Cal aims to answer questions in opener

Michael Restrepo/File
Mychal Kendricks (30) was the second Cal player off the board on Friday, taken by the Philadelphia Eagles with the 46th overall pick. The linebacker was the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year in 2011.

Once upon a time, Jeff Tedford was the starting quarterback at Fresno State. A little while later, he became the quarterbacks coach there, and was promoted to offensive coordinator before moving on to Oregon. All in all, eight of his 49 years were spent in the Central Valley.

This Saturday at Candlestick Park, Tedford will open his tenth season as the Cal football head coach against — who else? — Fresno State. He claims it won’t make the 4 p.m. kickoff any more important.

“Every opener is big,” he said. “There hasn’t been one yet that hasn’t been big.”

There’s little reason to doubt him; he has a squad that went 5-7 a year ago, and an offense that desperately needed fixing. And as much as he insists that the team can’t and hasn’t worried itself over how last season turned out, fans are waiting to see how the Bears bounce back from Tedford’s first-ever losing season.

One of the biggest question marks is quarterback, which shuttled from mediocrity to inadequacy in 2010 when Kevin Riley’s season-ending injury gave way to now-senior Brock Mansion. With the latter dropped to third on the depth chart, junior transfer Zach Maynard is now in the limelight — where fans will see him take a competitive snap for the first time in 21 months.

Maynard, who transferred from Buffalo after the departure of coach Turner Gill, is more mobile than any one else Tedford has had under center, and could add a new dimension to what was a stagnant offense.

“He’s elusive enough not to take big hits,” Tedford said of Maynard, who measures at a relatively slight 6-foot-2, 190 pounds. “He can make people miss and he’s smart about getting down. When he feels people coming in, he’s gonna get down. He’s not gonna run over anybody, that’s for sure.”

Although he won the starting job at the end of spring camp — early considering how open Tedford has kept competition in recent years — it’s hard to know exactly how he’ll perform during a game. The North Carolina native completed 57 percent of his passes in his last season as a Bison, balancing 18 touchdowns with 15 interceptions; how much he’s improved over the last two years remains to be seen.

Fresno State — which is already receiving a $900,000 bonus after selling well over 10,000 tickets — has a greenhorn of its own directing the offense. Sophomore Derek Carr, younger brother of former No. 1 draft pick David Carr, has been handed the reins after the departure of two-year starter Ryan Colburn. With him is the Bulldogs’ 1,000-yard rusher Robbie Rouse, a scat back similar to Cal’s Isi Sofele.

“You’re gonna get speed and athleticism with (Fresno State) always,” Tedford said. “They have excellent speed outside. They have a good running back corps.”

The group will have to contend with a defense that should be good enough to keep the Bears in most games, giving Maynard some breathing room on the other side.

Defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast will have a mix of young and old to work with in his second season at Berkeley. Senior linebacker Mychal Kendricks, who grew up following the Bulldogs in Fresno, returns as one of the leaders in the front seven, while safety Sean Cattouse anchors the defensive backfield.

“They’re ready to play,” Tedford said. “They’re ready to suit up against somebody else and get the game started. They’ve been practicing for a long time.”

Find out more about the Cal-Fresno State matchup on the football blog.