(Finally) back at it: Cal football eases into fall training camp

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On Thursday, the NFL’s Hall of Fame Game between the Denver Broncos and Atlanta Falcons kicked off to minimal fanfare. Quarterbacks Joe Flacco and Matt Ryan didn’t see any action. Nor did stars Phillip Lindsay and Julio Jones.

As boring as preseason games may seem, however, they trigger three words that all of us can get behind: Football. Is. Back.

Hours after the NFL season unofficially began, the Cal football team raised the curtain on its 2019 campaign with day one of the team’s annual fall training camp. Like any first day, excitement is always up a notch — and this was most evident as the entire squad lined up in warmups to the tune of YG’s “Big Bank” and Lil Nas X’s wonder hit “Old Town Road.”

“Every year is a new and different challenge,” said head coach Justin Wilcox. “The team’s different, and the dynamics are different. But the goal is always the same. It’s good to get back out here, and there’s always great energy on the first day.”

The late-morning practice consisted of little more than individual position drills and a sample of offense-defense head-to-head work without any tackling involved. Still, Friday’s showing marked the first time this year’s Bears took the field together, eager to build upon a 7-6 season that was defined by defensive strides and offensive question marks.

After swapping places with now-running backs coach Nicholas Edwards, Burl Toler III found himself in charge of the young receivers room, sporting a healthy balance of returners, transfers and other inexperienced faces. Former quarterbacks coach Marques Tuiasosopo inherited the tight ends for the upcoming season, a position that is eager to make a bigger impact in offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin’s scheme.

Tailbacks, wideouts and tight ends all played a part in snagging passes during “ghost drills” and light scrimmaging. Redshirt sophomore tight end Collin Moore was a frequent target for incumbent quarterback Chase Garbers, while senior receiver Jordan Duncan hauled in several sideline catches thrown from the arm of transfer Devon Modster.

“These practices, especially when we’re not in pads, it’s about fundamentals and installation,” Wilcox emphasized. “(The receivers) are out here learning, and it’s our first time practicing with them as a group. They’ve done some things in the summer, but there’s nothing like getting everybody together and playing 11-on-11 or 7-on-7s.”

In addition to new targets, the offense continues to adapt to Michael Saffell’s transition from right guard to center. Despite a handful of shotgun misfires on Friday, Saffell has embraced his new role as the offensive line’s “choreographer.”

“At guard, you’re able to be more of the bowling ball who gets to hit guys, and you’re not as much of a coordinator out there as the center position is,” Saffell said. “It was good for me to experience that last year alongside a guy like (Addison Ooms), who was a great leader. It just shows how you can be a leader for these guys, what it takes to be a leader out on the field, especially at the center position.”

Several student-athletes — including defensive backs Camryn Bynum and Ashtyn Davis — wore sweatpants and sweatshirts throughout the duration of practice, simulating hot and uncomfortable conditions that the team anticipates it will experience in road environments this year (translation: Sept. 21 at Ole Miss). Gerald Alexander’s secondary group is as deep as any in the nation and continues to seek extra efforts to prepare for this year’s competition.

“It was nice (to be back out there), finally playing football again,” Davis said. “It was nice to have some sort of mental side to it, and not just working out specifically.”

Game preparation for Cal’s season opener against UC Davis on Aug. 31 remains at least a couple of weeks away. Until then, balancing fundamental technique work with the installation of new schemes remains the focus for Wilcox and his coaching staff, the majority of whom are entering their third season together.

“We’ve spent a good portion of the offseason preparing for this,” Wilcox said. “There’s nothing quite like playing the game and practicing, so we need to get into that shape as well. We have a long-term plan for that, but when we’re out here, we expect them to go.”

Josh Yuen covers football. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @joshcal2020.