by Rich Cirminiello
After raising, and subsequently missing, lofty expectations in consecutive years, Cal has squandered whatever equity it had amassed when it came to national respect. Have the Bears peaked under Jeff Tedford? It's a question the program will try to dismiss while attempting to eliminate the stench of last year's putrid 2-6 finish. Cal is in the awkward position of fending off allegations it's an underachiever, an odd assertion about a program that was 1-10 and on the brink of extinction earlier this decade, but it seems like every chance it has to make a really big statement, and every chance it has to turn a big corner, it blows it.
For instance, last year the Bears, helped by the opening day win over Tennessee and a scintillating victory at Oregon, had the No. 1 ranking in its grasp before blowing it late in a loss to Oregon State. While that would normally be not that big a deal with half the season left to go, the team went from the top of the charts to the ranks of the also-rans with a puzzling string of six losses in seven games. Why?
There was enough talent to beat the two tremendous teams like the Vols and the Ducks, but once the bad momentum started to roll, there was no stopping it. It was a mental issue more than anything else. Once Cal got on a bad streak, it was stuck, and it wasn't until the second half against Air Force in the Armed Forces Bowl win that the team appeared to finally say enough is enough. Now the goal is to start out hot and stay there. It's not going to be easy.
There's a potential quarterback controversy and a shortage of proven skill position players following the losses of RB Justin Forsett, receivers DeSean Jackson, Lavelle Hawkins, and Robert Jordan, and TE Craig Stevens. However, with nine starters back on defense, the Bears might rely on that side of the ball for the first time in the Tedford era, and it's going to be the most important one in his career.
Tedford, the golden boy coach who always appeared to be on the verge of taking off for a big-time NFL gig, or something even bigger than Cal, hasn't faced this level of adversity since taking the job. He responded by shaking up his staff and installing tougher offseason mandates for his players, all in the name of recapturing some national and league respect.
The Bears are no longer the trendy choice to unseat USC in the Pac-10, a blessing considering how poorly they've handled that role in the past, but there are still plenty of tremendous athletes. Now there's something else that was missing in the past: an attitude. Match that with a little consistency, and the Bears have the potential to be special again.
What to watch for on offense: While the Cal offense is facing a star power outage for now, don't bet on it lasting very long. Yeah, Justin Forsett, DeSean Jackson, and LaVelle Hawkins are no longer amateurs, but that just paves the way for the next wave of Bear playmakers to excel. Brace yourself for RB Jahvid Best, receivers Michael Calvin, Nyan Boateng, and Jeremy Ross, along with TE Cameron Morrah, who are a half-year of experience away from being steady and exciting producers in Tedford's attack.
What to watch for on defense: More of a reliance on the 3-4 defense. Although the staff won't make a complete shift to the 3-4, it's clear it wants to get as many of its big, speedy linebackers on the field at the same time. Led by Zack Follett and Worrell Williams, the Bears are brimming with talent with several good prospects waiting in the wings. Once the three senior starters graduate, underclassmen Mike Mohamed, D.J. Holt, and Eddie Young are putting in the time now to ensure that linebacker will be a position of strength in Berkeley for years to come.
The team will be far better if: Last year's second-half collapse is a distant memory by the time Michigan State visits on Aug. 30. Although the 2-6 finish left plenty of scars, the Bears have to get past being reminded about it every time there's a little bit of adversity. With the right mindset, there's enough talent on both sides of the ball, and enough manageable games on the schedule for the program to get back on track after veering off course in 2007.
The Schedule: There's no Tennessee showdown like last year, but the non-conference schedule isn't all that bad playing Michigan State, going to Maryland, and hosting Colorado State. All the games against the league's non-Trojan powerhouses are at home. The timing of the Pac 10 games isn't that bad going to USC after a two-game home stretch against UCLA and Oregon, and going to Arizona after a week off. Nothing can be taken for granted if the team tanks like it did at the end of last year's regular season, but closing out with Stanford and Washington, with an off week sandwiched in between them, isn't a bad way to finish.
