March 18, 1995. In a two-word press release, Michael Jordan famously unretired from basketball, announcing his imminent return to the Chicago Bulls.
For the past five months — ever since spring practice concluded — Cal football’s pads have been stowed away in the trenches of California Memorial Stadium, patiently hibernating, awaiting the right moment.
That moment came Friday morning, day seven of the team’s fall training camp, when full pads made their season debut under the sunniest of skies in recent days. While pads cannot talk, nor can they fax a press release to the media, it’s fun to imagine what they’d say if they could:
“In the trenches, we pretty much go full speed anyways, but it’s finally good to be officially going full speed, and it’s competitive out there,” said redshirt senior defensive end Luc Bequette.
The debut of full pads coincided with increased intensity throughout several drills that Cal coaches deployed during the 23-period session — maybe even a tad too much.
During the “New Down and Distance” drill, members of the offensive and defensive lines got into a mini-skirmish that dissolved quickly after the whistle blew. As the Bears mixed in several quarterbacks throughout the late morning, their defense continued to disrupt throwing lanes and plug holes for escape routes.
“I like the energy of the guys, particularly early,” said defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter. “We’ve got to sustain our focus in practice, though. We had some waning moments in there, but overall, I really like where (our first group) is at. They’re playing with a hard edge, and with the first day in full pads today, there was a different intensity.”
Periods nine and 10 consisted of “Team Two Huddle,” a drill designed to test the defense against a variety of offensive looks. With Chase Garbers leading one package and Devon Modster spearheading the other, DeRuyter praised the performance of several players — particularly on the defensive line — but also stressed a gradual learning curve as players acclimate to the faster pace of practice.
Day seven’s final periods consisted of live situations, also known as “Play The Game,” in which receivers Trevon Clark and Jeremiah Hawkins along with tailback Christopher Brown Jr. exploited a handful of defensive lapses.
“Two-huddle is a great tempo period for us, because there’s two offenses coming as fast as they can and as physically as they can at us,” DeRuyter said. “At the end of practice today, we had to play the game, and that’s football.”
Bequette, who has primarily played defensive end for the Bears, has taken the majority of his reps at nose guard this fall, as Siu Fuimaono and Aaron Maldonado remain absent for personal reasons.
Bequette’s experience in big games, none bigger than Cal’s come-from-behind win at USC last November, has been instrumental to first-year position coach Andrew Browning’s entry into the fold.
“The technique is a little different (at nose guard), but he’s got the right attitude about things as well,” DeRuyter said of Bequette. “He knows that we’re going to try and get our best 11 on the field, try to put the pieces where they fit, and he’s a great teammate. Wherever we need him, he’s going to play.”
Behind Bequette and the rest of the defensive line, Cal’s secondary continues to shine. With nickel-slot corner Traveon Beck limited throughout the past several days, redshirt sophomore Branden Smith stepped in and snagged two interceptions on the morning — the first in an up-tempo period known as “Fastball,” the second of the one-on-one drills.
“When he first got here, he was a little undersized, but when I think of Branden, I think of a competitor, and he gets out there and he wants to win a job,” DeRuyter said. “The longer he’s been here, the more confident he’s gotten, and as a nickel-slot guy, he’s done a tremendous job.”
Smith’s position coach, defensive backs maestro Gerald Alexander, has read plenty about where his group stands among the best in the nation.
While the dialogue validates the progress the defensive backs continue to make, Alexander is hesitant to accept success as a foregone conclusion.
“We have an opportunity to come out here and improve on a day-to-day and continue to build skill,” Alexander said. “Those articles and opinions won’t save us on Saturdays. We know that that stuff doesn’t matter, and (we) just focus on our improvement.”
Full pads figure to be a staple throughout the upcoming week at camp; exactly how much head coach Justin Wilcox will want to utilize them remains unclear. Regardless, it’s safe to say sacks and interceptions are on the defense’s agenda, challenging a Cal offense that has generated a few more explosive plays recently.