Cal QB Riley ready to fight off challengers (again)

California's Kevin Riley knows the drill. He's being interviewed for the 868th time -- plus or minus -- after all. That means the senior will be asked about competing for the starting quarterback job (again). That means he'll be asked to analyze the inconsistency that has characterized his career (again).

He's a gimlet-eyed veteran who understands that when a team turns in a supremely disappointing season -- as the Bears did in 2009 -- the quarterback is almost always going to received a large share of the blame.

So, yeah, the 22-game starter is not surprised that, for a third consecutive spring, he's battling for the starting job (again).

"Something needs to happen," he said. "I need to play better for us to win more games. [Coach Jeff Tedford] is just giving the other guys an opportunity if I don't step up. It definitely keeps you motivated. I don't know what spring ball or fall ball would be like without competition. So I'm used to it."

The Bears began spring practices Thursday with lots of questions on both sides of the ball, but the biggest one for most Cal fans is whether Riley will take a step forward and, by doing so, fight away challenges from sophomore Beau Sweeney and junior Brock Mansion.

Riley ranked sixth in the conference in pass efficiency last year. He threw 18 touchdowns passes and passed for 2,850 yards, but he only completed 54.7 percent of his passes and hurled eight interceptions.

He also was sacked 31 times, which he admits is part of the reason his mechanics fell off and his accuracy suffered.

"I definitely missed some throws," he said. "I think when teams got pressure on us, that's when my game kind of went down hill. I started quickening up my throws and that didn't go real well. You could see in the games we lost, people got good pressure on me and that changed the way we played the game."

In Cal's five losses, Riley completed just 46 percent of his passes and was sacked 18 times.

As Tedford has said repeatedly, it wasn't all Riley's fault. The Bears offensive line often got whipped, particularly on the edges, while the receiving corps struggled to get open and make plays, other than Marvin Jones, who's six TD receptions were four more than any other receiver.

It's still hard for Riley to figure out exactly what went wrong -- team-wide -- in 2009. At 3-0, the Bears were ranked sixth in the nation before they suffered humiliating back-to-back defeats to Oregon and USC by a combined count of 72-6. They then rallied to win five out of six before getting drubbed at Washington in the regular-season finale and playing flat vs. Utah in the Poinsettia Bowl.

"We did have potential but we weren't all there in every aspect of the game, as you could see in the games we lost," Riley said. "After the first couple of wins, the team was just a little bit too satisfied. I don't think we worked as hard during the season as teams that keep on winning do. I think we were happy with our wins but then we didn't get better for a while."

That's why Riley won't be the only returning starter being challenged this spring. Offseason workouts have been all about competing and increased intensity.

"There's a little bit more drive with what we've done compared to last year," Riley said. "Last year, people talked about how we had the potential to be good, which we did, but we didn't do anything with it. People are competing more with each other now and working hard."

Riley has been working on his footwork, his throwing motion and his movement in the pocket. His focus on mechanics during one-on-one sessions with Tedford last offseason helped him win the job, but the key missing ingredient is... wait for it... yep, consistency over the course of a 12-game season.

It may help Riley and the Bears that they won't receive much preseason hype this go-around. They likely will be tapped somewhere in the middle of the Pac-10 pack, and it's unlikely they will receive a preseason ranking.

Will that help? "Maybe," Riley said, sniffing out a fluffy reporter angle.

When it comes down to it, Riley knows there's only one thing that the Bears can do to ensure they don't repeat the disappointment of 2009.

"I think people know we just have to work harder for us to be a better team," he said.