Nate Longshore's toughest course in college has been physics, but even that does not compare with what he called his biggest mental challenge at the University of California: learning Jeff Tedford's playbook.
"It's like the Webster's dictionary," Longshore said of the playbook's thickness. "It's probably my hardest course at Cal. There is always your fair share of homework."
Longshore, a redshirt freshman, and Joe Ayoob, a junior college transfer, know rewards will be plentiful once they fully grasp how to be successful under Tedford, who has a long track record of producing star college quarterbacks at three schools.
Consider the list of six first-round draft picks who have played under Tedford: Trent Dilfer and David Carr (Fresno State); Akili Smith and Joey Harrington (Oregon); Kyle Boller and Aaron Rodgers (Cal).
Who will be next? Tedford said at Pacific-10 media day this month that if he had to choose a starter at that moment it would have been Longshore. But the two-man competition, he added, wasn't expected to be settled until the week of the Golden Bears' first game, Sept. 3 against Sacramento State.
"It's a good feeling to look and see what others have done" under Tedford, said Ayoob, a highly regarded transfer from the City College of San Francisco.
Ayoob and Longshore have done more than simply hear stories about past Tedford quarterbacks. They occasionally watch before-and-after tapes of Smith, Harrington and others, gauging improvement in the system over a long period of time.
Ayoob also has talked a few times with last year's quarterback, Rodgers, who was taken with the 24th overall pick by the Green Bay Packers and who told Ayoob to persevere through early struggles because he, too, experienced them in college.
Rodgers distinguished himself as one of the nation's best quarterbacks last year, leading Cal to a one-loss regular season, the lone defeat coming narrowly against defending national champion Southern California, 23-17. Rodgers helped Cal earn its highest national ranking (fourth) during the regular season since 1952 and register its best regular season record since Pappy Waldorf's 1950 squad. "It's impossible to fill Aaron's shoes," Longshore conceded.
Added Ayoob: "There will be a little pressure. Where he had the team last year, that's hard to do, especially since we're not ranked. But I play better under pressure."
Some pressure could be alleviated because of the supporting cast on offense, including sophomore running back Marshawn Lynch, who averaged 8.8 yards per carry last season in a limited role behind standout J.J. Arrington. Four starters also return on an offensive line considered one of the nation's finest. "The offense is going to be the strong point of our team," Longshore said in a telephone interview. "You really can almost put anyone in there and be successful."
Fourth-year offensive coordinator George Cortez said before summer camp began that instruction would start as if Rodgers had returned for his senior season: with an emphasis on fundamentals. "I think we have a very simple vision of what we want to do, not to say our offense is simple," Cortez said in a telephone interview. "But it's in how we do things and how we teach things, attention to detail, the footwork. We're multiple offensively, but we're simple in the concepts so they transfer from formation to formation."
Expectations are high for Cal, even with significant losses defensively and inexperience at quarterback. Tedford has yet to disappoint in Berkeley, earning the Pac-10 coach of the year award in two of his first three years on the sideline. Much of the offseason hype surrounded the promise of Ayoob, who threw a 70-yard touchdown pass on his first throw of the spring game. Ayoob entered summer camp needing to polish his footwork, but he said he felt 80 percent to 85 percent comfortable with the offense.
"For every play," he said, "there are 20 things you have to make sure are right."
Ayoob said he was called a "white Michael Vick" in junior college because of his elusiveness in the open field. Will he be as good on the Division I level?
"I'd like to think that I am," he said. "It remains to be seen."