Five months ago, the talk of the town was the Cal football team's top-flight defensive recruiting class. With a stable of vicious linebackers and a new, more aggressive scheme brought by new defensive coordinator and NFL-coaching veteran Clancy Pendergast, the Bears-who had long made their hay on offense-looked to be a newly-minted defensive juggernaut.
Then, in a matter of weeks, Cal dismissed linebacker Chris Little-who had made quite a showing during spring camp-lost five-star recruit Chris Martin to a transfer and lost four-star 2010 linebacker Cecil Whiteside to academic concerns. All of a sudden, the bad news outweighed the good. But, despite those apparent losses, Bears fans do in fact have reasons for hope on the defensive side of the ball.
While Little is gone for good, according to head coach Jeff Tedford, Whiteside should be on track to return to the team by the 2011 season after grayshirting for a year.
"It's looking that way," Tedford said at Thursday's Pac-10 Media Day at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif. "The NCAA is still evaluating his academics, so he wasn't in Summer Bridge, and you have to be in Summer Bridge (if you're an athlete) to be admitted into school. Summer Bridge is over next week."
As for the loss of Martin, Tedford was a bit more talkative than he had been previously, regarding the Oakland-native's transfer.
"It wasn't a big blow," Tedford said. "It wasn't a good fit, and he really hadn't done anything here yet, so it wasn't a major blow. We wish him well, but it just wasn't working out right and I don't want to have somebody here who you risk being a detriment to the team because they're not happy."
What the Bears do have remaining, though, is nothing to sneeze at. Cal's 3-4 base defense is stocked with quality linebackers, several of whom made big impacts during spring camp. On the outside, junior Mychal Kendricks and senior Keith Browner top the depth chart, with backups Jerome Meadows-a 6-foot-3, 228-pound senior-and Jared Price-a 5-foot-11, 213-pound senior.
Outside linebacker was the spot that Martin was expected to get a large chunk of playing time at as a true freshman, but Tedford is confident that the current crop of veterans will more than ably hold things down.
"The guys that are there, the guys that were there before him: Browner. Price," Tedford said. "We may move Meadows to play there. They're interchangeable, really, both sides. Kendricks may play outside. We've got to see how the new guys fit in and then, kind of move those guys around."
On the inside, Kendricks will back up 6-foot-1, 250-pound D.J. Holt and redshirt freshman Steven Fanua-who had a breakout spring-will step in behind the captain of the defense, 6-foot-3, 245-pound senior Mike Mohamed.
Mohamed has been the recipient of a bevy of offseason accolades, including being named to the Playboy All-America squad, a second-team All-America nod from The Kickoff, a third-team spot from both NationalChamps.net and Phil Steele, an honorable mention choice of College Football Insiders and first-team All-Pac-10 selections from Athlon, Lindy's and Phil Steele.
He has been named to the watch lists for the 2010 Rotary Lombardi Aaward, the Lott Trophy and the Bronko Nagursky Trophy. While the soft-spoken and hard-hitting Mohamed is understandably honored by all the preseason hype, he knows that if he doesn't perform, it will be all for naught.
"I'm aware of all that, all the preseason accolades and all that, but at the same time, my main focus is the team," Mohamed said on Thursday. "I want to win the Pac-10. I want to go to the Rose Bowl. So, while I'm aware of it, it doesn't really affect me. I know that I need to go out and just play like I did last year, put together a good season and help my team win the best I can."
While other head coaches brought along their offensive stars-USC's Lane Kiffin tapped quarterback Matt Barkley to accompany him, Arizona QB Nick Foles came with his head coach Mike Stoops and running back Jaquizz Rodgers represented Oregon State-it was Mohamed whom Tedford chose to bring on the whirlwind week that saw the conference hold media days in New York and Pasadena, as well as make an appearance on ESPN.
"Mike is a great leader for our team, the conference leader in tackles last year, he's a great young man, not just a great football player," Tedford said. "He's a great young man, he's going to graduate in business in the fall and he's been a great representative for our program and provides a lot of leadership for us."
