Cal Football

Edwards Talks About Transition to Backfield

July 6, 2019
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Following a season of offensive futility, where the Bears finished rated 115th out of 130 in total offensive, Cal head coach Justin Wilcox shook up the offensive staff, including flipping running backs coach Burl Toler III to wide receivers coach, with wide receivers coach Nick Edwards taking Toler’s place at running backs coach. 

The move returned Toler to the position he starred at with the Bears from 2004 to 2007 while Wilcox was on his first stint as a coach at Cal.

Edwards got his start in the coaching world at a young age under current Cal offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin after a successful collegiate career where he racked up an impressive 215 catches for 2,634 yards and 33 touchdowns.

He started his transition to coaching immediately, serving as a strength and conditioning assistant in 2013 under Baldwin and moving to receivers coach the following three seasons after current Washington receivers coach Junior Adams departed.

“The reason I think Coach Baldwin hired me is he knew I was a student of the game,” said Edwards. “As a player, I would get in at night time all the time to study film. The janitors were awesome. I knew all of them. I’d go in there and perfect my craft watching film. Then Cooper saw the foundation and routine I had and he just took that routine to a whole different level.

“We talked technique and what we needed to do to expose the secondary and how we were going to get open. We just spoke the same language early in our careers. So the transition was easy for me from Coach Adams, who was a really good coach.”

Edwards’ familiarity with Baldwin’s offense earned him a leg up when the former EWU head coach stepped into the offensive coordinator role under Justin Wilcox in 2017.

“Knowing the offense was huge coming in,” said Edwards. “We came in together so we were morphing some of the things we did really well the previous three years, watching film for what we wanted to incorporate into the Pac-12.”

Edwards coached two of the top six receivers in the Pac-12 in his first season, as junior Vic Wharton and soph Kanawai Noa combined for 123 catches and 1,659 yards for the Pac-12’s fifth-rated passing offense.

Turmoil at the quarterback position and injuries to several receivers saw the Bears’ offense fall off precipitously last season and the Bears are hoping for an offensive rejuvination this season. Early signs in spring ball -even with a depleted receiving corps and o-line were positive.

“From after spring ball, I love where everybody is,” said Edwards. “We did a great job moving the ball through the air in terms of throwing the ball a little bit deeper and being very effective in the intermediate game. So this spring was a huge confidence boost for the whole offense, in terms of everyone involved in the passing game.

“We’re excited going into fall, just building on what we did in the spring. If we keep building on that, we’ll be where we want to be in terms of passing the ball, running the ball and being effective on offense in general this coming year.”

For those who had the opportunity to attend the open practices this spring, it appeared that redshirt soph QB Chase Garbers made a big step forward, throwing the ball accurately and with confidence, including the longer completions that often eluded the Cal offense last season.

“You saw exactly right,” said Edwards. “You saw huge strides. When you have another year under your belt, you can make big progress and we’re excited about the strides he’s making and everyone on offense. Those 15 practices and their PRP’s (player-led practices), what they’ve been doing is very encouraging.”

One of the pleasant surprises of spring ball was early entry frosh receiver Makai Polk, who showed strong hands, athleticism and a big catch radius in hauling in several difficult receptions during spring session.

“Makai’s a guy who’s super-athletic,” said Edwards. “He has range and ball skills. He’s just scratching the surface. He should’ve been in high school during spring ball but he’s one of the guys who graduated early and has had the chance to work out with the guys and get 15 practices under his belt and learn the playbook and change his body in the weight room. The sky’s the limit for the kid. I’m excited to see what he’s going to do in his career here.”

This spring was the first time in his career that Edwards worked directly with running backs, though being a student of the game and knowing positional responsibilities in Baldwin’s offense for the past decade certainly helped ease the transition.

