Tuesday, January 02, 2007


Bears have serious talent just waiting in the wings

It's a good thing junior tailback Marshawn Lynch hasn't answered questions about his expected decision to bolt from Berkeley to the NFL.  He is leaving Cal fans at least one thing to ponder during the offseason, because just about everything else regarding next year's Bears already has been answered, providing even greater expectations than their No. 9 preseason ranking did this year.  "It's early, but they've got to be considered a national contender," one Associated Press voter said. "They've seemingly got a guy or two to fill every position they lose, and, in a lot of cases, they'll be even better."  Graduation will take its biggest toll on the defense with the departure of an all-conference player at each level. Defensive tackle Brandon Mebane, linebacker Desmond Bishop and cornerback Daymeion Hughes each will hear their name called on draft day, but there are plenty of replacements waiting in the wings.  Mebane was so good at occupying a blocker or two on every play that the linebackers promised to buy him dinner. Cal may not have a returning player to draw that kind of attention, but it will have a solid unit.  Junior Matthew Malele, who started all 13 games, will return as a stable force at defensive tackle, and take your pick as to who will join him. Sophomore Mika Kane, who played most of the season with a cast on his hand, and Derrick Hill and Mike Costanzo, who each redshirted with injuries, have showed signs of being "the guy."  The expectation is that freshman Tyson Alualu will move from defensive tackle to end, joining Rulon Davis and Cody Jones, and Philip Mbakogu and Tad Smith, who each had season-long injuries, could add depth. No one among the group had a sack this season, but of the Bears' 24 sacks, only 5 1/2 came from defensive ends anyway, so there isn't much to replace in the form of pass rushing.  Pressure on the quarterback will again have to come from the linebacker corps, which loses Bishop and Mickey Pimentel, but returns a group that will still rank among the nation's best. The Bears return almost 200 tackles worth of backers, including Zack Follett, who earned all-conference honors despite never starting. Add Justin Moye, Worrell Williams, Anthony Felder and Greg Van Hoesen, and Cal has plenty of options to control games from three positions.

The tricky thing to replace here is Bishop's leadership. He was the only player to be named captain each week and earned the Stub Allison Award as the Bears' most inspirational player. In short, he was the heartbeat of the defense, and someone will have to fill that role.  Hughes' departure leaves a vacancy at one corner, but Syd'Quan Thompson battled back from a rough debut to earn freshman All-America honors. Either Thomas DeCoud or Brandon Hampton, who each were great as starters at safety, will probably move to the other corner, or Robert Peele and Marcus Ezeff will battle it out.  "I feel like we set the foundation, and there's plenty of talent left to take it the next step," Bishop said. "We couldn't get a Rose Bowl or a national championship, but it won't be too much longer."  They got a head start in setting that tone, limiting Texas A&M to 10 points, including a second-half shutout, in the Holiday Bowl.  Along with the defense, Justin Forsett and quarterback Nate Longshore finished the season on high notes.  Forsett needed only eight carries to run for 124 yards, and he has proven that he can handle a larger load. He carried 27 times for 163 yards against Oregon this season, and in a three-game span last year, he ran for 575 yards on 57 attempts.  "I've got a message for everyone," Hampton said. "Look out for No. 20 next year."  Opponents better not limit their focus.

Longshore, who had fewer ups and downs than most first-time collegiate starters, should be even better than his 3,000 yards and 24 touchdowns. With a year's experience under his belt and the return all of his favorite targets, Longshore could make the ridiculous string he put together in September a season-long streak.  Spreading the ball around to DeSean Jackson, Robert Jordan, Lavelle Hawkins and Craig Stevens, Longshore led Cal to five consecutive 40-plus-point games. They're all back and expected to continue their progression.  "There's still some doubt that I can carry the load," Forsett said. "Of course, with our receivers, I may never get to prove those people wrong."  The offensive line loses left tackle Andrew Cameron, who battled back from three surgeries in a 10-month span, and left guard Erik Robertson, who teammates call the "guts of the offense." Though the duo is as tough as any, they aren't as talented as the trio of drafted players the Bears lost a year ago.  Having to replace three NFL-ready players, Cal still allowed only 13 sacks and cleared the path for 2,111 rushing yards. All-conference linemen Alex Mack and Mike Gibson return, along with Noris Malele, Brian De La Puente and Mike Tepper, who each started at least two games this season.  Lynch knows all of this.  Maybe he wasn't joking when he grabbed the microphone after the Bears' Holiday Day Bowl victory and shouted, "One more year."


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