BERKELEY, Calif.—Although California certainly isn't sinking, defensive coordinator Bob Gregory now has plenty of holes to plug. The Golden Bears head into Pac-10 play this week with a No. 6 ranking, a 3-0 record and a wealth of talent on a quickly maturing offense. But they've also got serious concerns about their defensive depth after three starters were knocked out of a 42-12 victory over Louisiana Tech with potentially serious injuries. Defensive linemen Matt Malele and Rulon Davis both hurt their feet against the Bulldogs, with Malele likely tearing tendons and Davis possibly incurring a stress fracture. Zack Follett, the Bears' strong-side linebacker and emotional leader, also developed a neck stinger in the first half and didn't return. Stingers are usually spine injuries resulting in painful electrical sensations radiating through one of the arms.
Most Cal fans don't know the names of the players who replaced them against the Bulldogs, but Gregory professes confidence in every player he coaches. "I liked the way we responded when guys went down, but we won't really know about us until Pac-10 play," said Gregory, in his sixth season as Jeff Tedford's right-hand man. "We'll see where our depth is, and I think guys will step into bigger roles." The extent of all three injuries wasn't known Sunday, but the injuries were bad news for a defense that's still working to replace the top three players from last season's solid group. Cornerback Daymeion Hughes, linebacker Desmond Bishop and defensive tackle Brandon Mebane all went to the NFL, leaving Gregory to rebuild his core. Cal's line is its greatest concern, since Malele already was the only returning starter from last season. Gregory filled the holes against Louisiana Tech with everyone from fifth-year senior John Allen, who recovered a fumble in the first extensive playing time of his career, to promising freshmen Derrick Hill and Cameron Jordan. The Bears hope Follett will be back for Saturday's home game against Arizona, but Eddie Young and Michael Mohamed filled in capably against Louisiana Tech. "It's going to hurt us, but that's why we've got depth," said middle linebacker Worrell Williams, who has been solid in Bishop's place this season. "If they don't come back, we'll have other guys stepping in, ready to play. We've got a lot of guys who have been waiting for that chance." Despite its holes, Cal's defense is showing signs of progress after Tennessee moved the ball well in the Bears' opener. Cal had four sacks and 12 tackles for loss against Louisiana Tech while allowing just one play longer than 20 yards. While lining up each week against the Pac-10's outstanding athletes and inventive offenses, Gregory's defenses usually strive to bend without breaking, relying on a knack for killing drives by forcing turnovers.
"We're a big opportunity team. We're going to get to the route before you," Williams said. Cal has forced seven turnovers in its first three games this season, including three by Louisiana Tech, which managed 274 total yards and several sustained drives. "Big plays have been huge," said defensive back Robert Peele, who had a drive-killing interception on a tipped ball. "Teams have been driving on us, but we somehow come up with a fumble or an interception. We have the ability to force teams to make mistakes like that. We don't care about yards so much. The only stat we keep is takeaways." Louisiana Tech and Tennessee both had success against Cal with a no-huddle offense—though Gregory couldn't understand why the officials wouldn't allow him to substitute at times during the hurry-up drill, and Williams criticized the Bulldogs' quick-snapping technique. "They're supposed to give us a chance to get lined up, and they were doing something that was borderline (illegal)," Williams said. "We still got it done, and that's all that matters. It's all about the scoreboard."