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March 6, 2010
An impending quarterback competition will draw most of the attention during California's spring practice, but there definitely are other areas to address.
Of course, disappointing seasons typically bring heat on quarterbacks. After last season's so-so showing, the temperature definitely is rising around incumbent starter Kevin Riley -- who will have to stave off some challenges to retain his starting status.
But no matter who emerges as the front-runner at quarterback, the Bears will have to make significant progress in pass protection this spring.
The defense isn't without issues, either. A porous secondary must be rebuilt. New coordinator Clancy Pendergast, formerly of the NFL's Arizona Cardinals, faces a big job.
POSITIONS OF STRENGTH
Although the Bears' streak of seven straight seasons with a 1,000-yard rusher came to an abrupt end, running back remains Cal's greatest asset. Shane Vereen failed to reach four digits only because he backed up Jahvid Best. In four starts after Best's season-ending injury, Vereen rushed for 566 yards and six scores. As a starter, he could be as good as any in the Pac-10. The Bears are sound at linebacker with three starters returning. Mike Mohamed, who led the Pac-10 with 112 tackles, heads that group.
HELP IS NEEDED
Just about anything associated with passing was a problem for the Bears. Riley was woefully inconsistent last season. His 18 touchdown passes were a respectable total, but 10 came in three games. He threw one touchdown pass or less in nine of the Bears' 13 games. But he often didn't have time to throw deep. The Bears' offensive line allowed 31 sacks; Washington State was the only Pac-10 team to allow more. Riley's numbers could have been better if he could have thrown against his own defense. The Bears' pass defense ranked 111th in the nation and gave up 20 touchdowns. The secondary returns just one starter, but perhaps that's a good thing.
THREE GUYS TO WATCH
G Brian Schwenke: Cal lost starting T Mike Tepper, and the Bears' offensive line overall was less than impressive last season. There could be some changes despite four returning starters. Schwenke was one of only three true freshmen to play for the Golden Bears in '09. If he has a solid spring, he could start this fall.
RB Isi Sofele: Few teams use two running backs as successfully as Cal. In six of the past seven seasons, the Bears' second-leading rusher has gained more than 600 yards. There's no shortage of prospects to back up Vereen, and the competition for that job should be intense this spring. Sofele, who moves to running back from receiver, is especially intriguing. Though just 5 feet 7 and 170 pounds, he has great speed and big-play ability. Guys like that need the ball.
QB Beau Sweeney: There's a lot of uncertainty surrounding Cal's quarterbacks. Last fall, Sweeney rose to second string on the depth chart. He'll have a shot to move up to first string if he has a strong showing in the spring and Riley struggles. But Sweeney could drop back to third string, too.
THE PRESSURE IS ON
QB Kevin Riley: Patience may be running thin with Riley. Last season, he passed for more than 2,800 yards but completed just 46.2 percent of his passes with four interceptions and just three touchdowns in the Bears' five losses. Calls are growing louder in Berkeley to give someone else a chance. Sweeney, whose grandfather, Jim, coached Tedford at Fresno State, is popular among the Cal faithful. However, backup quarterbacks always seem to be fan favorites. Brock Mansion and Allen Bridgford, both of whom arrived at Cal as highly regarded prospects, could raise their profiles with strong performances this spring.
Almost all the talk in Berkeley this spring will be about Riley and whether he can solidify his status as the starting quarterback. But unless Cal makes major progress in pass blocking, the quarterback issues likely will persist. The Bears' defense hasn't been good enough to compensate for the offensive problems. At least some optimism can be gleaned from Pendergast's addition as defensive coordinator.
Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.