Rodgers has Cal thinking Rose Bowl
BERKELEY, Calif. -- On a chilly spring day at Memorial Stadium, California quarterback Aaron Rodgers is throwing crossfield bullets, lofting fades, zinging clotheslines down the middle, and all with a one-step drop.
In coach Jeff Tedford's offense, Rodgers threw last year from three- , five- and seven-step drops. The one-step is not a new chapter in the Tedford playbook, which is already like calculus with shoulder pads. This is Rodgers after knee surgery in January to repair his left ACL, which has bothered him since his sophomore year at Chico (Calif.) Pleasant Valley High.
"My fundamentals were built around what didn't hurt," Rodgers says. "My knee bothered me on rollouts. A lot of it was mental. I was a little concerned on the run, making sure on my cuts, not taking a hit on the knee."
Cal finished 8-6 and capped off what was supposed to be a rebuilding season with a 52-49 upset of Virginia Tech in the Insight Bowl.
You don't have to be able to decipher the Bears' snap count to know what's coming with experience and two good wheels.
"He is a perfectionist," Tedford said of Rodgers. "He holds people accountable, not in a bad way. If you put something on the board, it better make sense. I've tried to tell quarterbacks, there's a reason why we do everything we do. He's figuring out (on his own) why the running back is running this route, why the lineman is blocking that guy. That is very rare, highly unusual."
The player suggests, in so many words, that the coach look in the mirror. In his first start last season, Rodgers went 20-of-37 for 263 yards and one touchdown. He felt proud of himself, right up until the moment that Tedford turned off the lights and began dissecting the game video.
"I'm waiting for compliments," Rodgers says. "They're not coming. I'll miss a throw by a little bit. We'll spend three or four minutes looking at it. I started 7-for-7. The eighth pass was incomplete. We watched that four or five minutes. He doesn't let me get complacent. He wants every play, every throw."
From Unknown To Rising Star
Two springs ago, Rodgers pitched for Pleasant Valley and wondered whether he would ever play football again.
One spring ago, Rodgers was a quarterback at Butte (Calif.) College and an unknown name on California's recruit list.
This spring, the 6-foot-2, 195-pound Rodgers is one of the top quarterbacks in Division I-A.
How did he rise so high so fast without getting the bends? How does anyone take top 100 recruiting lists seriously when the closest Rodgers got to any of them was clicking on one? How does Tedford keep a straight face when he says, "I will have to be real honest with you. I had no idea he would be as in tune with this offense as he is"?
Tedford became a head coach by taking unheralded quarterbacks and setting them on the road to a podium meeting with NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue. Trent Dilfer and David Carr of Fresno State, Akili Smith and Joey Harrington of Oregon and Kyle Boller of Cal all played for Tedford and became first-round draft choices.
Tedford found Rogers -- while looking for a tight end.
"Trent Dilfer's father (called and) said there's a tight end over at Butte, you should check him out," Tedford says. "We brought the tape in, and the quarterback is jumping off the screen. I saw accuracy, a quick release, mobility. He made plays, made plays with his legs, got out of the pocket. He had a nice presence in the pocket, a very accurate passer. My coaches didn't know anything about him because he was a freshman. If you're a qualifier coming out of high school, you can come out of junior college after one year."
Rodgers doesn't know what happened during his senior year in high school. San Diego State wooed him for a while, but the calls stopped coming, and pretty soon, coach Ted Tollner and his staff had been fired.
Small World I: Tedford, the Oregon offensive coordinator in 2001, considered the Aztec job before he came to Cal.
Small World II: Rodgers, who lived in Oregon until the sixth grade, considered walking on at Oregon.
"I saw myself in a Division I program," Rodgers says. "By the end of my senior year in football, I wasn't having fun. There was a point in January of my senior year. Nothing was going on. Nobody was calling. No letters. I decided to play baseball. What baseball did was give me my passion back for football. I did well in baseball. I was having fun. I realized if I didn't play, I would go crazy."