Mohamed will be the on-field general for a new, more aggressive defense directed by Pendergast, who has breathed new life into what had been a stagnating unit.
"The philosophy has changed a little bit," Tedford said. "We're still in the 3-4 scheme, but we're a little bit more multiple. We're getting after it a little bit more, and that's what we need to do to be successful. We've got to pressure the passer, and the only way to do that is to get after it and be aggressive, and I think that will help us get off the field on defense."
Pendergast's proficiency with defensive backs will be a boon to the Bears secondary, which will feature veterans at cornerback and safety. As of now, the starting corners-who have the unenviable task of replacing Denver Broncos rookie Syd'Quan Thompson-will be seniors Darian Hagan and Bryant Nnabuife, backed up by sophomores Josh Hill and Marc Anthony.
"I think we have some guys who have played there, we have some depth there," Tedford said. "You have Darian Hagan who's going into his senior season, you have Bryant Nnabuife going into his senior season, both those guys have started a lot of games at Cal. You have Josh Hill who played here last year quite a bit, Marc Anthony played toward the end of the year. Steve Williams is a young redshirt freshman who I think is as talented as any corner that we've had there. So, I think we're in good hands there."
A sleeper pick to blow up on the scene this year at the position will be the speedy Williams, who was arguably one of the most impressive player at spring practice and could very well see a large share of playing time.
"In particular, Steve Williams, our cornerback has really stood out," said Mohamed. "He, especially in spring ball, came out and played some really good ball."
At safety, two recruiting classmates-junior Sean Cattouse and senior Chris Conte-are the early favorites to start, but don't think about sleeping on their backups, juniors D.J. Campbell and Chris Moncrease, who did some serious teeth-rattling during spring practice.
"Schematically, I think we're going to put them in a position to be successful, and in our safeties, with Sean Cattouse and Chris Conte in there, those guys have played a lot of games, so I think we'll be much better in the back end this year," Tedford said. "Again, it comes down to putting pressure on the passer to help those guys."
The real story, though, will be a newly-invigorated defensive line full of experience. Starting at defensive end on the first two-deep of the season will be 6-foot-3, 280-pound junior Trevor Guyton and 6-foot-4, 283-pound senior Cameron Jordan, who Tedford believes is poised for his best season in a Bears uniform. During spring ball, Jordan looked as fit and trim as he has in his time at Cal, and was far more aggressive, sporting a new mean-streak in the trenches.
"Cameron does have great potential and ability," Tedford said. "I think what's going to help him in the aggressiveness of the new style is, if we rush three and he's not getting double-teamed, he's going to have a chance to get to the passer much more often. So, if we're rushing four and five, and we can create some one-on-one match-ups, I think he's going to win most of the one-on-one match-ups because he is very gifted."
Backing up Guyton and Hill will be another pair of spring standouts in 6-foot-6, 306-pound redshirt freshman Deandre Coleman and 6-foot-4, 267-pound junior Ernest Owusu. Lurking just behind them will be two youngsters on the rehab trail in 6-foot-2, 280-pound redshirt freshman Keni Kaufusi and four-star 2010 recruit Gabe King.
"Kaufusi will come to camp," Tedford said. "He's rehabbing. We'll see the progress in rehab."
Tedford said that Kaufusi could make an impact by midseason if he rehabs completely by then.
"It depends. Different people heal at different times, so we'll see," Tedford said. "He's doing alright. He's coming along."
As for King, who is rehabbing a leg injury suffered during his senior high school season, Tedford expects No. 99 to be ready to go by the time fall camp starts this weekend.
"Gabe King is progressing and I think he'll be cleared for full-go by the time we get to practice," Tedford said. "I'd say probably he's 90 percent."
At nose guard, senior Derrick Hill has taken to the new defense like a fish to water, and could very well see his best season in 2010. He will be backed up by 6-foot-2, 299-pound sophomore Kendrick Payne, who will likely make a strong case to get some starts during the season.
