NORTHRIDGE — As summer jobs go, joining the road crew of the women's pro beach volleyball tour is as good as it gets for a college football player.
As fall practice goes, returning as the quarterback who threw 30 touchdown passes for a team that achieved beyond anyone's expectations isn't bad either.
Aaron Flowers, you're rolling.
Can he make it all the way to a Big Sky Conference championship? He and his Cal State Northridge teammates begin to find out when fall workouts begin Monday.
Northridge, 7-4 last season and 5-3 in its first Big Sky campaign, will practice without pads until Thursday, but the pace will be anything but leisurely. The Matadors are in a hurry-up mode because they open Aug. 30 at Boise State, the first of three road games against Division I-A opponents.
Following a home opener against Azusa Pacific and an open date in week five, the Big Sky looms. Northridge showed few first-year jitters a year ago, either defeating or scaring the forearm shivers out of all but Northern Arizona.
"A lot of teams will be really up to play us," Flowers said. "Others will think we were a fluke, that it won't happen again. Everybody in the conference isn't sure if we can do it again."
If Northridge has a sure thing, it's Flowers, who set several school records last season, including passing yardage (3,540) and completion percentage (59.5%).
Not only does he return with Big Sky experience, he is the player closest to Coach Jim Fenwick, who succeeded Dave Baldwin during the off-season.
Flowers, a senior, flourished under Fenwick at Valley College in 1995, setting a national junior college record by completing 66% of his passes.
"His leadership provides a sense of security to the people who play with him and with the coaches," Fenwick said of Flowers. "If I ask him what he sees, it's like talking to a coach. And when anybody asks him to do something, you get a level of cooperation that is refreshing."
Fenwick's run-and-shoot offense is similar to Baldwin's, but there are significant differences in terminology and assignments. It's coming back to Flowers fast. Most of the kinks disappeared during spring workouts.
"Aaron allows us to do more mentally because there is a level of trust he gives us right away," Fenwick said. "He understands the game and what plays are designed to accomplish."
The relaxed and confident Flowers also begins practice with some extra cash. Early in the summer he landed a job with the Women's Professional Volleyball Assn., traveling to tournaments and setting up and breaking down the poles, nets and seating.
The next few days he'll again be surrounded by sweaty athletes, but they'll be wearing helmets and cleats. Many of the faces will be familiar.
Flowers will line up behind an experienced line that includes all-conference tackle David San Vicente, center David Joralemon and guards Toma Popesecu and Paul Sauter. Depth at receiver and running back should make for spirited competition in practice.
"We've really improved ourselves, but at the same time I'm not a guy who came in and cleaned house," Fenwick said. "We have enough experience to give us stability."
Several key defensive players return as well, including All-American senior linebacker Marc Goodson, who set school records for total tackles (150) and assisted tackles (78).
Other experienced defenders include cornerback and kick returner Benny Herron, defensive backs Tayari Ferrell and Donell Day, linebackers Rob Pifferini and Franck Pace and linemen Dan Lazarovits and Ronald Aumua.
The high-scoring nature of Big Sky games can demoralize defenses, but Flowers believes the Northridge unit's resiliency will prevail in close games.
"It is a passing and offensive conference, but it is always the defense that wins games at the end," Flowers said. "One key stop or turnover late in the game turns the tide."
The players and coaches already feel pressure to win because four men's sports at Northridge were eliminated in June to meet budget and gender-equity requirements. Although the sports--baseball, volleyball, soccer and swimming--have been reinstated for one year, some observers believe the university can restore them permanently only by eliminating football.
"It does rest a lot of pressure on our shoulders," Flowers said. "If we go 3-9, questions will be raised. We have something to prove to the community.
"We came here to play football. We never came to cause a controversy, but we are in the middle of it."
Fenwick, a Valley native, wants the community to support every sport at Northridge, and he believes it can be done. Because he is the football coach, however, his No. 1 concern is clear.
"I can dwell and drown in it or be part of the solution," he said. "I trust the leadership [of the administration]. Even before the sports were cut I had pressure to win. I have a sense of responsibility on my shoulders to make football something people want to be a part of.
"Right now, I'm pretty obsessed by Northridge football."
Building pride in the program started with cosmetic changes in the locker room such as new carpeting, air conditioning and a dozen new lockers. Uniforms have been redesigned as well.
"It looks like a Division I locker room now," Flowers said.
"'And we'll look a lot more professional in our uniforms out there."
The building blocks are in place. Construction begins Monday.