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Going Camping: Linebacker Preview

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Replacing any one senior starter is difficult. Replacing two, frustrating. Replacing two when one of them was named the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year? Challenging, to say the least.
That's what Clancy Pendergast has to contend with, having lost D.J. Holt -- signed as an undrafted free agent by the Washington Redskins on May 3 -- and of course, Mychal Kendricks, picked in the second round of the NFL Draft (No. 46 overall) after playing in all 51 possible games over his Cal career, racking up 259 tackles, 15 sacks, 43 tackles for loss and four interceptions.
"They're going to be very sorely missed," says Pendergast. "Rob Mullins has had his third year in the system, and if he can continue to stay healthy, he's going to do very well. We're excited about the possibility of some of the young guys to make a jump."
It would come as no surprise if two members of the vaunted 2010 class wind up starting in the middle in Nick Forbes and David Wilkerson. Wilkerson played in three games off the bench as a true freshman in 2010, recording two tackles before a season-ending injury.
Wilkerson is currently listed as Forbes' backup at the moment, but it wouldn't be shocking to see him take over at the other spot, currently occupied by a pair of seniors in Mullins (6-foot, 225) and Hurrell (5-foot-11, 230). Neither of those two has broken into the starting ranks aside from a handful of nods over the past three years, but together, they've played 63 games, so there is some experience.
"J.P. Hurrell is cat-quick," says Pendergast. "He just needs to play."
2011 was Wilkerson's first significant action, as he played in 10 games at outside linebacker, recording four solo stops and 13 assists, to go along with seven sacks and nine tackles for loss. At 6-foot-2, 230, Wilkerson is much more of a natural on the inside, with a very good knowledge of the game. He's got a bit of a sprinkling of Zack Follett in him, which is a plus, but he's also inherited the Zyger's propensity for injury, which severely limited him last season and during spring.
"I think he's just got to stay healthy," Pendergast says. "That's the biggest thing for him. He's just got to continue to stay healthy, and we've worked diligently at rehabilitation and he's gotten better in the weight room. Hopefully, that will help him."
Forbes is coming off a 2011 season in which he was completely sidelined for half the season due to a spring ankle injury, which required surgery, before practicing -- but not playing -- for the rest of the campaign. During the spring game, Forbes led the Blue team with seven tackles, adding 0.5 TFL and one pass break up.
"Nick Forbes is going to get an opportunity in there, and then Jason Gibson, we're really excited about him and we're going to play him at Mike starting out in fall camp. Then, at the Will position, we've moved David Wilkerson into that position to get the best players on the field. He had a good spring and seems to be grasping the position."
After taking a medical redshirt last season, Forbes had a lot of time on his hands to delve into the mental side of the game.
"Redshirting last year really helped him, to give him a chance to learn the system and he had a pretty good linebacker to look up to in D.J. Holt," says Pendergast. "I expect him to make a jump this year."
A new face on the inside will be former outside backer Jason Gibson. The former Gardena (Calif.) Serra defensive end who redshirted last season had three tackles in the spring game, and has bulked up to 6-foot-2, 225 pounds of hurt. Gibson is right up there with safety Avery Sebastian as one of the pound-for-pound hardest hitters in the Cal defense, and his skill level and instincts in stopping the run will be one of the progressions to monitor as fall camp progresses. Of course, stopping the run is just one of the duties he'll have. He'll also have to learn how to drop back in coverage, but his long and lean frame and plus speed should give him a leg up in that regard.
There is little question that the 2010 and 2011 haul of linebackers -- Gibson, Forbes, Wilkerson, McCain and Broussard -- will be taking center stage this season.
"I think these are the guys," says Pendergast. "Some of them played last year, and gained experience. I think the more you play, the more you're going to get better, and I think these guys will continue to make the jump."
With much of the depth at all four linebacker positions being relatively young, the newcomers Michael Barton and Hardy Nickerson, Jr., will have to bide their time. Nickerson - wearing the same number his father wore in Berkeley - has a lifetime of learning at the feet of a master, and Barton was one of the best prep linebackers in the nation in 2012. If those two wind up getting any significant reps this season, it would either be a pleasant surprise or an indication of a catastrophic rash of injuries. That's not saying that they can't compete -- they are just the latest in a long string of top-flight backers to call Strawberry Canyon home.
While the defensive line is perhaps the strongest unit in the 2012 defense (more on that later this week), the linebacking corps is perhaps the one most ripe with possibility and excitement.
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