Sum of Its PartsThe Daily Cal Breaks Down Each Unit of the Cal Football Team
Breaking Down the Cal Football TeamDaily Cal beat writers Matt Kawahara and Katie Dowd talk in-depth about Cal's offense, defense and special teams.
Monday, August 17, 2009
Category: Sports > Fall > Football
Cal's defense surprised a lot of people by emerging as the backbone of the team in 2008, allowing just under 20 points a game and giving up 17 or fewer eight times.
That success started with senior linebackers Zack Follett, Worrell Williams and Anthony Felder, as the Bears switched to a 3-4 alignment to take advantage of their talent and depth at the linebacker position. This year, all three are gone, and the biggest question mark on defense entering fall camp seemed to be how the new wave of backers would fill the shoes of those who left.
According to coach Jeff Tedford, they're doing just fine.
"I feel great about the linebackers," Tedford said after a fall camp practice last Friday. "People think that we're inexperienced, but a lot of those guys played last year."
Outside linebacker Eddie Young-who started over half the Bears' games last season-returns, as does the versatile Mike Mohamed, Cal's second-leading tackler in 2008. Throw in sophomore Mychal Kendricks, who Williams has said could eventually be the best linebacker ever to come out of Cal, senior Devin Bishop, sophomore D.J. Holt and a few talented junior college transfers, and the Bears are again loaded with talent where the 3-4 calls for it most.
Around the backers, meanwhile, are a number of familiar faces.
Almost the entire secondary returns from a team that intercepted 24 passes last year, led by preseason All-America cornerback Syd'Quan Thompson. Darian Hagan, who started opposite in all 13 games last year and led the team with 15 pass break-ups, is back along with safeties Marcus Ezeff, Brett Johnson and Sean Cattouse. Chris Conte and D.J. Campbell give Cal depth at safety, while Conte can also play downs at corner alongside Charles Amadi, Bryant Nnabuife and Josh Hill.
Cal's defensive line returns completely intact, with nose tackle Derrick Hill lining up between defensive ends Tyson Alualu and Cameron Jordan. Alualu has played in 39 straight games and was second team all Pac-10 in 2008.
With all the experience coming back, the one thing that the Bears seem to be missing is a surefire playmaker at linebacker-the title that Follett occupied in 2008, when he racked up 23 tackles for loss, 10.5 sacks and five forced fumbles. A new season, however, means a chance for a new player to take on that role.
"We lost three good linebackers, but I don't think we took a step back going through the whole offseason," Thompson said before the start of training camp. "Our linebackers hear a lot of that, like, 'How are you going to replace the linebackers? You know you've got some big shoes to fill,' and I think that's a motivation for them to come out and work a little harder. I think the defense is going to be pretty solid."
- Matt Kawahara
While the defense received most of the praise last season, the Cal football team returns seven starters to an offense that averaged over 30 points per game in 2008.
Entering the 2009 campaign, the Bears' Jahvid Best has been the center of attention, but a closer look at the offense will show that this is more than just a one-man system.
It's been over a week into fall camp, and junior Kevin Riley and sophomore Brock Mansion are still fighting it out for the starting job.
Thus far, Riley has taken the majority of the first-team reps in camp and shown flashes of being a capable leader on the field, but inconsistency has allowed Mansion to work with the first-team unit occasionally.
Odds are Riley will emerge from camp with the job, and if he does, the success of this team may very well rest on his arm.
Best leads the running backs, a unit of the offense that has been utterly dominant since Tedford's arrival seven seasons ago. Best rushed for 1,580 yards last season, third in the nation, and put himself into the national spotlight alongside names such as Florida's Tim Tebow and Texas' Colt McCoy.
With all the hype on Best, many have forgotten sophomore Shane Vereen. For those who followed Cal last season, they should recall that Vereen ran for over 700 yards despite splitting carries with Best.
While those two appear to be locks at the tailback position, the fullback situation is unclear at this point.
The Bears graduated senior Will Ta'ufo'ou at the end of last season and are looking for one of two players to replace the talented lead blocker. Senior Bryan Holley and sophomore Will Kapp have been vying for the chance to fill the shoes of Ta'ufo'ou but neither has emerged a clear-cut favorite.
Speaking to the wide receivers, it sounds like one year has made all the difference for this heavily-criticized group of players.
"We want to step it up this year and shut up the critics and help this team win a national championship," senior Nyan Boateng said.
As of today, it looks like Boateng, sophomore Marvin Jones and junior Jeremy Ross will combine to form the receiving corps for Cal this season. However, sophomore Alex Lagemann has continued his impressive play from the spring and should see plenty of playing time as well.
Senior Tad Smith brings the most experience to the tight end position, but sophomore Anthony Miller has been making some plays in camp too.
On the offensive line, replacing Alex Mack seems daunting, but junior Chris Guarnero has been trying his best to do just that. Guarnero will be relieved to know he will be joined by an experienced tackle in Mike Tepper this season. On the right side, sophomore Mitchell Schwartz will return to his natural position after filling in for Tepper on the left side last season.
The guards positions are still up in the air. Currently, Matt Summers-Gavin, Justin Cheadle and Chet Teofilo are all in the mix for the two remaining positions.
- Jimmy Tran
The special teams unit is the kind of group that seems to only draw attention to itself when it does something wrong. But in 2009, they might be making headlines for more flattering achievements.
It all starts with sophomore punter Bryan Anger, a preseason All-American. Last year as a true freshman, Anger averaged 43.1 yards per punt with more hangtime than just about anyone in the country. And with all going well so far in fall camp, you can expect more of the same-and better-from Anger again this season.
Snapping to Anger is the only truly new face-redshirt freshman Matt Rios. But there shouldn't be much drop-off in that department-Rios spent last season working with Cal's former long snapping stalwart Nick Sundberg, who Rios has known since the eighth grade.
"Once I got here, Sundberg kind of walked me through the process and helped me," Rios said. "When I was having a bad day, he was the one helping me improve. We'd study each other and tell each other what we were doing wrong"
And, of course, there are the kickers. David Seawright-who was lost to a hip injury early last season-and freshman Vince D'Amato have made it a competition, but after a little over a week of practice, last year's starter Giorgio Tavecchio has asserted himself as the favorite. After months of working on his technique, Tavecchio has come into fall camp with more leg and accuracy than he displayed last season.
"Last year if I missed, I usually missed right because (of what) kickers call 'looking up too early' ... When I look up to see the ball, it pulls my hips and my shoulders are crossed which pulls the ball," Tavecchio said. "I worked on staying down on the ball, making sure my steps are very precise so my plant foot is in the optimum spot."
Jahvid Best is tabbed to return kicks, but as his wear and tear is already being very closely monitored, he may not always be on kickoff duty. Marvin Jones, Jeremy Ross and Shane Vereen have all seen action in that role. Thompson is eager to reprise his role as the team's punt returner, one of his favorite duties.
- Katie Dowd
Contact Matt Kawahara, Jimmy Tran, Katie Dowd at [email protected]
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