Like it or not, it could be Ayoob

If Joe Ayoob wins the quarterback competition, would Cal football coach Jeff Tedford dare start him before more than 100,000 screaming Tennessee fans in the Bears’ opener at Knoxville?

“Absolutely,” Tedford said after Friday’s practice, the first in pads. “He’s come a long way from last year. He’s more confident, more relaxed, much more into the game.”

Last year in practice, Ayoob, a very likable young man who is popular with his teammates, would often joke around with other players when he wasn’t scheduled to take part in a drill.

“This year,” Tedford noted, “he’s involved in everything. When he isn’t going through a drill, he’s watching others, seeing how the defense reacts. It’s night and day from last year.”

Ayoob became a starter last season when Nate Longshore suffered a season-ending injuryin the opener. Ayoob struggled, before Tedford finally turned to Steve Levy, who led the Bears to wins in the Big Game and the Las Vegas Bowl. (Levy is suspended for the opener after pleading guilty to a misdemeanor for throwing a glass at a waiter in a North Beach bar.)

Before that, Ayoob was abused by fans and even fellow students on campus.

Part of that was because of the change in expectations for the crowds at Berkeley since Tedford arrived. In the Tom Holmoe era, the crowds were small, almost entirely alumni or relatives of alumni. Those fans expected the worst and usually got it, so they were grateful for any good play by Cal. They have since been joined by fans, not all of them alumni, who expect the Bears to win and will boo when they don’t. Last year, they mostly booed Ayoob.

But in the spring and the first week of fall practice, Ayoob appears to have shaken off those bad memories. Though Tedford said he has not changed his positioning of his quarterbacks, which is Longshore, Ayoob and Levy, in that order, Ayoob has been the most impressive. In Friday’s drill, for instance, he did not throw an interception, while Longshore threw one and Levy two. Throwing from midfield, he hit Sam DeSa and Sean Young in stride on deep throws and had another pass that was in and out of Young’s hands.

He also got away from pressure to complete shorter passes.

The quarterback competition will be narrowed to Longshore and Ayoob for Thursday’s scrimmage, Tedford said. “We can’t continue to give everybody equal snaps,” he said. “We’ve got to prepare two guys for the opener.”

Picking the starter will be a tough decision.

“Ideally, you’d like to go into a season with an experienced quarterback,” Tedford said. “If Nate hadn’t been hurt, he’d have a year under his back, but as it is, Joe is the one with the experience.”

Would he alternate quarterbacks? “I’m not a fan ofa two-quarterback system,” Tedford said. “I’ve never seen that work.”

Longshore can make all the throws and he has good speed, so he can move away from the rush and even run for yardage at times. He is not as good a runner, though, as Ayoob, who ran out of a spread formation in City College of San Francisco.

So, though it will make Cal fans nervous after what happened last year, it could be Ayoob at quarterback in that very tough opener in Tennessee.

Glenn Dickey has been covering Bay Area sports since 1963 and also writes on www.GlennDickey.com. You can e-mail him at glenndickey@hotmail.com.

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