“I was one of those guys who worked extremely hard at being the smartest guy on the field, including the quarterback. So once I mastered my position, I always tried to master other positions.”
- Cal RB Coach Nick Edwards

“The transition’s easy because I’ve been in this offense for a decade now,” said Edwards. “I’ve been with Coach Baldwin since 2008. The offense has been easy for me.

“I was one of those guys who worked extremely hard at being the smartest guy on the field, including the quarterback. So once I mastered my position, I always tried to master other positions. So I dialed in to what the running backs needed to do in their position with protection, where their eyes need to be. That was an easy transition. I needed to get a little bit more details on other elements but that came pretty fast working with (OL) Coach (Steve) Greatwood.

“I’m a technique guy. Receiver’s a technical position. Running back’s not quite as technical but when you have the ball in your hand, you become a running back. When you catch a pass or have an interception, you become a running back. When you’re a quarterback and you take off with the ball, you become a running back.

“The objective when you have the ball in your hands is to break tackles. When my receivers had the ball in their hands, they became running backs, so you have to teach guys how to make the first guy miss. We had to implement things to break tackles, so there’s carryover.

“Now, working with running backs, we have to teach blocking in a different way but the fundamentals and body functions are similar when you block somebody. But to break tackles, you need to be physical, whether it’s running through defenders, a juke or spin move, press or whatever the case may be.”

Observing Edwards coach the running back corps up close this spring, it was clear that Edwards brought an edge to the position group, preaching consistent effort and toughness with every rep. The running back corps seemed to respond well and ran with an edge all spring, turning in impressive performances as a group every day.

Has he seen that toughness take root in his RB corps?

“Absolutely,” agreed Edwards. “As a running back, before you step on the field, you have to have the mentality that you’re usually going to be blocking guys or breaking tackles from guys bigger than you. You have 11 guys who are trying to take your head off every play, whether you’re blocking or running the rock. So when you step on the field, you have to have the mentality that you’re not going to get tackled and you’re better than the next person. Carrying that mentality through the weight room is huge and you need to translate that to the field. When guys try to tackle you, they’re trying to hurt you. So it’s our job to put punishment on them. That’s what I try to preach to those guys and they absolutely love it,

“If you think you’re going to get tackled, you’re going to get tackled. If you know you’re going to break that tackle, a lot of times, you’re going to break that tackle.

“When you step on the field, you have to have the mentality that you’re not going to get tackled and you’re better than the next person.”
- Nick Edwards

“One of the phrases I’ve carried with me much of my life is, ‘He who knows he can and he who knows he can’t are usually right.’ It’s truly about getting these guys to believe that and giving them the confidence to it. That’s why all the drills have got to be upbeat and uptempo. You’ve got to teach these guys to be physical so you do it over and over and over again and they start to believe it.”

One of the most impressive steps forward taken in the backfield this spring was soph running back Chris Brown, who looked significantly quicker, more nimble and tougher to tackle than during his initial season as a true frosh.

“Chris took a huge step forward over the spring,” said Edwards. “He was really excited that there wasn’t a guy ahead of him who rushed for 1,000 yards the prior year. He knows right now, it’s a true competition. It’s an open competition. Iron sharpens iron and when you have people who are super-competitive going up against you, you’re going to raise your level of play.

“Coming into spring, Chris was fully-prepared and fully-ready. He took a great step forward. He was super-consistent in every category. He had no problems pass protecting or catching the ball out of the backfield and no problems running the ball through the tackles. He has a lot of tools to bring into the running back room.”

Brown also exhibited more confidence on the field, frequently exhorting his teammates throughout spring ball.

“We talked about going into spring, ‘You’ve got to be vocal. It's very important for us for you to be vocal,’ said Edwards. “’You’re one of those guys who people look up to on the field and in the weight room and you do it in the classroom, too.’

“He’s a guy who takes the classroom seriously. When guys give full effort in all those areas, they see results and that’s where you see that confidence coming from in Chris.”

Battling with Brown are two JC transfer running backs in juniors Marcel Dancy and Deshawn Collins. Both are compact and strong and lean towards the less vocal side naturally on the field.

