Linebacker D.J. Holt is seizing the spotlight and growing into one of Cal's leaders.

Lara Brucker/Staff

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One sprained big toe. It kept senior linebacker Mike Mohamed sidelined in the Cal football team's first loss of the season, helpless during his team's 52-31 evisceration in Reno, Nev., three weeks ago.

It opened the door for D.J. Holt.

With the Bears missing their defensive star, the junior split time between both inside linebacker spots. The unit's usual captain was stuck in sweats, so the team looked elsewhere for guidance.

"Whenever we lose a man, somebody has to step up and he understands that," linebackers coach Kenwick Thompson says. "We feel like that's just part of the position."

The defense couldn't contain dual-threat quarterback Colin Kaepernick from any position as the freakish, 6-foot-6 specimen made Cal his own personal punching bag. 330 total yards. Five touchdowns. The stat line read like it was from a video game.

But the Bears needed a silver lining, and Holt was finely polished sterling. His 16 tackles was Cal's highest mark since 2007, matching safety Thomas DeCoud.

Mohamed is one of the team's best players, a likely NFL Draft pick who led the conference in the category last season with 112.

Even missing the entire Nevada game and most of the next in Arizona, his 23 tackles through three games is good enough for the team's second-highest total.

Holt now leads with 34.

More often than not, players require time to grow into the linebacker position. Patience and anticipation comes with more and more reps. Formations become easier to recognize, slowly etching themselves into memory.

"Towards the end of (last) season I started to watch more film and it started to click for me," Holt says. "I started to understand the game better. When springtime came, everything just started to fall into place. Fall camp, everything started to happen slower. Everything was just perfect timing."

He admits that he used to settle. ("I did fine. I did OK. I'll be all right for next week.") Like many young players, Holt spent his first two years were spent trying to figure out his role - something he's far more comfortable with now. The former high-school standout flips through his responsibilities like a Rolodex. Get better every week. Be prepared to play any position. Lead by example.

Holt pauses mid-sentence.

"I want guys to count on me," he adds.

Part of his story starts at Crespi Carmelite High, a 540-student, all-boys prep school in Encino, Calif. Tucked into the heart of the San Fernando Valley, its football team is coming off two straight seasons without a postseason berth - a drought that led to the forced resignation of head coach Jeremiah Ross.

These things are cyclical, though, and the Celts just happen to be in the valley portion of their journey. Crespi is still one of the Southland's traditional football powers. Holt, for example, had a storybook ending to his high school career, leading his team to two straight CIF Division X titles.

Two years into his time there, he almost left.

Holt had originally heard about Crespi through a friend. Upon visiting the campus, he was immediately impressed, particularly with Troy Thomas. The defensive-minded coach preached aggression on the defense, a philosophy that stuck with Holt. ("I like being physical and just dominating another player, another team. You see it in their eyes.") Thomas became a father figure for him.

Then, after Holt's sophomore year, Thomas decided to leave for Anaheim's Servite High.

"It was one day, during lifting class," he remembers. "He was like, 'We need to have a meeting.' And then, next thing you know, he said, 'I'm not gonna be the coach next year.' Man, that day was really shocking. I couldn't believe it. I was like, 'What am I gonna do now? The head coach is leaving.'

"I didn't know exactly what to think or what to feel. A week later I was still shocked."

Holt stayed, despite thoughts about transferring to Canyon High, which some of his middle-school classmates played for. That school was a mere five minutes away from his house - and eventually won two Division I championships - but he had to set an example.

"A lot of those guys were a year younger than me, two years younger than me, three years younger than me," Holt says.

Ten Crespi alumni are now his conference rivals. He'll see one this Saturday: UCLA quarterback Kevin Prince.

When Prince started his first year of varsity ball as a junior, Holt was already set for his fourth. He had been an anchor for the team all over the field and, as the No. 1 receiver, became a sort of safety valve for the newcomer.

"Every now and then, he would get rattled in high school," Holt says. "I would come and calm him down, just calm down, relax. He would throw me the ball. I'd tell him throw me the ball. 'I'll get you out of situations, just throw me the ball. We need you.' Just keep reminding him, try to keep up his confidence."

Prince threw for 1,422 yards and 12 touchdowns that season. Holt caught nine of them.

He'll try to catch another one of Prince's throws in Cal's Homecoming game. The former teammates might hook up for another touchdown; this time, it'll only count as six points for one of them.

"Last year, I hit him and knocked him down to the ground," he says. "I didn't help him up because he's an opponent ... We still have that friendship, but I'm a Bear, he's a Bruin. On the field, it's all war."

Mohamed will be back, but Holt's still ready to command.


Jack Wang covers football. Contact him at [email protected]

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