Sophomore running back Vic Enwere accelerates through a hole in the California Golden Bears’ defense Saturday afternoon, burning linebackers and eating up defensive backs before finally being dragged to the ground by the tails of his jersey.
Enwere immediately pops up and gets right in the face of junior cornerback and JUCO transfer Antoine Albert, the guy who grounded him. Some pushing and shoving ensues, and suddenly, only two days into fall camp, the Bears are breaking up more than just passes.
The two tussled again on another series but at the end of the day walked off the field slapping each other’s back and laughing their way to the locker room — the jawing turned into joking.
“At the beginning of the day and at the end of the day, we are always a team,” says Enwere. “We are out here, we know it’s competition and we know it gets chippy, but at the end you always shake the guy’s hand and it’s like family again. Everyone knows that in a family, you have some issues sometimes and you go at it and you compete, but at the end of the day it’s all love.”
Two years ago that kind of scrap would not have ended so nicely, one assistant coach confides. But this year Cal football is embracing a “bros before positional foes” mentality.
“I think that’s what you see,” says another assistant coach. “When one guy makes a play at a position, the next guy realizes he needs to make one, he wants to make one — it becomes contagious.”
This mind-set leads to the good kind of fighting, the right kind of pushing. And it breeds positivity from the players.
“I think that camaraderie we have, that brotherhood, the fact that we have been with each other for so long … that factor alone I think is going to push us to the next level,” says senior wide receiver Trevor Davis.
Cal returns 88 players, 53 of which were letter winners — 22 on offense and 30 on defense with one lone guy back from special teams. The returning guys have been through a lot the past two years, including bowl-less Decembers and for some a coaching change.
“When I first got here two years ago, everybody was young — we were a really young team,” says Davis. “Now we’ve all been through the worst together, and we are still working hard to try and be the best. Just knowing that we have been through hard times like our 1-11 season and people underestimating us and whatnot — we just work harder for the future.”
And these returners are no strangers to hard work. This year’s Cal team features players who accounted for more than 84 percent of its offense in 2014 in passing (99.7%), total offense (99.3%), rushing (98.4%), all-purpose yards (89.7%), total touchdowns (88.5%) and receiving (84.6%). This 2015 group is also ranked third nationally according to Phil Steele’s experience ratings as the Bears have 34 players who made a combined 228 starts last year.
But head coach Sonny Dykes also brought in some young players to round out the roster — guys who are keeping the upperclassmen on their toes.
“We got some new guys that have size and talent — Evan Rambo, Malik Psalms, got some transfers and (the aforementioned) Albert that are going to vie for spots early, and that can only mean good things for us older guys,” says junior safety Griffin Piatt. “That means we won’t be feeling safe or complacent; we are going to have to fight for our starting spots. I think that helps everybody out on the entire defense.”
But competition isn’t just lining players up next to one another and seeing how they stack up. For the coaches, depth at every position means the next man up should absolutely be the best man up.
“When you say depth you are saying competition, and that’s what it is,” says associate head coach and linebackers coach Garret Chachere. “Some guys for the last two years, because we had no one else, probably felt like they were going to play, but now you have to practice well and you have to work in the classroom to play and you have to practice well and have to work in the classroom to even get on the plane. We are only taking 70 to Texas (in week three), that’s what we told them. And we’ve got 105, so 35 aren’t going.”
Coaches across the country like to tout the benefits of positional competition, claiming it makes everyone better and doesn’t breed any bad blood. But how often is that actually the case? Big programs like Alabama and Ohio State have their position battles splashed across the ESPN homepage, and sometimes guys even transfer rather than lose out to a fellow teammate.
But in Berkeley, the brotherhood is very real. And veteran players realize that they need the younger guys to catch on quickly.
“As a team you realize that you are only as strong as your weakest link,” says Enwere. “Some of these freshman, just like our class, are going to have to play, and you want the second guy and third guy to be just as good as the first guy so there is no drop-off. I think that’s the key; that’s important. And us older guys know that because we were in that position at one point and we know what it means to have a guy like Daniel Lasco or a guy like Jared Goff really help you out.”
The freshmen are definitely feeling that love.
“The competition is there, but I think the big thing is that they are really helpful, the older guys,” says freshman wide receiver Kanawai Noa. “I know we are all trying to compete for the starting position, but they are actually really helpful. They correct and critique any bad routes that I have or any releases that might have went wrong, and they also encourage when we do well.”
The difference is clear to those who have watched the Bears mature over the course of Dykes’ reign.
“From the first year, we had a bunch of players, but now we have a team,” says Chachere. “And that’s kind of simple, but you get the feeling on the practice field and in the locker room and you hear them getting along and having a good time but they are also more serious about ball. They have all ‘bought in,’ but they also all decided that, ‘Hey, I came here to play and win big-time football games, and I’m sick of not doing that; it’s time for us to do it.’”
That is the root of what Dykes and Co. are building in Berkeley, a team that decided enough was enough and started pushing each other toward what the players hope will be greatness.
“They don’t want what we used to have,” says Chachere. “We have a new beginning because they have formed and made a new beginning. We can only do so much as coaches. When they own the team, when they are controlling the team, when they take ownership of the team ,then you are going to be good.”
Seven-win season good? A very realistic possibility. But the Bears face a tough Pac-12 schedule, which includes Utah, UCLA, Oregon and Stanford on the road.
Senior safety Stefan McClure isn’t worried though.
“The first goal is to get six wins, to be bowl-eligible,” says McClure. “The next goal is to win the North. The goal after that is to win the whole Pac-12.
“I think it’s kind of like a snowball effect — we are going to get it going and then just take off and have something special.”
Snow in Berzerkley? The city has definitely seen crazier things.
Sports writer. Avid fan, former player, once-upon-a-time coach, reluctant referee. I do digital media things with my friends. I also jinx kickers. Bay Area born & raised.