Four consecutive bowl appearances under Jeff Tedford have changed the football equation at Cal: Fans no longer wonder if the Golden Bears will qualify for a bowl; now they wonder which one. With a solid core of returning starters and a schedule that brings most of their toughest opponents to Memorial Stadium, the Bears should easily stretch the bowl streak to five. A BCS bowl isn't out of the question.
Jim Michalczik takes over as coordinator, but make no mistake: This is Tedford's offense. The Bears deploy an impressive repertoire of plays out of their multiple pro set and rotate players often to keep execution sharp.
There's not much intrigue about the starters, most of whom return. Nate Longshore is a lock at quarterback after finishing second in the conference in passing efficiency and throwing for 3,021 yards. His decision- making has improved and Tedford believes his mobility will, too; Longshore trimmed 10-15 pounds off his Holiday Bowl weight of 240. Behind Longshore will be Kyle Reed, a strong and quick sophomore, or freshman Kevin Riley, who showed good presence and a quick learning curve as a redshirt last year. Sturdy Justin Forsett is expected to transition smoothly into Marshawn Lynch's tailback spot, having already run for 1,674 yards in three years as a backup. Two redshirt freshmen, James Montgomery and Tracy Slocum, are competing for Forsett's backup job. The Bears also return one of the nation's top receiving trios: DeSean Jackson, Robert Jordan and Lavelle Hawkins. Sean Young and Daniel Lofton, son of former NFL star James Lofton, are the key backup receivers. Cal also returns versatile tight end Craig Stevens.
Cal toyed with the idea of moving allconference center Alex Mack to tackle, but that might be risky. Such a move would get talented redshirt freshman Chris Guarnero into the lineup, which might improve the unit overall. Spring competition was wide open but mostly because guard Noris Malele and tackle Mike Gibson were out with injuries. Whether Mack moves or not, the unit's success might depend more on health than anything else.
The Golden Bears run a standard 4-3 set and typically rely on their linebackers to make most of the stops.
Tackle Matt Malele is the only returning starter on the line, where the competition is wide open. Two redshirt freshmen, tackles Derrick Hill and Michael Costanzo, show promise and could find immediate roles. Cody Jones and Tyson Alualu, both of whom played frequently last year, are likely starters at the ends. Backup Rulon Davis has eye-opening athleticism but must continue to learn the game. Junior Phillip Mbakogu has the talent to make a difference but needs to stay healthy. Look for linebacker Zack Follett to move to the middle after alternating between the middle and weak side last year. Worrell Williams is the returning starter on the weak side but could move inside. Outside man Justin Moye will be pushed by Eddie Young.
The competition is stiff to replace cornerback Daymeion Hughes opposite Syd'Quan Thompson. Darian Hagan's athleticism makes him an early favorite ahead of Charles Amadi and Brandon Jones. Robert Peele, a highly regarded sophomore, can move over from rover if needed. Cal has three potential starters for two safety spots: Bernard Hicks, Brandon Hampton and Thomas DeCoud. One of them will have to sit at times, but that's a nice problem to have.
The big problem will be to get opponents to punt the ball to Jackson, who ran four kicks back for touchdowns last year. The Bears also bring back steady kicker Tom Schneider, who is on track to become Cal's alltime leading scorer, and punter Andrew Larson, who averaged 42.6 yards. The only open competition seems to be for kick return duties, a job that Forsett, Montgomery or Hawkins will handle if a newcomer doesn't emerge.
The most significant offseason move was a regents' decision to hand a lucrative extension to Tedford, who will make at least $1.8 million this season and as much as $4.2 million by 2011. The offensive staff changes should not threaten cohesion. Michalczik already has spent five years as the Bears' line coach, and Kevin Daft, who takes over as quarterbacks coach, worked with Longshore as a graduate assistant last season. Former San Jose State assistant Kenwick Thompson takes over for Bob Foster, who retired as linebackers coach.
SN PROJECTION: 3rd in Pac-10, 10-2, Holiday Bowl