon and throwing a several errant passes.
After Maynard struggled early with handoffs -- Boehm proved to be the most adept at the drill, given his experience as an option-type quarterback -- the junior transfer from Buffalo ripped off a nifty five-yard keeper up the middle and deftly drew the defense in with several fake handoffs. Though Maynard delivered several zingers over the middle to tight ends Anthony Miller and Spencer Hagan, during late-practice red zone drills, he found himself the victim of sophomore cornerback Steve Williams, who sniffed out a pass to Miller in the end zone and broke up a would-be 20-yard touchdown, with McCain applying pressure in the backfield. Two plays later, Williams nearly picked off Maynard on a low wobbler.
Showing some veteran poise, Maynard got defensive tackle Aaron Tipoti to bite on a hard count, drawing an offsides call.
On the next series, it was Hinder's turn to show off the wheels, as he gained five yards on a broken play, weaving past several defenders.
While Maynard's delivery was a bit slow, he did uncork several long bombs, though it was Mansion who completed some of the most impressive passes of the day downfield, hitting both Allen and senior Marvin Jones for a pair of 40-yard strikes.
"We're getting better every day. I thought there were some really special things that were going on today," Tedford said of his quarterbacks. "I thought the more Zach practices, the more he knows what he's doing, he's got more zip on his ball and his timing is just getting better and better every day. He's really doing a nice job. Really doing a great job. Really, you take those three -- him and Bridge and Brock -- those guys are getting better every single day. They're doing some good things, so I've been pleased. We're not perfect, by any means, but we're learning and I'm pleased with the progress of the quarterbacks."
Allen was typically stellar on Monday during all phases of practice. After dropping two passes on one-on-one curl routes early on, Allen dialed in, burning his defender on an inside turn to gain a good chunk of yards after the catch during the first set of team drills, then pulling away from his defender to haul in the 40-yard strike from Mansion. During the second-to-last set of team work, Allen hauled in a pass underneath, planted and spun away from safety C.J. Moncrease -- playing in place of banged up starter Sean Cattouse, laid up with a tight hamstring -- leaving the senior defensive back in the dust for a big gain.
Jones also showed off some extra speed, regularly gaining separation on his routes and showing a new, nasty physical side as he was able to wrest several contested catches away from defenders.
Of particular note on the receiving side were McGovern and Bouza.
"He made a couple catches," Tedford said wryly of Bouza, eventually breaking into a smile. "He's been doing a good job.
Bouza continued his strong camp after a stellar spring, not dropping a single pass during team drills. He hauled in a solid 10-yard-plus gain on a short pass from Mansion during early team work, followed that up with a 15-yard reception from Bridgford, then got the better of physical safety Walls during one-on-one work. Bouza out-battled McClure on a well-placed throw by redshirt freshman signal-caller Austin Hinder and made a sliding sideline catch during the middle portion of practice. Right before the team shifted to kickoff returns, McGovern left Jackson out to dry, coming up with an easy catch over the middle in one-on-ones.
McGovern proved to be a fearless receiver and a go-to option for all five quarterbacks in just about every situation.
"Bryce McGovern is doing a nice job," Tedford said. "He will probably get some more reps now. He's doing a nice job, picking it up real well. He's really earning everybody's respect right now."
Tedford said that McGovern will "absolutely" be considered for playing time during his true freshman season.
Also making noise was converted wide receiver Hagan, who has emerged as the No. 2 tight end behind Miller with Spencer Ladner still on the shelf.
Along with freshman tight end Richard Rodgers -- who showed off nice strides, soft hands and just sheer size -- Hagan was the most prolific tight end target on the day, and got some time with the first unit.
Senior wide receiver Michael Calvin had a good day, going up for several hotly-contested balls and showing much-improved hands.
While Hinder showed some indecision upon occasion, he still has the quickest release among the quarterbacks. His decision-making has advanced since spring, and he looked to be far more comfortable in the pocket, with his pump fakes coming in second only to Maynard at times. He shows a keen knack for improvisation.
At times, Hinder outshined some of the other passers, but Tedford said that his youth and inexperience would make it tough for him to jump into the top three, even with a strong camp.
"I think anything's possible, but right now, those guys, those two have much more experience. Their experience is outweighing things right now with the other two young guys [Hinder and Boehm]," Tedford said. "It would probably only happen [in camp]. We still have to see how camp goes. It's still early in camp. Right now, those top three are pretty set. It would probably take someone getting injured for him to move up into the top three, just because of experience and running the offense. Those guys have been around longer and they're more experienced. He's going to be a fine player one day, but it's moving a little fast for him right now. Again, every day, soon we just won't be able to get five quarterbacks reps. Soon, it's going to be, Zach's going to get more of them, and then Bridge and Brock are going to get the next portion and the other guys won't get any really."
-- Ladner did some light jogging, clad in workout shorts and a team shirt. He's moving closer and closer to returning.
-- Bridgford has shortened his delivery some, but still had several passes batted down because of his windup, including a would-be red zone touchdown to Allen. He took the bulk of second team snaps and seems to be the firm No. 2 as of now.
-- Wide receiver Kaulin Krebs was sidelined with a hamstring issue.
-- Anderson toughed out the third day with a shoulder injury, and showed no hesitation going headlong into the fray to mix it up with some of the more physical defensive linemen.
"He's doing real well, real well. Good size, skilled, has good hands," Tedford said. "Things are moving a little fast right now, but he's competing hard. He hit his shoulder yesterday a little bit, and still bounced up and came back. He's got a little AC sprain right now in his shoulder, but he went down to the ground to get a ball, made a great effort and kind of jammed his shoulder into the ground, but it was great effort to catch it."