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2008 California Preview - Defense
California LB Zack Follett
California LB Zack Follett
CollegeFootballNews.com
Posted Apr 21, 2008


CollegeFootballNews.com 2008 Preview - California Golden Bear Defense

California Golden Bears

Preview 2008 - Defense  

- 2008 California Preview | 2008 Cal Offense
- 2008 Cal Defense | 2008 Cal Depth Chart
- 2007 CFN California Preview | 2006 CFN California Preview 

What you need to know: 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.      

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Worrell Williams, 105
Sacks: Zack Follett, 5.5
Interceptions: Brandon Hampton, 2

Star of the defense: Senior LB Zack Follett
Player who has to step up and become a star: Senior DE Rulon Davis
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore DE Cameron Jordan
Best pro prospect: Follett
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Follett  2) Senior LB Worrell Williams 3) Junior CB Syd’Quan Thompson
Strength of the defense: The linebackers
Weakness of the defense: Pressuring the quarterback

Defensive Line

Projected Starters: Save for the graduation of Matt Malele, the defensive line returns intact, determined to create more pressure than a year ago. Replacing Malele at tackle will be sophomore Derrick Hill, a blue-chip recruit and the gem of the 2006 class. At 6-2 and 298 pounds, he can disengage from blocks, shoot the gaps, and make plays behind the line. After making 24 tackles as a backup and getting his knee completely healthy in the offseason, Hill is prepared to deliver a breakthrough season for the defense.

Senior Mika Kane is a returning starter at the other tackle spot, a steady performer who chipped in 36 tackles and two tackles for loss as a junior. Solid in run defense, he could get the nod at nose tackle, when Cal makes the shift to a 3-4 defense. While Kane doesn’t have Hill’s upside, he’ll be looked at provide leadership and experience to the unit.

On the outside, junior Tyson Alualu is expected to be joined by senior Rulon Davis. Alualu is a 6-3, 290-pound end in a tackle’s body. Extremely strong at the point of attack, he’s able to bull rush opposing tackles, but doesn’t have the burst to blow past him around the corner. Especially valuable in run defense, he led the linemen with 52 tackles, adding 3.5 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, and four fumble recoveries.

The hope is that Davis can supply the pass rush that Alualu was unable to a year ago. An imposing figure at 6-5 and 281 pounds, the former Marine played with an energy and sense of urgency this spring that portends a huge final year. Davis has an NFL blend of size and speed, but needs to stay healthy for an entire season, which hasn’t happened since he arrived from junior college.   

Projected Top Reserves: If spring is any indication, sophomore DE Cameron Jordan is going to be one of the stars of the future for the Cal defense. In fact, he was so explosive at times in March and April, he might be ready to push for extensive playing time this fall. One year after making 18 tackles as a wide-eyed true freshman, the 6-4 and 286-pound Jordan has returned bigger, stronger, and poised to make a lot of noise for the Bear D.     

Junior Cody Jones won’t blow anyone away with his skill set, but his experience will provide a big boost to the second unit at tackle. A quick defender who’s beefed up to 6-4 and 276 pounds, he came off the bench last year to make 22 tackles, five tackles for loss, and a couple of sacks.

The Cal staff is eagerly awaiting the return of 6-2, 302-pound sophomore DT Michael Costanzo, who appeared in just three games last season, and is trying to make his way back from knee surgery.  A rugged north-south type lineman, he’s capable of clogging lanes and occupying multiple blockers once he gets back to full strength.

Watch Out For… Jordan. Even if he doesn’t jump Davis or Alualu on the depth chart, he has earned an important role on this defense. A rare combination of speed and power at 286 pounds, he’s going to follow father Steve Jordan into the NFL if he keeps working on his pass rushing skills.
Strength: Size and strength. 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.
Weakness: Getting to the passer. After two difficult years in this area, it’s time for the defensive line to start getting more pressure on the quarterback. A linebacker led the team in sacks in 2007, an obvious indication that the front four simply isn’t getting its job done.
Outlook: The Bears are 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.  If Cal has any designs of becoming a first-division Pac-10 defense, it needs the front four to make more big plays and start living up to its promise.
Rating: 7.5
 
Linebackers

Projected Starters: 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. The senior will line up at strongside, but can play all three positions, and makes his presence known in a multitude of different ways. A high-energy, high-impact athlete at 6-1 and 238 pounds, Follett has had 12.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks in each of the last two seasons to go along with eight career forced fumbles.

In the middle is senior Worrell Williams, a third-year starter and the biggest of the Cal linebackers.  At 6-2 and 250 pounds, he’s a wrap-up tackler with the range to string out running plays. A work-in-progress not long ago, Williams had 105 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, and a team-high three forced fumbles in his debut on the inside.   

Finally healthy for an entire season, senior Anthony Felder showed glimpses of his potential last season, racking up 101 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, and a pair of sacks. A 6-3, 235-pound starter on the weakside, he has the quickness, strength, and intensity to finish an up-and-down career with a positive audition for NFL scouts.   

Projected Top Reserves: With the Bears destined to make more use of 3-4 alignments, there’ll be plenty of opportunities for the reserves to get on the field.  Sophomore Mike Mohamed, in particular, has made a positive impression on the coaching since collecting 46 tackles as a rookie. The 6-3, 229-pounder earned a start against Oregon and got better as the season wound down, flashing outstanding speed, even as he added more weight. With three seniors occupying the starting spots, Mohamed is a year away from becoming a major contributor on the Cal D.

