Sunday, April 03, 2005

Bears secondary looks to regroup

Jay Heater
BERKELEY - The memory continues to linger, snapshots of Cal cornerbacks Harrison Smith and Daymeion Hughes chasing Texas Tech wide receivers toward the end zone in the Red Raiders' 45-31 destruction of the Golden Bears in the Holiday Bowl on Dec. 30 in San Diego.
Texas Tech rolled up a ridiculous 520 yards passing against a Cal defensive backfield that appeared to be helpless.
And considering that Cal lost All-Pac-10 rover Matt Giordano and team captain and free safety Ryan Gutierrez, some fans might wonder if the defensive backfield will be a problem area for a team trying to rebuild its defense during spring drills which are continuing at Memorial Stadium through April 23.
"That would be a fair thing to say," Cal coach Jeff Tedford said when told that fans might have the perception his defensive backfield was exposed against Texas Tech. "I would probably be saying the same things. But people outside the team don't know the real reasons (why Texas Tech had so much success passing). It is not anything to panic about. Defensive backs face adversity. You can't fold the tent when that happens."
Tedford said there were times when his cornerbacks or safeties did blow one-on-one coverages and allowed the Red Raiders too much space. But he said there were other times when a player didn't get the help needed on a coverage and therefore ended up chasing the play.
He reminded the media that just because a player, such as Smith, is left to chase a wide receiver to the end zone doesn't mean that it was his blown assignment or failure to provide adequate coverage.
"What is he supposed to do?" Tedford asked. "Stop chasing him and say, 'That's not my man.'"
Although Tedford tried to explain that it might be hard for fans to assign blame, he also noted that there was plenty of blame to go around. He knows that his defensive backfield will have something to prove when the season opens on Sept. 3 against Sacramento State at Memorial Stadium.
Smith, who will be a senior next season, isn't worried about perception. He said his defensive backfield teammates proved during the 11-game regular season (Cal went 10-1) that the unit was among the best in the conference. Cal's defensive backfield helped the defense rank No. 4 in the nation by allowing just 13.4 points a game.
"We had 11 games where we shut down teams known for passing and if everyone wants to remember one game, that is up to them," Smith said. "Whatever they remember or forget doesn't bother us.
"We've shown everyone that we can play ball. We all know we can play. As far as our confidence goes, one game isn't going to affect us."
But that one game was devastating, and at times indicated that the Bears had trouble with one-on-one coverage.
"That team was very unorthodox, but we were prepared for it," Smith said. "It was just a bad game."
Smith said his teammates understood that it was a mixture of not playing very well along with various coverage mistakes, the kind of things that hadn't happened early in the season.
"Our team knows what is going on," Smith said. "We understand. Just like when a couple of years ago I was clearly the guy chasing the receiver down the field and I was to blame. But the team never got on me. We have each others' backs."
Despite losing Giordano and Gutierrez, the Bears' defensive backfield is deep with experience. Donnie McCleskey, the 2003 All Pac-10 rover, is expected to return to his starting spot after recovering from shoulder surgery. He is sitting out spring ball.
Smith, who broke up 17 passes last season, will anchor the cornerback position and is joined by veterans Tim Mixon (three interceptions in 2004) and Hughes (26 tackles, six broken-up passes last season).
Sophomore Thomas DeCoud is expected to take over at free safety.
"I think we will be as good if not better," Smith said. "We've got the most experience of any unit on our defense and have a lot of young guys who will be stepping up.
"And every year is a new year. It was especially clear right after we were done with the Holiday Bowl that we could have done this, or we could have done that. But now we are into spring practice.
"Although I still can't look at a Texas Tech hat."
Tedford doesn't mind that his players remember that a crummy game all around led to a nasty beating in the Holiday Bowl. "You never want to end a season on a negative note," Tedford said. "A loss doesn't sit very well with us. But, no question, that provides motivation."

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