Maynard the key piece for Cal

Our oversimplification of the day is this: If QB Zach Maynard plays well this year, California has a successful season.

But more than a few Cal fans would nod their heads.

The Bears are solid to good at just about every position, starting with both lines. There's intriguing young talent to fortify the depth, particularly on defense. While the Pac-12 North Division looks rugged, there's enough here for the Bears to bounce back from a hugely disappointing 5-7 campaign in 2010, the first losing season in nine years under Jeff Tedford, the dean of conference coaches.

But Maynard, a transfer from Buffalo who'll make his debut against Fresno State on Saturday at Candlestick Park, said he doesn't feel any pressure. In fact, he kicks that line of questioning to the curb and segues into what he wants to talk about: How many are discounting the Bears.

"We're the underdogs right now," he said. "Nobody is saying anything about us. There's a lot of hype about other teams. Everybody's wondering what we're going to bring to the table. Everybody is going to find out when we start our first game and get into the season."

Here's what we're saying about Cal: It has to pass better. It ranked 89th in the nation in passing efficiency in 2010 and 94th in passing, with just 175 yards per game. That ain't going to cut it, particularly in the Pac-12, where superior QB play is required.

Tedford's reputation as a quarterbacks guru has taken some hits of late, but he seems to feel he's found his man. Tedford named Maynard the starter at the end of spring practices after he outplayed Brock Mansion and Allan Bridgford, who won the No. 2 spot, and part of that was so Maynard could start winning over the locker room as a leader.

"He's really stepped up and earned the team's respect," Tedford said.

Maynard passed for 2,694 yards with 18 TDs and 15 interception in 2009 for Buffalo and also rushed for 300 yards. Tedford likes his arm and his quick release, but he particularly likes his athletic ability.

"He has an escape dimension that we haven't had here in a while," Tedford said.

But it's not only an ability to escape pressure and scramble. It's an ability to create -- "Manufacture," Tedford says -- plays. There was a seeming tendency to panic that made Nate Longshore and Kevin Riley often throw the ball into the wrong place at the wrong time. Maynard has a bit of the cool-cat artist to him.

And if he's looking for a go-to guy, he's got one in true sophomore receiver Keenan Allen, and not just because Allen is super-talented. Allen is Maynard's half-brother and they are tight.

"It's like throwing in your backyard really," Maynard said. "You have a connection. You always know where he's going to be."

Maynard could be the key piece that gets Bears back into contention, and thereby mutes the increasingly vocal Tedford critics. But that's another topic Maynard kicks to the curb.

"I don't really hear anything about that," he said. "I don't get involved in the politics. I just go out and play ball and go to class."

But if he plays well, folks will start talking about Cal and Tedford (again), and they'll probably be saying nice things (again).