BERKELEY — Kevin Riley almost led Cal to a stirring comeback against Oregon State in his first career start in 2007, but his infamous gaffe of failing to throw the ball away with time running out ultimately cost the Bears a chance.
Afterward, he took full responsibility for the loss. When told he played well just to get Cal in that position, he shrugged it off as though that was exactly how he expected to play.
Last spring, when Riley was asked about his chances to win the quarterback job despite playing in just two career games, he said matter-of-factly that he expected to be the team's starter.
There is a certain amount of brash to Riley's personality — not necessarily in a bad way — but he has a quiet confidence that implies success is the only option. But some of that went away last season when Riley twice lost his starting job and didn't play all that well when he was on the field.
With counterpart Nate Longshore now gone, it's Riley's job to lose for 2009. He's involved in another competition with youngsters Brock Mansion and Beau Sweeney this spring, but that confidence is coming back as Riley now realizes he is the most experienced quarterback on the roster.
"He's more than confident," said Cal tight end Garry Graffort, Riley's roommate and close friend. "This is back to the Kevin that we knew when he first got here. He's got his swag back. It was never gone. There is just a lot more of it again."
Riley indeed won the starting job to begin last season but was benched during the fourth game because of inconsistent play. He got the job back a few weeks later and was the team's starter the rest of the regular season, only to find himself on the bench again for the Emerald Bowl.
It left Riley's ego a little damaged, partly because he felt like he had to be perfect or he would be replaced by Longshore, and partly because he knew he wasn't playing to his potential.
"It's not the easiest thing," Riley said. "When a couple of things go wrong, it kind of gets in your head. You feel like you're going to be benched if you don't do something. You start thinking about that instead of the game. A couple of things didn't go the way I wanted it to. I was pretty hard on myself about some things. Pretty much I just didn't get the job done."
Riley was the undisputed starter going into the first four games of last season but was pulled in favor of Longshore against Colorado State, despite the fact the Bears held a sizeable lead at the time. Coach Jeff Tedford held an open competition for the job for each of the next three games, the first two of which were won by Longshore. But Riley replaced Longshore during a loss at Arizona and was the team's starter the rest of the regular season, except for one week in which he had a concussion.
"It's not the easiest thing," Riley said. "Some games I knew I was starting and some games I found out Friday. When you find out the day before, you feel like if you don't play well in the beginning you'll be taken out of the game right away. Things just didn't work out. You just have to learn from it. That's all you can do."
Tedford replaced Riley with Longshore once again for the Emerald Bowl, effectively wiping the slate clean for the 2009 competition. So far, Riley has looked sharp in the spring.
"Now I think he knows he's the guy, he's the leader," said Cal linebacker Mike Mohamed, who also is Riley's roommate. "I think what happened last year would be hard on anybody, emotionally. But he just stuck with it and made the best of it. He didn't let it get him down. He's a team player. He looks out for the best interest of the team."
Riley says he didn't do a good enough job communicating with Tedford last season, something he is hoping to improve. A couple of weeks before the start of spring practice, Riley went to Tedford and asked if he would help him with his mechanics. They ended up making some changes to his throwing motion that has helped his accuracy.
Riley admitted that he didn't really think he would be pulled after making one bad pass last season, saying it made for a difficult situation.
"I didn't do it last year, but I've been going in and talking to (Tedford) a lot more about things," Riley said. "That's the way it should be. I felt like part of the communication problems we had last year was partially on the quarterbacks for not bringing it up."
While Riley and Longshore both didn't let the situation become bigger than the team, it clearly wore on Riley. He spent a lot of time talking to his father and high school football coach, Faustin.
"Obviously, he learned a lot last year," Faustin Riley said. "A lot of it wasn't necessarily positive. But it should pay off down the road. Kevin has always been pretty well-grounded. He's always had to scrap and fight for whatever he got. Nothing has ever come easy to him."
While Riley is competing for the job for the second straight year, the dynamic this time around is substantially different than last year. Now, Riley is an incumbent starter competing against two players who have barely played college football.
"I'm one of the most experienced guys on our offense," said Riley, who will be a redshirt junior. "People are expecting me to perform. We have two young quarterbacks that are really good, but I feel like if I perform like I should, it should be my position."
Notes: Riley, Mansion and Sweeney each threw a touchdown pass in Cal's next-to-last scrimmage of the spring Saturday. Riley completed 9 of 17 passes for 85 yards and an interception. Mansion completed 4 of 9 passes for 68 yards and Sweeney completed 6 of 12 for 60 yards and an interception. The defensive front seven played well, holding the offense's leading rusher, Covaughn DeBoskie, to just 15 yards on eight carries. ... Several notable alumni watched the scrimmage, with Kansas City TE Tony Gonzalez, Washington DE Andre Carter, Seattle RB Justin Forsett and Green Bay LB Desmond Bishop among the current NFL players in attendance.
Contact Jonathan Okanes at email@example.com. Staff writer Ben Enos contributed to this story.