Postcard from camp: Cal
BERKELEY, Calif. -- I've been promised some alone time with DeSean Jackson, but I feel like I'm being filmed for a movie. There's a cameraman standing right behind us while we chat on the field and another man looming in the background listening in on the conversation before taking controls of the camera from another angle.
"They've been filming me forever," says Jackson, pointing at his brother Byron and family friend Travis Clark. "I've had the camera on me for as long as I can remember."
This isn't just brotherly love at play. Byron, who was a receiver at San Jose State and played two seasons for the Kansas City Chiefs, is a professional film editor and works at a post production company in Los Angeles.
"I played football and it went so fast," says Byron, who has been filming DeSean since he was four years old and catching Nerf balls in the backyard. "The next thing you know it was over and I had no images of my experiences. So I just started documenting his at an early age."
Byron, 39, estimates that he has more than 600 hours of footage from DeSean's career, from his first catch in his parents' backyard 17 years ago to his one-handed touchdown grab during practice 17 minutes ago.
"Hopefully we can make this is into a documentary," says Byron, who majored in radio, television and film at San Jose State. "We're in the process of logging and cataloguing everything now. I'm hoping we can get with the right partners and distributors who will let us finish this and show everybody someday."
When that day comes, Byron says people will see the birth and maturation of one of college football's most exciting receivers. "I have him when he was in the eighth grade stepping onto a football practice field for the first time at USC and making the best catch he's made in his life so far," says Byron. "He was going up the field and [Travis Clark] threw DeSean a hard pass and he stopped reversed his body and caught it with one hand. It was the sickest catch I have ever seen."
Clark, 39, who played at Utah State, has been helping Byron film and mentor DeSean since 1995. As he puts his camera down on the field for a moment -- one of the few times Jackson isn't being filmed -- he recalls the first time he played catch with him.
"He would tell me to throw it long and I would try to out-throw him, but he would always catch it, and this is when he was seven," says Clark. "Then I tried drilling the ball at him from 10 yards out and he would just catch it. You couldn't hear anything. It was like a vacuum."
The camera that has constantly been following Jackson since he could catch a football has prepared him for the onslaught of attention that he is about to receive on and off the field. As the most lethal receiver and punt returner in college football, Jackson has already received early Heisman Trophy hype with a school commissioned Web site and pamphlet declaring Jackson, who wears No. 1, as "The 1 To Watch."
"I am the one to watch," says Jackson with a smile when he sees the pamphlet. "I've been ready for this moment my whole life. The camera's always been on me. The spotlight's always been on me. I'm used to it by now. I'm ready."
At this point all Jackson is waiting for is his close-up.
1. Nate Longshore and Jeff Tedford are speaking a different language, and that's a good thing. OK, so maybe they haven't picked up a new dialect, but Tedford is about as comfortable with Longshore as any quarterback he's ever coached at Cal; enough to actually let him draw up his own plays from time to time.
"He's like another coach on the field," said Tedford. "This is the first time we've had a [quarterback] come back who's started the previous season. We're starting to speak a different language. You're able to just look at him and he says, 'Yeah, I saw that.' He's to the point now where's he's drawing plays before the meetings. He's got a lot of good ideas."
The difference between Longshore at this year's camp and last year's, where he was competing with Joe Ayoob for the starting job, is as noticeable as both hairstyles. Last year's blonde buzz cut has been replaced by long black locks. (His fiancé, Rachel, had dyed his hair blue, but Tedford informed him that it wouldn't fly for the team picture.)
"I'm so much more comfortable," said Longshore, who was named the team's starting quarterback just a week before last season's opener and enters this year ranked fifth in the nation in career passing efficiency. "Everyone is comfortable with me. We've had game experience together and spent countless hours together understating the timing. We're so far ahead of where we were last year."
2. The Cal running game will not miss a beat without Marshawn Lynch. Tedford might have a reputation for developing quarterbacks, but after grooming workhorses such as Adimchinobe Echemandu, J.J. Arrington and Lynch, it's apparent that he has expanded his backfield expertise.
After biding his time behind Arrington and Lynch, Justin Forsett is ready to be the team's featured back this season. Most within the program think Forsett could prove to be the most explosive back the school's had since Arrington ran for over 2,000 yards three years ago.
"I've been waiting to show what I could do for a long time," said Forsett. "If the guys ahead of me were jerks I might have left, but they were like brothers to me and I wouldn't have it any other way. I learned so much from all the guys who came in before me."
3. Cal's camp may have started in August but this group has been preparing for this season for much longer than that. There are rules preventing coaches from holding practices too early, but there's nothing against players getting together and preparing on their own. That's exactly what many of Cal's players did this offseason. Longshore and Forsett took up Pilates together.
