Who needs spring practice anyway? California fans might find out this season.
Coming off an 8-6 year in which Cal beat Virginia Tech 52-49 in the Insight Bowl, the Bears have climbed into the preseason Top 25 under third-year coach Jeff Tedford.
Tedford, one of college football's hottest commodities, welcomes back 15 returning starters. However, many of them could only watch spring practice due to injury. Included in that bunch was quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who had surgery on his left knee, and wide receiver Geoff McArthur, recovering from a broken right forearm.
Rodgers is expected to challenge for All-America honors this season, while McArthur finished second in the nation in receiving yardage (1,504) behind Pittsburgh's Larry Fitzgerald.
Besides those two, four key offensive linemen sat out spring ball, along with tight end Garrett Cross, the expected starter who is recovering from a broken leg. On defense, All-Pac-10 rover Donnie McCleskey missed spring after undergoing minor knee surgery.
Tedford expects everyone to be healthy for the start of the season. "Our main objective in spring practice is to evaluate our younger players anyway," Tedford said.
If the key players return healthy, Cal could be a major player in the Pac-10. "I didn't know if this would happen during my time here," said McArthur, who caught 85 passes last season. "It's exciting. But we can't get complacent."
OffenseTedford has pushed several quarterbacks -- Trent Dilfer, Akili Smith, Joey Harrington, David Carr and Kyle Boller -- on a fast track to the first round of the NFL Draft. If Rodgers, who threw for 2,903 yards and 19 touchdowns in 2003, follows that path, the Bears should be hard to stop.
Rodgers threw just five interceptions last season even though he had just one preseason camp to learn the offense. This year, he will have a wealth of receivers, including McArthur, who caught 85 passes for 1,504 yards. "If Aaron continues to improve, he has the potential to be one of the best in the Pac-10," Tedford said.
But before Cal develops into a Rose Bowl contender, it must answer a couple of key questions. Will the Bears sort through their health issues on the offensive line? Four of their expected starters on the line missed spring ball due to shoulder surgery, including 6'7", 340-pounder Ryan O'Callaghan.
The other question concerns tailback. Tedford said he is confident that senior J.J. Arrington, who rushed for 607 yards as a backup, can handle the job. "J.J. has taken it to another level," Tedford said.
DefenseDefensive coordinator Bob Gregory has one star in McCleskey (102 tackles in 2003) and a potential one in defensive tackle Lorenzo Alexander, who has earned honorable mention All-Pac 10 honors the past two seasons.
However, without a surplus of star power, Gregory has to fill gaps by rotating players who are steady if not spectacular. That led to a bend-but-don't-break defense that allowed 384.9 yards per game in 2003. With eight defensive starters returning, that number should drop.
Gregory's toughest job might be finding a marquee pass rusher who can draw double teams. Cal had 38 sacks last season, but only 19.5 of those came from the defensive line. The Bears are hoping that ends Ryan Riddle and Ray Tago, junior college transfers who joined the team in 2003, will show marked improvement. Riddle had 6.5 sacks last season and Tago, who joined the team late and then battled injuries, had just one.
The strength of the unit should be the secondary, with McCleskey and senior free safety Ryan Gutierrez (93 tackles) leading the way.
"We have a combination of experience and quality young players," Tedford said. "And I'm anxious to see if Tago and Riddle can increase their production."
SpecialistsThe biggest unknown for the Bears is junior college transfer David Lonie, an Australian barefoot water skiier who was signed to handle the punting and placekicking. "David has lived up to all the advanced billing," Tedford said. "We just need to see what he does under the lights."
Final AnalysisWith a host of returning starters who know how to win, depth at tailback and wide receiver and an emerging star at quarterback, the Bears should put up huge offensive numbers. How much the defense improves should determine whether Cal can find its way to a major bowl.
The non-conference schedule is favorable. The Bears' toughest non-conference game is Sept. 25 at Southern Miss, a team Cal beat 34-2 in 2003.
If the Bears can remain relatively healthy, this season should end with another positive step and most likely a berth in either the Holiday or Sun Bowl.