BERKELEY — Quarterback Nate Longshore has had his share of good moments and bad moments during his four years at Cal — boy, has he had some bad moments — but what he chooses as the highlight of his career might come as a surprise.
"Right now is the best time of my career," Longshore said. "I'm so excited. I think we're going to surprise some people. There's focus and an intensity when you're out there that is unparalleled since I've been here."
Considering football hasn't exactly been kind to Longshore during the past 10 months, it might seem a little hard to believe that this is his favorite time in Berkeley — not sometime during 2006 when he became just the second Cal quarterback ever to throw for over 3,000 yards in a season and led the Bears to 10 wins, including a victory in the Holiday Bowl.
But then again, considering just how difficult 2007 was on Longshore, perhaps the opportunity to make 2008 better is what he finds so appealing about the here and now.
"I think it's almost like a breath of fresh air for him, a new start," Cal coach Jeff Tedford said. "It became so stressful for him last year that to have a new beginning and to have a new start to the season is a breath of fresh air. It's an opportunity to try to put last year behind him. It seems like his attitude right now is as good as I've ever seen it as far as eager to practice every day, eager to get better every day, eager to work on things that make us better as a team."
If history repeats itself, Longshore should enjoy 2008. It seems the odd-numbered years don't go quite as well for the fifth-year senior.
In 2005, Longshore beat out junior college transfer Joe Ayoob for the starting job in training camp. But he suffered a season-ending ankle injury in the opener against Sacramento State.
"That was tough just because I had done a lot of work leading up to that," Longshore said. "I felt like I had learned a lot from Aaron (Rodgers) and was ready to go. Then I had to wait a whole year."
Longshore had to audition for the job again before the 2006 season. He made the most of getting the nod this time, throwing for 3,021 yards and 24 touchdowns.
"I know he was eager to get his opportunity because he had worked really hard to put himself in position to get that opportunity," Tedford said. "Then he came back and had a very successful year and was the MVP of the Holiday Bowl."
Which brings us to 2007. As anybody who even remotely follows Cal football can confirm, it wasn't exactly Longshore's year.
Things certainly started out right. The Bears began the season 5-0 and advanced to No. 2 in the national rankings. Longshore wasn't spectacular, but he managed the offense efficiently and put together his best game in what appeared to be a benchmark win at Oregon.
But Longshore suffered an ankle sprain late in the win over the Ducks and missed the following game against Oregon State. The Bears lost their first game of the season to the Beavers, and when Longshore returned the next week against UCLA, things weren't the same. Cal lost in back-to-back weeks to the Bruins and Arizona State, and Longshore became a whipping boy for the Bears' fall from grace. He threw key fourth-quarter interceptions in both losses, prompting a faction of fans to call for backup Kevin Riley to take his place.
It was clear that Longshore was playing with pain during the first few games after his return. Tedford said that is a credit to Longshore's toughness, also pointing out that when he hurt his ankle against Sac State in '05, he hobbled off the field on his own.
"The whole reason he came back to play was because he is a warrior," Tedford said. "He's tough. That's what gets overlooked sometimes. I don't know that people really gave him that respect, of trying to play through pain."
The Bears managed just one more win during the rest of the regular season and Longshore was left standing on the sideline watching Riley put together a breathtaking performance in a 42-36 win over Air Force in the Armed Forces Bowl.
After the season, some wondered where Longshore stood. Had Riley replaced him as the team's No. 1 quarterback for 2008? That remains to be seen. The two are locked in a quarterback competition this fall. The battle was supposed to start in the spring but never got going after Longshore experienced more misfortune — a pulled pectoral muscle that shut him down after just a few practices.
"Experience comes in good experience and bad experience," Tedford said. "I think there's a lot to be learned from bad experience. Nate has had some good experiences, and we all know he's been through some bad experiences. It's disappointing the season turned out the way it did and most of it fell on his shoulders."
While Longshore was enduring hate mail, critics on Internet message boards and catcalls from the stands, he also was trying to help plan his wedding to his high school sweetheart, Rachel, who actually went to a different high school.
"I always noticed the hot cheerleader on the other side," Longshore said.
They got married in May.
"It was hard on me because I sit in the stands," Rachel said. "I hear what everybody says. People are mean. I want to get in their face because they don't know what they're talking about. They should be supporting him, not booing him."
Longshore went on last season to throw 16 touchdown passes and 13 interceptions, many of which came at pivotal times. Tedford said some of the picks were a result of Longshore "trying to win too hard and make something happen," but some were the result of other factors out of his control, such as receivers running the wrong route.
"He didn't play perfect," Tedford said. "It wasn't carelessness. It was out of eagerness to be successful and trying to do his part. But there are a lot of reasons for interceptions. Sometimes they definitely fall on the quarterback, but it's a team sport. It could be a wrong route, a tipped ball or a broken protection. We learned last year that everybody is accountable for our lack of success."
Longshore certainly seems to have forgotten about last season. He appears to be energized by the Bears' infusion of young talent, and motivated that expectations of Cal are substantially lower this year.
"At this point, I'm completely over last year, and over all the nonsense that came with it," Longshore said. "I've realized that's behind me. That wasn't me."
Longshore also seems unfazed by the competition with Riley, which shouldn't come as too much of a surprise. Longshore has been involved in training camp quarterback competitions every year at Cal except last year.
"Nate is a strong person," Cal center Alex Mack said. "He has had so many ups and downs and he's handled them all so well. He was getting blamed last year for things that weren't his fault. He would throw an interception, but it would be a tackle letting him get hit or the receiver running the wrong route. But he shows up every day ready to work, very composed. He never looks rattled. That's hard to do."
Longshore may not only be battling to keep his starting job, but in a way, he's battling for his future. Longshore entered last season regarded as one of the top junior quarterback prospects in the country. The uneven nature of his 2007 season caused his NFL draft stock to drop.
"Football is like life. There are good times and bad times," Longshore said. "It makes you adjust to certain situations and it can put you in situations that you'd rather not be in. You just try to grow from your experiences and find new and better ways to do things."
Contact Jonathan Okanes at email@example.com.