Best offensive player: Senior C Alex Mack. Even if WR DeSean Jackson had stayed in school, Mack would be the Cal's top offensive performer, high praise for a Bear who's saddled with the anonymity of being a center. One of the country's best at his position, he's as dominant run blocking as he is on passing downs, and is the conductor of a line that's yielded less than a sack per game over the last two seasons.
Best defensive player: Senior LB Zack Follett. Follett is a rarity at his position, a versatile playmaker with a knack for creating mayhem. Now in his third season as a starter, he'll defend the running game, rush the passer, or pivot and lock down a tight end or running back in pass coverage. The total package, he led the defense in tackles for loss and sacks, while finishing second in pass breakups.
Key players to a successful season: The defensive line. While the back seven was terrific in 2007, the defensive line was almost non-existent. That must change this year if the Bears are going to be a more competitive. The secondary can ill-afford to have opposing quarterbacks spending an eternity to find receivers, so it's up to Rulon Davis, Tyson Alualu, and Cameron Jordan to get more pressures and sacks than a year ago.
The season will be a success if: Cal wins nine games. The schedule is conducive to a bounce-back season, with the Nov. 8 trip to the Coliseum being the only road game that would be considered a big upset. After last year's disappointment, the program needs to reestablish itself as a threat to USC's headlock on the Pac-10 crown, or else it stands to slip behind the likes of Oregon and Arizona State in the pecking order. A 9-3 record and a second place finish in the conference would do the trick.
Key game: Nov. 1 vs. Oregon. Call it a semifinal game for the Pac-10 title. If the Bears have any hopes of getting to the Rose Bowl, they've got to first get through Oregon, one of the schools on the short list of league contenders. USC looms in the on-deck circle a week later, so Cal better work out the offensive kinks during the first two months of the season.
Is Cal about to get consumed by an old-fashioned quarterback controversy? It might be unavoidable considering the inconsistent play of incumbent Nate Longshore and the head of steam being built by Armed Forces Bowl hero Kevin Riley. The job remains Longshore's to lose, but if the more mobile Riley continues to mature, it'll be hard for new coordinator Frank Cignetti to keep him out of the lineup. As if losing RB Justin Forsett isn't tough enough, the Bears learned in March that his heir apparent, James Montgomery, is transferring to Washington State. Next in line is Jahvid Best, who missed spring drills recovering from a hip injury. The departures of last year's top five pass-catchers create opportunities for Michael Calvin, Jeremy Ross, and Florida transfer Nyan Boateng, who are short on experience, but long on potential.
Cal's defense has enough returning to be formidable. (Jed Jacobsohn / Getty Images)
Quarterbacks: The Bears have two quality quarterbacks, but only one is needed. Tedford's challenge will be to make a decision in August, get the buy-in of both Longshore and Riley, and avoid a controversy that distracts the team. If Riley's the guy, the coach could have a star player to build around for the next three seasons. The battle in the summer is going to be fierce and tight no matter what happens, but Riley's mobility and moxie is exactly what the program needs following last year's collapse. Longshore won't go away without a fight, but he has an uphill battle against a competitor who's quickly gaining momentum. Over the last two seasons, Cal has thrown 27 interceptions, all but one coming from Longshore. Whichever one gets the start must do a better job of protecting the ball, or else his tenure under center will be short-lived.
Running Backs: In two years, the program has lost Marshawn Lynch to the Buffalo Bills, Justin Forsett to the Seattle Seahawks, and James Montgomery to Washington State. The heir apparent is expected to be 5-10, 193-pound sophomore Jahvid Best, who's recovering from a hip injury. In an ideal situation, Tracy Slocum and a healthy Best form an inside-outside tandem that can help replace most of Forsett's massive production. Best has the potential to eventually be better than last year's workhorse, making his health one of the top storylines of August's preseason. There might not be a whole bunch of power, but Best, Shane Vereen, and Covaughn DeBoskie have that extra gear needed to electrify a crowd and deflate opposing defenses. All three have the 4.3 or 4.4 jets that can change the tenor of a game when they get into the open field.
