There is something different about the 2010 version of Kevin Riley.
The brash attitude displayed in the past by the Cal quarterback has been replaced by a contented confidence. He no longer feels the need to convince others -- and perhaps himself -- of anything. He is at peace with who he is as a quarterback and as a person.
With the season just three weeks away, Riley finally feels comfortable as Cal's starting quarterback. For the first time, he doesn't have to negotiate a training camp wondering where he fits in on the depth chart. There are no older, returning starters to compete against; no inexperienced backups pushing him for his job.
Riley, now a fifth-year senior, is Cal's leader. Coach Jeff Tedford, eschewing his tactic of recent training camps, named Riley the starter before it began. It was a clear and obvious choice. Riley is a two-year starter and the only quarterback on Cal's roster who has taken a meaningful snap in a game. That was the case last year as well, but Tedford still insisted there was open competition for the job.
Tedford said Riley earned the right to be named the starter before this season's training camp. Despite his share of critics, Riley is 15-8 in 23 career starts and is the Pac-10's active leader with 37 touchdown passes. It's clear Tedford sees this as Riley's team, though the coach allows that his quarterback could be replaced if he is outplayed.
"I think he realizes that it's his team. It's his senior year," Tedford said. "Even though I'm sure he thinks he has a lot to prove, I don't want him thinking that he has a lot to prove. I want him to just play his game and do his best and have a little fun with it -- not put so much stress on himself."
Riley seems to be feeling less stress than in the past. Maybe it's because he's used it all up. Riley has visited both ends of the emotional spectrum during his career. Now he appears to have found a perfect balance.
"You look back at it, I've probably had more highs and lows than any other quarterback in college football," Riley said. "It helps you grow as a person and outside of football. All these years of playing, I've grown up so much. I think I understand now what it takes."
The highs and lows that have marked Riley's career were encapsulated in his first game.
As a redshirt freshman in 2007, he replaced an injured Nate Longshore against Oregon State and led the Bears on a stirring comeback. But Cal lost when Riley ran the ball from the Beavers' 12-yard line with no timeouts remaining. He was tackled at the 10, and Oregon State won 31-28.
Later that season, in the Armed Forces Bowl, Riley again replaced Longshore and put together a breathtaking performance, completing 16 of 19 passes for 269 yards and three touchdowns to erase a 21-0 deficit and lead Cal past Air Force 42-36.
Riley beat out Longshore for the starting job the next fall, but he was benched twice. Longshore wound up starting the Emerald Bowl against Miami at AT&T Park, setting up another quarterback competition last year.
It wasn't much of a contest, nor should have it been. Backups Beau Sweeney and Brock Mansion had no meaningful experience, and Riley received the majority of first-team reps. He won the job and started all 13 games last season.
Still, having to earn his spot in training camp all over again, despite the dearth of realistic competition, provided a small dose of uncertainty for Riley. That's why being anointed the starter this year before training camp was so significant for him.
"It was nice to hear him say that before camp," Riley said. "I've shown him that I've worked, and he has trust in me. Now I can just concentrate on all football, not have that little bit of me thinking about the competition. I can just go out there and play."
Cal was 8-5 last season, well short of expectations. The Bears were ranked No. 12 in the preseason Associated Press top 25 and climbed to No. 6 after a victory at Minnesota put them at 3-0. Considered a legitimate Pac-10 contender, they lost four Pac-10 game by a combined score of 145-30.
Riley feels the burden of turning around last year's wrongs, even if much of it wasn't caused by his own shortcomings. He had bad stretches, but an inexperienced offensive line and a lack of playmaking from the receivers contributed to the inconsistency of the passing game.
Riley put in more work than ever before this past offseason. He stayed late after almost every spring practice and continued his hard work through the summer.
"This is the hardest I've ever seen him work," Cal tailback Shane Vereen said. "It's the most focused I've ever seen him. He's established himself as the leader on the team. He's really taking it upon himself to get us over the hump. It's easy to follow a guy like that. He sees the big picture now. He knows exactly what he needs to do and how to do it."
Tedford recognizes Riley's newfound inner peace, and his teammates have noticed a change as well. Linebacker Mike Mohamed, Riley's roommate the past two years, says the quarterback isn't "as stressed as much."
"I definitely sense a change in him," Mohamed said. "He's pretty much seen it all and done it all. Coach Tedford has come out and said Kevin is our guy now. He has that peace of mind now. He knows he's the guy, he's the leader. The whole team is behind him."