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Running a Reverse

Willingham at Notre Dame and Tedford at Cal have turned their schools' fortunes around by combining some of the old with the new

September 21, 2002|ROBYN NORWOOD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Can coaching really make this much difference?

California has gone from Tom Holmoe to Jeff Tedford--and from 1-10 to 3-0 and a No. 23 ranking after an upset of Michigan State.

Notre Dame went from Bob Davie to Tyrone Willingham--and from 5-6 to 3-0 with a No. 12 ranking and "Return to Glory" T-shirts all the rage.

Can Xs and O's change everything so completely?

The players say yes, but insist there's more to it than that.

"I don't think just anyone was going to come in here and win," Notre Dame kicker Nick Setta said. "With everything that's happened, our spirits were down. When Coach Willingham came in, he brought great expectations. I think it's the attitude around him. He really makes you believe you're going to win."

Cal quarterback Kyle Boller said he used to feel like pulling a hood over his face when he walked around Berkeley.

"That was more of an analogy," he said. "But I wouldn't like to show my face around campus, being the quarterback of a 1-10 team.

"Coach Tedford came in here and let the guys know Cal football was going to change.... Guys around here were ready to win. He came from a winning program and knows what it takes to win, and guys really bought in."

The era of good feeling never lasts long unless you score more points than the other team, though.

There probably isn't a better example in the country of what one coach can do for one player than what Tedford has done for Boller.

Until Tedford arrived, the once-promising quarterback from Newhall Hart High was a borderline bust, with a career completion percentage of 45% and more interceptions than touchdown passes.

Three seasons of battering and desperate passes had made a mess of Boller's mechanics and his confidence.

Tedford--a former offensive coordinator at Oregon and Fresno State who worked with Joey Harrington, Akili Smith, David Carr and Trent Dilfer--fixed the problems with some tape and a checkerboard.

Now Boller leads the second-highest scoring offense in the nation, averaging 50 points a game and trailing only Kansas State (59.7)

"He made this contraption where he taped my biceps to my forearm or wrist, to make my forearm more like a 90-degree angle, because I tend to extend my arm too much," said Boller, who has thrown seven touchdown passes to one interception so far.

"One other thing he worked on was my mechanics with my feet. I tended to hop around in the pocket." (The result, no doubt, of running for his life.)

Then there was the mental side. That's where the checkers come in.

"Basically, it's a way of understanding offenses," Boller said. "He gives me a formation, and I set up the offense. Then I turn around and he sets up the defense. I turn back around and look at what's there. Then he'll say, 'OK, these two guys are coming, what do you do?' And I'll say, 'I throw hot to the tight end.' "

Besides all the quarterback wizardry, another big reason for Cal's turnaround is a transformation on defense. The Bears gave up a school-record 431 points last season--39.2 a game.

New defensive coordinator Bob Gregory changed the defensive scheme and the philosophy, playing a lot less man-to-man coverage in favor of zones, so one mistake isn't as likely to turn into a touchdown.

But the most dramatic change is in turnover margin. With six interceptions and six fumble recoveries already, Cal is second in the nation in turnover margin after having been second worst in the nation last season.

"It's something we concentrate on in practice," defensive tackle Daniel Nwangwu said. "Just things like, when you make a tackle, try to strip the ball.

"[Tedford] always rewards us. He'll say, 'OK, if the defense can get a certain number of turnovers, the defense doesn't have to run today.' And he'll do the same for the offense, no conditioning if they don't have turnovers. It's fun, but at the same time, it prepares you to play that way in games."

At Notre Dame, one of Willingham's most savvy decisions was not to overhaul the defense. After all, it was the only thing about Notre Dame that resembled a top-25 team last season.

The Irish ranked 10th in the nation in pass defense, 14th in total defense and 22nd in scoring defense--Notre Dame's best numbers since '96, Davie's final season as defensive coordinator.

"We did have a system that we liked, but also some great things were being done here at Notre Dame," Willingham said. "Therefore, you try to incorporate those things that blend with your system."

It takes wisdom to resist change for change's sake.

"I mean, it can be a positive or a negative," said safety Glenn Earl, one of the stalwarts of a defense led by big-play cornerbacks Vontez Duff and Shane Walton. "With a different system, you have to adjust to certain things.

"We basically kept our defense intact. There are some different techniques, maybe some different terminology, but all minor things."

What Willingham did overhaul was the option-style offense, bringing the West Coast offense with him from Stanford.

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