Monday, March 19, 2007

Contra Costa Times: Cal looking for help in the secondary

Hughes' departure leaves the Bears with a big hole at defensive back

By Jay Heater

BERKELEY - If athletic talent was the measure of a cornerback, then Darian Hagan would be a college all-star right now.  Back-pedaling during practice at Memorial Stadium, he breaks into a sprint, stops as if he had just run into a tree, then cuts to his left and regains full speed in a heart beat.  Of course, facing up against the Pac-10's top wide receivers takes a lot more than raw skills.  Hagan is just a red-shirt freshman and all those physical skills won't mean much if he doesn't read his opponent well or gets sucked forward by a run fake.  Jeff Tedford's recruiting has put a lot of Hagans on the field ... players who could be playing in the NFL in the not-so-distant future if they handle their business. Cal's problem is that it doesn't have time for Hagan to learn the nuances of the game. The Bears need a cornerback now.

Daymeion Hughes, last season's Ronnie Lott Award winner, has departed, leaving a huge void in Strawberry Canyon. Leading the free-for-all to assume that position are Hagan, sophomore Jesse Brooks and red-shirt freshmen Charles Amadi and Brandon Jones. If any of those players wonder whether they can develop into a top notch cornerback in just one season, they only have to look back to last season when red-shirt freshman Syd-Quan Thompson was jammed into a starting role in the season opener, on the road, against Tennessee. Thompson, who wore a cast on his hand that day, was burned for two long touchdowns because he failed to make a couple of tackles. Mistakes by a cornerback can be lethal. Even so, Thompson recovered and eventually turned into the guy who is expected to garner national honors before his days at Cal are finished. Tedford was asked if he thought Thompson's adventures last season would be an inspiration to this year's crop of young corners who could well be in the same situation of learning on the job. "I think they learned by watching Syd-Quan that you have to be on top of your game," Tedford said. "There is a lot riding on it.

"And the most important thing about Syd'Quan is that he bounced back." It helped that Thompson has some incredible physical talents. Does Hagan have that kind of physical talent? "Yeah, I think he does," Tedford said. "But so do Amadi and Jones and Brooks. They are just like Darian, young and talented." Young, talented and inexperienced. Like the others, Hagan admits that he is anxious just to get into a game. "I've been waiting for this," he said. "It has been two years since I have played in a game." Was he ready to play last season? "I think the red-shirt year really helped," he said. "It got me to focus on ways to better myself. It gave me time to watch the older guys. I learned to focus on my assignments and it taught me to pay attention to details. I also had time to get used to the speed of the game."

Like Hughes, Hagan came out of Crenshaw High School in Los Angeles. "I watched Daymeion in high school," Hagan said. "He was a senior when I was a freshman. We got closer here at Cal. He taught me some things." Did he teach him how to deal with adversity? "I know there will be some rough times," Hagan said. "But I also know that I have what it takes. I just have to prove it to everyone else." Tedford hopes he proves it soon. "He really shows a lot of promise," Tedford said of Hagan. "He has the size and the speed. He just needs to understand all the nuances."


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