Spring Practice Preview: Defense

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Today's article is the second in a two-day series previewing the Cal football team's roster heading into spring practice. It focuses on the defense and specialists.

A Pac-10 team not named USC being led by its defense?

Unheard of.

Only in Berkeley.

In 2008, the Cal football team rode its defense to a 9-4 record -- the Bears picked off 24 passes, their best since 1953, and boasted the nation's second-best red-zone defense (66 percent), allowing just 19 touchdowns in 41 opponents' trips.

Defensive coordinator Bob Gregory labeled his unit the best he had fielded since 2004, when Cal was infamously snubbed of a Rose Bowl bid. Here's a quick look at the returning defense as well as special teams.

LINEBACKERS

Potential NFL draftee Anthony Felder said during the season, to paraphrase, that once a group of seniors leave, the team's operations move on the following year as if they were never there.

That might be a little harder to do this year, given Felder, Zack Follett and Worrell Williams are all NFL-level talents.

But you can't really blame coach Jeff Tedford for trying.

"I feel really good about that spot," he said. "I think we have some guys again with experience."

It might take Bears fans a couple games to feel really good about the overall unit. A few returning players, though, have shown promise.

For starters, there's Mike Mohamed, who's been showing promise for over two years but had to sit behind the aforementioned trio. The sophomore, somewhat of a Justin Forsett in that regard, needs no introduction.

He was "pretty much a starter," said Tedford. You can allow Eddie Young, who started the games Mohamed didn't, the distinction as well.

Freshman Mychal Kendricks, meanwhile, is a bit of an unknown. He played mostly on special teams in 2008 while subbing in and out of linebacker duty sparingly.

So what's to be expected of this kid? Williams offered an explanation in his parting words to the Bears program.

"I think he can be the best linebacker to ever come out of Cal," Williams said.

Whoa there.

Williams went on to compare Kendricks' build to his own, saying that the freshman even has the athleticism to play offense.

A thinner Williams with running-back speed?

That could work for the Bears.

"He can be a force, no doubt about it," Tedford added. "He can run, and he plays with great leverage. He hustles, he's tough, and he is very athletic. There is no doubt that he is going to be a better player this year, and things are going to smooth out for him a little bit."

Add DJ Holt and Devin Bishop, both of whom Tedford tabbed to play inside, to the mix, and it's clear that Cal didn't lose absolutely everything in its linebacking corps.

Just 244 tackles.

"I feel like we're doing well there," Tedford said. "Devin Bishop played, so you take him, Holt, Mike and all these guys and add to them the JC guys in the fall, who have a lot of ability as well."

The Bears will also be joined by JP Hurrell, who sat out a year after shoulder surgery. Hurrell was a consensus three-star prep prospect.

DEFENSIVE LINE

It could be a breakout year for the Cal linemen.

Unless they've already broken out.

Junior Tyson Alualu was already a proven commodity by the start of 2008, and by the end of it, he was a second-team All-Pac-10 defensive end.

And sophomore Cameron Jordan, merely a self-proclaimed pass-rush specialist in 2007, added bulk to both his frame and on-field antics in becoming a more complete player. A freak of nature that can run a 4.8 40-yard dash at 6-foot-4 and 287 pounds, Jordan is as good as it gets at the 3-4 weakside end.

"Those two guys are a force at defensive ends," Tedford said.

Redshirt freshman Ernest Owusu -- whom teammates compare to a younger Rulon Davis -- and sophomore Keith Browner will add depth to the position, joined by freshman Trevor Guyton and redshirt Aaron Tipoti.

"Owusu is there to help create some depth, so it'd be nice to see him compete," Tedford said. "Browner made a bit of a stride last year, so it would be great to see him continue to go in that direction. Trevor Guyton and Aaron Tipoti are two young guys that we feel really good about. Trevor obviously got some time last year, so that will help."

While Cal is mostly set at the two defensive end spots, the Bears might elect for a two-man committee at nose tackle.

Redshirt sophomore Derrick Hill likely won't vacant his starting gig anytime soon, but Kendrick Payne figures to be a little more than just a reserve and has a chance to prove himself while Hill -- who recently had his knee scoped out -- sits out spring practice.

"Kendrick Payne is back in the mix now, which is nice because he really showed a lot of promise early in the year," Tedford said. "But then there's gonna be some competition after that -- (Michael) Costanzo, (Kevin) Bemoll, some of those guys at the nose. Right now the first two noses would be Hill and Kendrick Payne."

DEFENSIVE BACKS

Minus Bernard Hicks, the usual suspects will be back in the Cal secondary.

That includes starters Syd'Quan Thompson, Darian Hagan, Marcus Ezeff, Brett Johnson and Sean Cattouse, as well as nickle back Chris Conte and a versatile -- or unsettled, whichever way you look at it -- Bryant Nnabuife.

It's a loaded group, to say the least.

Yet in 2009, they will add redshirts Marc Anthony and Josh Hill to the mix. Both will push Hagan and Conte for their jobs, while Thompson is somewhat untouchable, according to Tedford.

"The young corners should be in the mix," Tedford said. "Marc Anthony and Josh Hill, those guys are really good players, and now they're going to get a chance to compete. It's going to give us some flexibility to move some guys to safety from time to time."

Tedford described the unit as the team's deepest.

SPECIALISTS

Goodbye Nick Sunderg.

Hello Matt Rios.

For the first time since 2005, someone other than Sundberg will snap for punts. Tedford said he's had an succession plan since before Sundberg even played in his final season.

"Rios is one of the guys that goes kind of unnoticed," Tedford said. "We went out and scholarshipped him a year ago to have him ready for the time when Sundberg left. So he'll take that job over."

The guy catching Rios' snaps, though, made quite the impression in just a season in Berkeley, where punter Bryan Anger is nearly a household name.

"We have a pretty good punter coming back," Tedford dryly agreed.

Much of the suspense, Tedford suggested, will lie in determining the kicker.

Walk-on Georgio Tavecchio has been working out rigorously throughout the offseason, and freshman David Seawright will have a second shot at the gig after an injury-plagued season in 2008.

And to make things even more interesting, there's the new guy -- Vince D'Amato -- who might have the liveliest leg of them all, at least according to his high school tapes.

"We have to let Seawright get healthy," Tedford said. "Seawright's got some small muscle in (his groin) that he's torn, and he wasn't kicking up to his potential (in 2008). We have to see how he grows here.

"And I think Georgio's gonna be better after a year. Shoot, he got thrown right into the fire (last year). He's gonna be stronger, he's working really hard, training really hard. I think his confidence is gonna be up, so he has the potential to do some things.

"And we have the new guy, Vince. He's got a big leg. That will be a very competitive spot."

Tags: TYSON ALUALU, SYD'QUAN THOMPSON, JEFF TEDFORD, CAL FOOTBALL


Contact Andrew Kim at [email protected]



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