Receivers: You don't get better by losing DeSean Jackson, Lavelle Hawkins, and Robert Jordan, the most productive trio in school history. However, the next group of Bear receivers has an exciting upside. After being an undersized, finesse unit for years, the Bears are set to unveil a much bigger crew that can get separation at the line and win plenty of battles for balls in the air. Oh, and guys on the two-deep can also motor. This year's top four wide receivers collectively caught four passes a year ago, spending much of the season watching from the sidelines. Out of Michael Calvin, Florida transfer Nyan Boateng, and Jeremy Ross, it's going to take time before one of them emerges as the go-to receiver
Offensive Line: Cal and line coach Jim Michalczik continue to do a fantastic job of coaching up this group of linemen. C Alex Mack is so special, he absorbs multiple defenders and makes everyone around him better at their own jobs. Ideally, the Bears can get reps for the next generation of players without being forced to give any one of them a crash course during the Pac-10 season. The depth is a major problem, but the starting five should be fantastic in pass protection. The hope is for everyone to stay healthy until the tremendous group of recruits can grow up.
The Bears and coordinator Bob Gregory have the ingredients to improve upon last year's flexible defense. They're particularly strong at linebacker, where Zack Follett, Worrell Williams, and Anthony Felder each have All-Pac-10 potential. Up front, however, there's a glaring need for more pressure, and for talented sophomores Derrick Hill and Michael Costanzo to emerge as run stuffers in the middle. The depth at linebacker coupled with the front wall concerns have the Bears flirting with the idea of using more 3-4 sets, which showed promise in last year's bowl win over Air Force. Up-and-coming CB Chris Conte gets his first chance to start in the secondary, replacing Brandon Hampton.
Defensive Line: Save for the graduation of Matt Malele, the defensive line returns intact, determined to create more pressure than a year ago. Much like last season, there are no lightweights on a Cal defensive front that averages almost 290 pounds, and is going to be tough to move off the ball. Even the ends are thick, which should bode well for a questionable run defense. The line is flush with potential, especially with the underclassmen. However, potential isn't going to help the run defense or make life any tougher for opposing quarterbacks. Tyson Aluau and Rulon Davis have to finally become steady pass rushers on the outside.
Linebackers: With all due respect to USC, Cal is sneaking up behind the Trojans in the race to determine the Pac-10's best set of linebackers. All three of last year's starters are for the Bears, including All-Pac-10 second teamer Zack Follett. From top to bottom, there isn't a more athletic group of linebackers than the one in Berkeley. Best of all, all of that speed and athleticism doesn't come at a price, as the top six players on the depth chart average nearly 240 pounds. The starters are proven veterans and the backups are talented underclassmen, who are learning and waiting in the wings to take over in 2009.
Secondary: The rebuilt secondary overachieved a year ago, and should take another positive step this fall. The Bears return a whopping nine defensive backs who lettered last season, none more important than feisty junior CB Syd'Quan Thompson, who shook off a rocky debut to contribute 78 tackles, six tackles for loss, and a team-high 10 pass break-ups. Yeah, the defense has been forced to get somewhat conservative in its approach to pass defense, but by doing so, the secondary has been able to keep plays in front of it. While the Bears will yield the short dump-offs, they also finished No. 2 in the Pac-10 in yards per completion and yards per game by not being overly aggressive in coverage. While there's upside, this isn't a scary bunch capable of changing the momentum of a game, a la former Bear Daymeion Hughes. Last year's secondary accounted for just six interceptions in 13 games.
Special Teams: After absorbing hits everywhere, the Bears are about to regress. P Bryan Anger has an exciting future, but the program will keep its fingers crossed on field goals, while hoping Syd'Quan Thompson and Shane Vereen can ignite the return game. For the moment, senior Jordan Kay is the Bear placekicker, but he has a loose grip on the job. Inconsistent beyond 30 yards, the former walk-on went just 13-of-20 on field goals, while showing little pop in his leg. If Kay continues to struggle with his accuracy, sophomore Joe Robles could get the call.