2007 California Preview - Defense
California Defense Preview
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need to know:
There’s plenty of work to be done for a Cal defense that begins
a new era without its signature all-conference player at each of
the three defensive units. Outstanding recruiting by Jeff
Tedford and his staff in recent years ensures that the cupboard
is far from empty, but there’ll be a learning curve early on in
2007. Of greatest concern is a pass defense that gets modest
support up front and will be relying on a slew of green
cornerbacks. Sophomore Syd’Quan Thompson and redshirt freshman
Darian Hagan look the part, but need to deliver once Pac-10
plays begins. Junior Zack Follett is the budding star of a
linebacker unit that has the potential to be the next best thing
to USC in the conference.
Tackles: Brandon Hampton, 63
Sacks: Zack Follett, 5.5
Interceptions: Brandon Hampton, 2
Star of the
Junior LB Zack Follett
Player that has to step up and become a star:
Sophomore CB Syd’Quan Thompson
Unsung star on the rise: Redshirt freshman DT Derrick
Best pro prospect: Senior FS Thomas DeCoud
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Follett 2) DeCoud 3) S
Strength of the defense: The linebackers, the safeties
Weakness of the defense: Pass rush, the cornerbacks
With tackle Brandon Mebane and the team’s two best ends out of
eligibility, Cal will be rebuilding on the fly on the defensive line.
The lone returning starter is massive senior tackle Matt Malele,
a third-year starter on the interior for the Bears. A 6-1 and 335-pound
space-eater, he’s a quality run-stuffer that needs to get more
penetration while evolving into the new leader of the unit.
Lining up next to Malele will be junior Mika Kane, who has
lettered as a part-time in each of the last two seasons. A powerful
300-pounder, he was headed toward a starting job in 2006 before being
sidetracked by a broken bone in his hand. It’ll take more than one
player to replace Mebane, putting pressure on Kane to have the best
season of his career.
The new rotation on the outside will include sophomores Tyson Alualu
and Cody Jones. At 6-4 and 288 pounds, Alualu is a defensive end
in the body of a tackle. A true freshman letterman, he’s a north-south
power end that’s far more likely to go through opposing tackles than
around them with his limited speed off the edge.
Jones was a dependable player that needs to get closer to dynamic to
boost an anemic Cal pass rush. The smallest of the linemen at 6-5 and
255 pounds, he’ll be better prepared to handle the increased playing
time once he adds a little more muscle.
Projected Top Reserves: Junior end Rulon Davis has
a tall ceiling at a glaring position of need for the Bears. A mature
6-5, 275-pounder, he’s got a blend of power and athleticism that’s going
to earn him a job once he gets a little consistent with his
assignments. The future inside belongs to Derrick Hill and
Michael Costanzo, a pair of highly-regarded redshirt freshmen
recovering from knee injuries.
The big catch of the 2006 recruiting class, Hill is a polished and
explosive tackle with the potential to wreak havoc in opposing
backfields. Once he finds his groove, he’ll be the next Mebane for the
Cal run defense.
At 6-3 and 300 pounds, Costanzo is more of a bull that’s tough, intense
and very nasty in the trenches. With depth being a concern this year,
both players need to grow up in a hurry.
Watch Out For… incoming freshman Scott Smith. Cal
badly needs reinforcements on the line, which Smith might be able to
provide in his first season in Strawberry Canyon. At 6-6 and 250
pounds, he’s physically almost where he needs to be, and could
eventually grow into a beast as an edge rusher.
Strength: Size and strength. There are no lightweights on
a Bear defensive line that averages 290 pounds, and is going to be very
difficult to move off the ball. Even the ends are thick, which will
bode very well for the run defense.
Weakness: The pass rush. A pass rush that disappeared too
often last season is going to get worse before it gets better. Unless
Davis suddenly morphs into something special, the ends are going to
labor to reach the quarterback in 2007.
Outlook: With Malele clogging up the middle, the run
defense will be solid; however, getting consistent pocket pressure is a
big concern, especially since the unripe secondary will be vulnerable in
the early stages of the season.
Projected Starters: The graduations of starters Desmond
Bishop and Mickey Pimentel mean Cal’s heralded juniors, Worrell
Williams, Anthony Felder and Zack Follett, have a
chance to roam the field at the same time. After bouncing around at
every linebacker spot, Follett appears to be settling down at one of the
two outside spots, where he can rush the passer and freelance more.
Although a starter in just a single game in 2006, Follett racked up 62
tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks and four forced fumbles,
earning All-Pac-10 honors. A truly gifted athlete with great hips and
cutting ability, he’s the type of defensive playmaker that can destroy
an offensive gameplan.
A 12-game starter at weakside in 2006, Williams is moving inside to fill
Bishop’s enormous shoes. The Bears’ biggest linebacker at 6-2 and 256
pounds, he’s explosive and athletic enough to assist in pass coverage,
but needs to stay in top shape and get it done on every down.
The wild card is Felder, who has enormous upside to go along with a
history of injuries that stunted his development in 2006. At 6-4 and
232 pounds, he has quickness and tenacity to be an absolute terror
coming off the edge on blitzes. Felder’s availability will have a
ripple effect throughout the unit.
Projected Top Reserves: If Follett winds up at weakside,
capable senior Justin Moye will slide seamlessly into the lineup
at strongside. Not nearly as athletic as the starters, he is a savvy
veteran of 25 games and three starts that is rarely caught out of
Williams’ backup in the middle will be senior Greg Van Hoesen,
another heady, reliable program guy that’s played plenty of football
Cal. He’s played in 31 career games, collecting a career-high 23
tackles in 2006.