"It's not the 15-minutes, girls-in-spandex Pilates you see on TV," said Longshore, who practices Pilates five times a week. "More goes into it than those cute little TV shows. I have so much more flexibility and I'm able to play smarter and stay fresh. I do a little routine before I come out and I'm loose and everything feels good."
It was Longshore who helped corral some of his teammates for impromptu workouts. Soon they began to grow in size and started looking like team practices sans the coaches and whistles.
"I feel like summer is a good opportunity for us to get closer," says Longshore. "No coaches are allowed to be out here and so it gets to a point where you decide that we're going to do this and put in our work so we're ready to play. We hit a point where everyone started showing up and everyone was working out and doing everything that they could so we could be successful this season. That built some team trust that's going to carry on into the season."
Syd'quan Thompson is tired of hearing about the infamous cast on his left hand that was featured prominently during last season's opener at Tennessee, during which he was beaten for a couple of long touchdowns. While it is true that the sophomore cornerback played all of last season with the cast, he never blamed the injury for any of his shortcomings.
"It feels good having two hands now, but that was never an issue," he said. "The Tennessee game was a crazy atmosphere but it helped me grow and helped me to have a short memory."
Fast forward one year and Thompson is once again being counted on to be a shutdown corner for a Cal secondary that lost Dameion Hughes. "He had a very good season last year," said defensive coordinator Bob Gregory. "That first game maybe was on me more than anybody because he was a little bit out there by himself at times."
Defensive end Tad Smith. Smith may be listed as a third-string defensive end in Cal's media guide, but if he continues to make plays like he's made so far in camp it will be hard for coaches not to start him.
Smith, a 6-foot-6, 250-pound sophomore, has yet to play a down for the Bears -- he redshirted in 2005 and suffered a knee injury in 2006. But coaches are beginning to see glimpses of the player that piled up sacks in high school. Despite spending most of camp in the offensive backfield, Smith admits he hasn't let any of the newfound attention get to him -- mainly because he hasn't gotten any.
"This is the first interview I've done since I've been at Cal," Smith tells me when I talk to him after practice. "It makes sense. I've been here for two years and I haven't played a game yet. The only thing I've been thinking the whole time is how badly I want to get on that football field and show everybody what I can do."
Receiver Robert Jordan's cousin is Oakland Raiders No. 1 pick JaMarcus Russell. This factoid was news to Jordan himself in February, when he went to the NFL combine with his other cousin Marshawn Lynch.
"When I saw my uncle, I said, 'What you doing out here?' and he told me he was with my cousin JaMarcus," says Jordan, who has caught a pass in the last 30 games he's played in, the fourth-longest streak in the nation. "It was funny. I got a chance to meet him and then I went back to Alabama right before camp started and I got to see how we really were related."
Their bond grew stronger when Russell stayed with Jordan for about two months in Jordan's Oakland home after he was selected by the Raiders. "He took my room, but that's fine," Jordan says. "He got a new home in Oakland. So maybe he'll let me stay at his place after he signs."
Crazy hair seems to be the theme so far in camp. Beside Longshore's ever-changing do, linebacker Zack Follett is sporting a lion-striped design on his mane, and fellow linebacker and fine arts major Greg Van Hoesen incorporated the lion look into his hair. Follett's nickname is now "Ziger." ... After practice last week, the coaches lightened the mood by reversing roles and doing sprints while the players cheered them on. The team then took the next day off and went to see Rush Hour 3. "I have to give it a thumbs up," said Longshore. "The producer went to Cal." ... One of the more interesting drills in camp had the offensive unit lying on the field as if a play had just been completed and quickly running off to make way for the kicking team. Coaches wanted to see how long it would take to get a field goal off if there were no timeouts remaining. ... Not only is this one of the most talented freshman classes Tedford's ever had, it's probably his biggest in terms of physical size. "I feel if we all got in front of a height chart their average would be taller than our average height," says Longshore. "It's nice to get some height and size on this squad." The two most talked about freshman are defensive end Cameron Jordan, a 6-4, 260-pound pass rusher who has been routinely outrunning his fellow lineman by 20-30 yards during sprints, and Jahvid Best, a 5-10, 185-pound tailback who is probably the fastest player in the backfield. ... As if they needed any more reason to make noise, Cal will be passing out 50,000 mini-megaphones before the season opener against Tennessee at Memorial Stadium. "It's going to be loud," said Jackson. "Everyone's been waiting to play Tennessee. Just like Tupac said, it's going to be 'all eyes on me.' "