This summer has seen the veterans get their first chances to interact with the incoming 2010 class, headlined by five-star receiver/defensive back Keenan Allen.
"We haven't seen him on defense yet," Mohamed said of Allen. "I think that's something for later on, once we get into camp. I don't think they want to overload him right now. He looks like he'll be able to contribute. He's looking pretty good this summer. I mean, obviously, he's going to have to learn the playbook. Right now, they're kind of just telling him what to do. Right now, he's just going out there, running and being an athlete. But, I think he's really stood out this summer."
Allen has made quite an impression on his older teammates in the short time that they've had with him.
"I hear that Keenan Allen is looking pretty good," Tedford said of Allen, who will also see time at nickel back. "We'll see how it goes. We'll see what he ends up doing and the learning curve on offense, see what he can handle in the beginning."
The biggest dividend that the new defensive personnel and system have paid thus far, before the ball has even been snapped, has been its ability to test the offense in ways that it has not been tested before.
"That's what's great about having a talented team," Tedford said. "Every day, the speed you play against, the multiplicity you can play against. We always practice ones-on-ones. We hardly ever go ones-on-twos or anything like that. We practice good-on-goods, we practice high-speed and that type of thing. But, having (Pendergast's) defense in there helps get you prepared."
Still, though, the losses of Little, Martin and-for the moment-Whiteside, would seem to open up holes that would need to be filled by future recruits. Tedford, however, was reluctant to say how that would play out.
"Specifically? I'll have to tell you after next year, after the season," he said. "We're going into this season right now, and we can't recruit anymore. After next season, we'll see how this class fits into what we're doing and then we'll probably have needs at that point. But, right now I'm anxious to see how the new guys fit in and contribute to our program."
A Few Words on Scheduling
With future Pac-12 member Colorado on the docket for 2010, as well as for 2011, Tedford offered his thoughts on being able to get an early look at an opponent the Bears may very well see year-in and year-out.
"I think there'll be more interest in that game this year maybe because of the conference alignment or what-have-you," Tedford said. "We're going to go into that game just like any other game, just go and prepare to win. I think the year after that, they were on our schedule, but that's been put on-hold pending the alignments, so I don't know what's going to happen with that."
Tedford also voiced his desire to be able to play all three other California schools every year once the two new members-the Buffaloes and Utah-join the fray.
"What I would like to do is play the Southern California schools every year," Tedford said. "I think everybody would. That's a hub of recruiting, and so there's always that carrot to come back home and play in front of your family and things like that, so I don't know what it's going to be, but hopefully, we can keep the Southern California schools on our schedule."
Of course, there are always the non-conference games to worry about, as well. This season, the Bears will open up their road schedule with a rare Friday-night tilt against Nevada. Could there be more weeknight clashes in the Bears' future? Maybe even at Memorial Stadium? The neighbors on Panoramic Hill may have something to say about that.
"That's always a concern," Tedford said. "I don't know. I think the exposure for the conference and creating more TV opportunities, is something we all need to take a look at, as a conference. Cal may pose some other challenges for a weekday game. We may play some away, but I'm not sure it'd be a good fit for our academics and everything else that goes on."
There has also been a rumor making the rounds about a possible future game against Tedford's alma mater, Fresno State. In the past, those games have been met with some unsavory incidents that have turned off many Cal fans to the idea.
"Yeah, I would (like to play them)," Tedford said. "I think it happened a couple of times, because when I was at Fresno, we came to Cal and won. I was the coordinator for Fresno and we won, and then there was another time where Cal went down there and got beat. That's my recollection. I've heard rumors, but nothing's been finalized, and it probably won't be until our conference alignment gets set up."
Finally, Tedford remarked on the conference opener with the Wildcats in Tucson, a game that has special meaning because, the last two times that the Bears have visited Arizona, they lost.
"I don't know if it'll be a change of attitude, except for the fact that it's going to be our first Pac-10 game, so the coaches are going to be ready to go," Tedford said. "It'll be our first conference game, and that's really the motivation there. The last two times we've been there, we've lost, so that's enough motivation."