Dancy got his start with Cal last season and impressed when he had the chance to play, though injuries limited him enough to be able to maintain redshirt status for the season.

Staying healthy and becoming for vocal are top priorities for the talented back from Oakland.

“Both those guys have opened up,” said Edwards. “Appearances can sometimes be deceiving. It did take a little longer for both those guys to open up, though. 

“Marcel’s another guy who’s a total running back. He does everything you ask him to do in terms of catching the ball, running between the tackles. He did a good job over spring being consistent with his eyes and his footwork, making sure he hit the hole when he should. He brings a lot to the table in terms of being a total running back, like Chris.”

Dancy plays with a running style that says, ‘You’re not going to tackle me’ as he picks up yards that didn’t seem to be likely as plays developed.

“He does,” said Edwards. “He has the skillset and tools to be able to do that. So you saw that a little bit last year and we look forward to him doing it week in and week out this year. He’s a guy who wants to be great so he works extremely hard in the weight room and watching film so he can continue to get better.”

Though Dancy and Collins are similar in many ways, Collins’ added bulk and quickness give the Bears a bit of a different look when he’s on the field.

“Deshawn brings a little more speed and a little more juice to the table,” said Edwards. “That’s Deshawn’s plus one. He can put his foot on the ground and get to the third level pretty fast. He came in and picked up the playbook right away. He’s a guy who likes to work and says, ‘Yes sir, no sir.’ He loves being able to talk about things he can do better with his peers and with me. The guys really enjoy him and he did a great job this spring.”

A bit of a wildcard in the Cal backfield is senior running back Alex Netherda, who has been reminiscent of recently-graduated running back Patrick Laird, who stood out in practice till he got the chance to shine on the field when starter Tre Watson fell to injury in Cal’s season opener in 2017 in North Carolina.

“Alex is a lot better than some think he is,” said Edwards. “When you see him on the field, he breaks a lot of tackles and pickes up a lot of yards and had one of the longest runs of the spring. He’s a guy who does everything we ask. He has good vision and good footwork. He’s super-coachable and if I give him something to work on, he adapts it right away. He does a good job and will continue to work on the things he needs to work on, like catching the ball consistently and continuing to be a leader. He does a great job with being vocal and leading by example, almost like another coach.”

Last season, the Bears were hampered by injuries and a lack of depth in the backfield. Senior running back Patrick Laird was not able to match his outstanding junior season as he battled to return to full strength after undergoing a knee proceedure not long before the season started.

“It won’t be a one-man show this year,” said Edwards. “Guys will be rotating so we can keep guys fresh, but if someone has a hot hand, we’re going to give him the rock. All four of these guys have something they can contribute. So I’m looking forward to seeing what they can do this season. The players always know who’s going to start because they can see what we see when it comes to performance.”

The Bears will have another addition to the backfield this fall with the arrival of 5-9/190 frosh running back DeCarlos Brooks, who put together an outstanding senior season for Chandler HS (Chandler, Arizona), rushing for 2229 yards and 34 touchdowns while adding another 25 catches for 366 yards and three additional scores.

“I’m expecting a lot from DeCarlos,” said Edwards. “I want him to show me what he can do and to carry over what he did well in high school. He needs to understand the culture and the overall newness of the college game, playing with confidence. He’s a guy who should make some noise. He was total baller in high school. When a guy can do it all, it makes being a running back coach easy, not having to limit him to certain types of plays. He brings that. He can catch the ball well out of the backfield, he’s strong between the tackles. He has all the tools to be successful.”

All in all, with improved play from the quarterback position, a return to health for the o-line, lots of talented additions at receiver and a possible five man tandem of talented running backs bodes well for a significant improvement on the offensive side of the ball for the Bears in 2019.

“We’re excited that we’ve built a lot of depth so guys are pushing each other,” said Edwards. “It’s been good.”

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