Watch Out For… the linebackers to not skip a beat, despite
losing two regulars to graduation. When Williams, Follett and Felder
are playing together, Cal will boast one of the most athletic and
dynamic trio of playmakers this side of the Coliseum.
Strength: Athleticism. The three likely starters all have
tremendous range and the quickness to make plays in every direction on
the field. Even better, they’ve yet to reach their full potential as
Weakness: Consistency. While the potential of this group
is evident, it still has prove it can perform at a high level on a
week-in, week-out basis. Follett is already there, but now he needs
Williams and Felder to join him.
Outlook: What’s not to like? The starters are preparing
for lift-off on the career tarmac, and the reserves include a couple of
experienced seniors with good leadership skills. The fulcrum is Felder,
who has the ability to tilt this corps from real good to scary good if
he’s healthy all year.
Projected Starters: The Bears lose a handful of standouts
from last year’s team, but none more vital than Daymeion Hughes, one of
the nation’s premier cover men in 2006. The gaping void puts pressure
on Syd’Quan Thompson to elevate the level of his play in his
sophomore season. Last year was a rocky baptism under after Tim Mixon
went down, but starting 13 games as a freshman will pay dividends this
fall. Thompson is cocky in a good way, and has the athletic ability and
closing speed to back up his confidence. He’s also far more physical
than his 5-11, 178-pound frame might indicate, making 60 tackles a year
Thompson’s tag team partner in the secondary is still a bit of mystery.
Although sophomore Robert Peele exited spring atop the depth
chart, he’s going to be challenged hard in August by a couple of
talented redshirt freshmen. A corner with the experience and tenacity
of an in-the-box safety, he has questionable speed, which is a concern
heading into the season.
Although there’s trepidation about the cornerbacks, Cal’s confident it
has a dynamite safety tandem in senior free safety Thomas DeCoud
and junior rover Bernard Hicks. DeCoud had 45 tackles in an
injury-marred season, but flashed the sideline-to-sideline speed and
physical play that’s turned him into a legit NFL prospect.
Hicks stepped into the lineup when DeCoud was hurt last fall, and made
it tough for him to get back into the lineup. In his first season of
significant action, he had 58 tackles, a pair of picks and six pass
breakups. At 6-1 and 198 pounds, Hicks wants to destroy the man with
the ball, but needs to learn when to pull back at times.
Projected Top Reserves: Senior rover Brandon Hampton
is a scrappy, undersized rover that plays with a chip on his shoulder.
While not ideal as a starter, he brings three valuable letters and 63
tackles from last year to bolster the team’s depth.
Cornerback Darian Hagan is one of the program’s stars of the
future with a shot at unseating Peele for a starting job. Just a
redshirt freshman, he’s got the ingredients of a lockdown corner,
including good size, fluid hips and the attitude that he can’t be beat.
Redshirt freshman Charles Amadi is also pushing for playing time
after being named the co-Defensive Scout Team Player of the Year for
2006. An unfinished product, he possesses the quickness and work ethic
to compensate for a lack of experience.
Watch Out For… Thompson. A case could be made that the
sophomore is the single most important player to the Bears’ fortunes in
2007. He’s got the tools and the right attitude, but can he even
approach Hughes’ knack for completely cutting off part of the field for
Strength: The safeties. Just how good are the safeties?
Hampton had 63 tackles in 2006, yet probably won’t get his job back.
DeCoud and Hicks are a couple of enforcers that’ll intimidate opposing
receivers from using the middle of the field.
Weakness: The corners. When it comes to the cornerbacks,
there’s lots of potential and lots of concern heading into the 2007
season. Without Hughes to mask some of their youthful inexperience,
this group is going to have some dark days this fall.
Outlook: If you’re looking for Cal’s Achilles’ heel in
2007, it’s the pass defense. With an average pass rush and
inexperienced corners, the Bears might be forced into a bunch of
shootouts this season.
Projected Starters: The Bears return all of the key pieces
of a top-tier special teams unit, needing only to decide on a kick
returner between seniors Justin Forsett and Lavelle Hawkins,
and redshirt freshman James Montgomery. Cal, on the other hand,
is set at punt returner with junior All-American DeSean Jackson,
a human dynamo that took four back for scores to set a Pac-10
In his first season out of Saddleback (Calif.) Community College, senior
Andrew Larson quickly established himself as one of the league’s
best punters and possibility to play on Sundays. A second team
All-Pac-10 selection, he averaged 42.6 yards a punt and used his
trademark high-arching kicks to finish No. 8 nationally in net punting.
Everything seemed to come together for senior placekicker Tom
Schneider, who struggled with his consistency in 2004 and 2005. In
2006, he connected on all 46 of his extra points and 14-of-18 field
goals, including a school-record tying 55-yarder in The Big Game.
Watch Out For… whether any opposing punters have the
guts—or stupidity—to kick in Jackson’s direction this season. More than
likely, the only person that’ll be avoided more in the Bay Area is Barry
Bonds when there’s a base open.
Strength: Jackson. Like Reggie Bush a couple of years
ago, Jackson is a back-breaker with the speed and vision in the open
field to completely change the tone of a game with just a sliver of
Weakness: Kickoff coverage. Maybe Jackson’s returns are
even striking fear into his own team because the Bears were 100th
nationally in kick coverage in 2006, and No. 8 in the conference.
Outlook: With Jackson electrifying on punt returns, and
Larson and Schneider handling the kicking game, the Cal special teams
unit will have few peers in the country in 2007.