Behind Follett will be sophomore Eddie Young, a 6-0, 230-pounder who has continuously gotten better over the past year. A quality athlete who plays with good pad level, he played in all 13 games, making a dozen tackles and a compelling case for a starting gig a year from now.

The heir apparent to Williams in the middle is 6-1, 255-pound redshirt freshman D.J. Holt, who was a standout on the scout team and during spring practice. A high school defensive end, he sheds blocks effortlessly and has the instincts of a future 100-tackle linebacker. Holt has one more year to wait before becoming a top run stopper for the Bears.  

Watch Out For… four linebackers to be on the field a lot. Bear coaches want to leverage the team’s deepest position by using more 3-4 sets, which allow Mohamed, Young, and Holt to get more reps than the typical second teamer.
Strength: Athletic ability. 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.
Weakness: Durability. It’s splitting hairs, but Follett and Felder have had some injury issues in the past. An extended stay on the disabled list is the only thing that’ll prevent Cal from being home to one of the nation’s more productive sets of linebackers.
Outlook: The Bears have an ideal situation at linebacker; the starters are proven veterans and the backups are talented underclassmen, who are learning and waiting in the wings to take over in 2009. Together, they form the strength of the Cal team and an ensemble capable of delivering game-changing plays.
Rating: 9

Secondary

Projected Starters: 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. Only 5-9 and 184 pounds, he’s surprisingly physical and a dynamite all-around athlete.  Thompson has lockdown potential, needing to turn a few more of those deflected balls into interceptions.

Thompson’s partner at cornerback is likely to be sophomore Chris Conte, a player who turned heads as a true freshman, making 32 tackles and growing up as the season progressed. At 6-3 and 198 pounds, he has corner skills in a safety’s body. Conte is a physical open field tackler with the length to match up well with some of the league’s bigger receivers.

Like Conte, sophomore Marcus Ezeff played extensively in his rookie season, making 47 tackles and a couple of tackles for loss. One of the hardest hitters out of the Bear secondary, the 5-11, 208-pound thumper will be the Bears’ rover and like having an additional linebacker on the field on running plays.

Rounding out the defensive backfield is Bernard Hicks, who’s moving from rover to free safety, a better fit for the senior. He had 40 tackles and 2.5 tackles for loss a year ago, doing an average job in pass defense. While the 5-11, 210-pound is another big hitter out of the secondary, he needs to become a little more patient, knowing when to pull back and when to lay the wood.    

Projected Top Reserves: Just because Darian Hagan hasn’t performed like a can’t-miss recruit in his first two seasons, does not mean he’s on the road to being a disappointment. A year after making brief appearances on special teams, the talented sophomore is determined to start living up to the hype. At 6-0 and 181 pounds, Hagan has the potential to be a premier cover corner, even if he starts the season behind Conte. 

Like Hagan, sophomore CB Charles Amadi played in five games a year ago, earning a letter and bagging seven tackles. The former Defensive Scout Team Player of the Year is 5-10 and 182 pounds and still somewhat raw with his technique, but has the hips and athletic ability to overcome some of his shortcomings.

The most experienced of the reserve safeties is junior Brett Johnson, a returning letterman who had eight tackles and special teams contributions in 12 games. One of the team’s bigger defensive backs at 6-1 and 192 pounds, he’s pushing Hicks for the starting assignment, but will probably have to wait until 2009 for a promotion.

Watch Out For… Hagan to be in Conte’s back pocket all season long. The sophomore was humbled by his ineffectiveness last season, but came to camp with a renewed focus, and has clicked with new secondary coach Al Simmons. On a team pining for more help at cornerback, Hagan is too good to spend another season stuck in neutral.
Strength: Preventing the long ball.  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.
Weakness: Ball skills. While the Cal defensive backs have upside, they’re not 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.
Outlook: The rebuilt Golden Bear secondary overachieved a year ago, and should take another positive step this fall. However, better passing will still move the ball on a unit that’s young and vulnerable at the corner spot opposite Thompson.
Rating: 7

Special Teams

Projected Starters: Cal found itself a punter in the spring, 6-4, 196-pound Bryan Anger. He left no doubts about the opening, consistently booming punts downfield and wowing onlookers with his hang time. A former high school All-American, he’s prepared to become a fixture on the Bear special teams for the next four seasons.

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. A top kicker in high school, he shows promise with his range and accuracy. 

Pac-10 special coaches no longer have dangerous return men DeSean Jackson and LaVelle Hawkins to worry about. Both have graduated. In their place, junior Syd’Quan Thompson and redshirt freshman Shane Vereen are expected to handle punt returns and kick returns, respectively.
 
Watch Out For… any developments at kicker. Kay is vulnerable if he continues hooking his kicks, needing to maintain the momentum from a strong finish to 2007 and an uneventful spring.
Strength: Punt coverage. A year after finishing 11th nationally in covering punts, the Bears will again be among the country’s stingiest units. With Anger lofting the ball in the air for four or five seconds, opponents will spend most of the year waving a hand in the air.
Weakness: Inconsistency in the kicking game. Rock solid from the 20-29 range, Kay managed to go only 7-of-14 on field goals outside 30 yards. He needs to make strides or else Cal will be taking plenty of chances on fourth down.
Outlook: After absorbing hits everywhere, the Bears are about to regress on special teams.  Anger has an exciting future, but the program will keep its fingers crossed on field goals, while hoping Thompson and Vereen can ignite the return game.
Rating: 7