BY Steven Dunst
On the sun-drenched Memorial Stadium field last Tuesday, freshman running back Shane Vereen fielded a punt at the 20-yard line, trailed behind his blockers and ducked away from a would-be tackler before sprinting untouched into the end zone. Moments later, fellow running back Jahvid Best corralled a punt of his own, finding a seam across the middle and darting left, blazing past the defense for a breathless score. Such is the state of the No. 12 Cal football team, that even without first-round draft pick Marshawn Lynch lining up in the backfield, Best and Vereen will have to fight tooth-and-nail to get any touches when the Bears kick off the season Saturday against No. 15 Tennessee.
“We’re much more experienced,” Cal coach Jeff Tedford said. “We’re going to go into this game with much more focus on ourselves and not on Tennessee.” Like last year, the Bears begin the season with a lofty ranking and a chance to earn a bid to a BCS bowl, which could hinge largely on the ability of the defense to improve upon last year’s output, when it gave up 366.2 yards per game to finish eighth in the Pac-10.
The offense is absolutely loaded. Cal boasts arguably the top receiving corps in the country, the first returning starting quarterback Tedford has enjoyed in his time with the program, a deep offensive line anchored by center Alex Mack and five quality tailbacks. “The assessment is that there is a lot of speed and a lot of skill on the field. We’re making a lot of progress with our guys as we try to figure out our depth,” Tedford said. Leading the charge is consensus preseason All-American and ESPN cover boy DeSean Jackson, who burst on to the national scene last year with 13 touchdowns in 13 games, including a NCAA-best four on punt returns. He will be joined on the outside by seniors Lavelle Hawkins and Robert Jordan, who may not harbor Heisman aspirations like Jackson, but do combine experience and sub-4.5 40 speed to give Cal quarterback Nate Longshore three legitimate downfield threats. With that trio and the luxury of having Justin Forsett in the backfield (the senior led the nation last year with 6.4 yards per carry), a trimmed-down Longshore has enough weapons at his disposal to make virtually any collegiate quarterback envious.
“Nate is a student of the game,” Tedford said. “Having Nate out there is like having another coach out on the field.” But some questions abound on the defensive side of the ball, namely at defensive end. While some players have stood out throughout fall practice, defensive coordinator Bob Gregory admits he has been unable to decide whom to rely on as a pass-rushing threat. Defensive end Rulon Davis, perhaps the quickest of the bunch and a favorite to take over a starting role, is unconcerned. “Our first job is always to stop the run,” Davis said. “I feel every defensive lineman has the ability to get to the quarterback. The D-line, we can pretty much hold our own.” Two freshmen, Cameron Jordan and Scott Smith, are both challenging for playing time at defensive end along with Davis, Tad Smith and Cody Jones. “Cameron’s looked real good,” Davis said. “He’s further along as far as understanding the defense than I was last year. I’m very surprised, especially to see someone as fast as Cameron come right in and be able to step in with the second defense.” On the interior, senior Matthew Malele will have to fill a giant void, figuratively and literally, left by departing defensive tackle Brandon Mebane.
Malele has shed weight in the offseason to increase his agility, and will be expected to shoulder more of a leadership role this season as the only returning senior starter on the line. “That’s a tremendous amount of responsibility for (Malele) to uphold,” defensive line coach Ken Delgado said. “He’s our one link to the past as far as standards and being able to play.” In addition to Mebane, the Bears lost Nu’u Tafisi and Abu Ma’afala. “They might have been lacking in their pass rush ability but they were very good against the run, so that’s going to be our first big test—how we can hold up against the run,” Delgado said. The secondary should be tested early and often, but with Brandon Hampton switching over to the cornerback spot opposite Syd’Quan Thompson, the Bears have an experienced unit. Three prolific linebackers, led by Worrell Williams in the middle and Zack Follett on the outside, comprise the Bears’ most solid defensive unit. Follett was moved to the outside in order to provide another pass rush off the edge, and his expectations for the season are sky-high. “If I was any good I would’ve gotten 12 sacks last year,” Follett said. “After watching film last year against Tennessee, we didn’t hit the quarterback at all. That’s my personal vendetta come September 1.”