He went to Butte, 10 minutes from his house, and led it to a 10-1 record and a No. 2 national ranking. Still, no one came recruiting, because he had another year at Butte.
No one but Tedford, that is.
The first thing Tedford saw when he came to Butte pleased him.
"You can't tell how big they are on tape," he says. "Are they 5-11 or 6-2? I wanted to verify he was as big as he said. It was a pleasant surprise to walk by him."
"When coach Tedford came up to Butte," Rodgers says. "I had the best day of my life. It was a Monday. I didn't miss a pass. Deep outs, deep curls, posts."
Still, it was only one afternoon, one workout.
"You really can't find out by watching them once," Tedford says. "You only find out through your conversation. You talk football and see how they comprehend the things you say. You ask questions about coverage."
In other words, if you ask, "What about cover two?" and the quarterback prospect says, "No, I only sleep with one blanket," move on.
Rodgers passed that test as if he had been studying for it his entire life.
"I always loved football," he says. "I've always been smart. I used to draw plays up on scraps of paper when I was five years old. I always thought I was born to be a quarterback."
And one more thing: Tedford signed the tight end, too. Garrett Cross made 16 catches for 173 yards and three touchdowns last season.
Learning To Lead
Junior Reggie Robertson started the first four games at quarterback last season, and like Ernie Els at the Masters last week, did nothing to lose. He just got beat.
Tedford encouraged him to be ready. Two weeks later, Robertson came off the bench to lead Cal to a triple-overtime upset of USC, 34-31. That would the co-national champion's only loss.
Rodgers completed 17-of-21 passes for 203 yards and two touchdowns in the first half to stake the Bears to a 21-7 lead. When he started the second half 1-of-4, with the fourth being an interception that Trojan linebacker Lofa Tatupu returned 26 yards for a touchdown to tie the game, Tedford sat him down.
Rodgers handled that well. The following week, he completed only 9-of-34 passes for 52 yards with one interception. Oregon State won easily, 35-21. Rodgers did not handle that well.
"We, and I'm going to say we, had a very tough time against Oregon State," Tedford says. "I didn't give them enough answers. To see how he was coming off the sideline, his body language, he had probably never been through that kind of game."
"I lost my confidence for 60 minutes," Rodgers says. "The worst thing a quarterback can lose is his confidence. I got down. I couldn't hit any throws."
"Afterward," Tedford says, "I pulled him out of the locker room and we went and sat in a room, and I told him, 'Sometimes, things happen like that. You don't shut yourself off. You don't go over to the bench and shut everybody out because you're pissed off. You come to me and talk. You keep your head in the game."
"It was the turning point for me," Rodgers says. "I realized I couldn't have any more days like that, not only bad numbers but poor leadership. I realized I was a leader and I started to act like one. I guess I didn't realize how important my demeanor was to the success of the team."
The game shook both of them back into the real world.
"I have a hard time remembering that he was only 19," Tedford said of Rodgers, who turned 20 in December. "That's when I said, 'Wow, I haven't seen this part of him before.' That was the wake-up call to me. This is a young quarterback. Aaron expects perfection of himself and the people around him."
After the Oregon State debacle, Rodgers wasn't perfect, but he was pretty damn good. He completed 142-of-211 passes for 2,011 yards, 13 touchdowns and two picks. In the second half of the bowl game, Rodgers embarrassed the Hokies, going 15-of-17 for 245 yards.
More important, Cal went 5-2.
"I thought a lot of good things would come, just not this soon," senior wideout Geoff McArthur says of Rodgers. "The offense is not easy. To know everything, you have to be a gifted person, mentally and physically."
Rodgers doesn't know everything yet, but he's got time to learn. If he progresses as quickly in the next two years as he did in the last one, Cal could make a run at its first conference championship since it shared the title in 1975. That was so long ago, the Pacific-10 was just the Pacific-8. With 14 other returning starters Rodgers is leading a team that is the best of the rest behind USC this fall.
Not bad for a guy who went unrecruited.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your question/comments to Ivan at email@example.com. Your e-mail could be answered in a future Maisel's Mailbag.