Oct. 27, 2003
Berkeley, Calif. -
By Jonathan Palay
Lorenzo Alexander is everything the scouts look for in a defensive tackle. He's big, tough, strong and has the ability to occupy large amounts of space. Yet a quick glance at Cal's season statistics shows the 6-3, 295 pound Alexander ninth in tackles to date. Which begs the question, where has this highly recruited St. Mary's High product been?
Where he's been is all over the field. The players know it, the coaches know it, the scouts know it and its time the fans knew it as well. He is right where he always was. You just have to look a little bit closer.
Run-stuffer's, pass-defenders, space-fillers, buffet-destroyers -- defensive tackles are all these things. They are the first and most vital line of defense. If the interior of the defense is getting beat off the ball, expect a big day for the opposing running back and a demoralizing one for the defense. Every defensive coordinator will tell you "we need to control the line of scrimmage and it starts right in the middle."
Alexander is a big reason why a young Cal defense has kept the Bears in many a game this season. In a Bob Gregory defense predicated on the defensive lineman filling space to allow the Wendell Hunters and Joe Maningos to come up and make plays, Alexander's hard work has not gone unnoticed.
"He's an A and B gap player," explains defensive line coach Ken Delgado. "The offensive line has to double team him often, but even with those double teams, he creates problems."
Alexander creates problems all right, but not the kind that show up on the Sunday morning stat sheet. His numbers, a pedestrian 25 tackles, 14 solo and 11 assisted, and one forced fumble through eight games, by no means paint the whole picture for this junior standout.
"When they (the coaches) watch the film, they see you all over the place," said Alexander. "I get double-teamed and my job is to beat the double team. I go out, dictate the play and keep the guards off."
Fighting past two guys, just to get a sniff of the ball carrier is not exactly a job full of glory. But it is a necessary one, and it creates holes in the offense that teammates can exploit.
"He's a big physical guy, a power player," said Delgado. "The benefactors are our linebackers. We may have problems stopping the run, but it's not in the A and B gaps. It is tough to play any kind of defense, without guys doing the dirty work against those double teams inside. People have to understand, he's improving some of those other skills, but his greatest strength is creating force."
Those other skills would be the glamour pass-rushing moves that garner all of the attention. Cal has been famous for producing such players. Andre Carter was an All-American in 2000 at defensive end, setting the record for sacks at Cal with 13.5. Reagan Upshaw was an All-American end in 1995, placing second on the all-time sacks list, behind Carter (31.0), with 28.0. And as recent as last season, Delgado ushered ends Tully Banta-Cain and Tom Canada to career years, with 13 and 12 sacks, respectively.
So you can understand a little why people have been slow to recognize Alexander.
"This has been a place known for defensive ends," explains Delgado. "But as far as a power defensive tackle, I think he's an all Pac-10 player."
And Delgado knows what he's talking about. He coached two of the NFL's best at San Diego State, in defensive tackle La'Roi Glover and defensive end Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila. But they are apples and oranges or...
"It's like comparing lions and cheetahs, and Lorenzo's a lion," Delgado clarified.
Alexander recognizes that to take his game to the next level, he will need to continue to work on some of those cheetah skills.
"The run I've always been good at," Alexander said. "For the pass rush, I need to work more on my hands. Good offensive lineman use their hands. I've got to hit him, stun him and use my hands to beat him."
It is not that simple unfortunately. Good offensive lineman have the technique to withstand the most elementary of pass rushing moves - the bull rush. The move consists of using a powerful jump off the ball to knock straight past the protection. It is a move that can work when you have a strength advantage, as Alexander does, but it becomes too easy to stop when lineman know its coming. Alexander's game has begun to evolve to the point where he can mix several moves into his pass rush.
"Last year there was no method to the madness," Alexander said. "I was just using my big body. Now I've got the button pull, where you hit him like a bull rush, but then pull him. Basically use his momentum against him. Then there's the kick swim, where you use your hands to swim by the guy. Also there's the grab pull, where you set him up like your going inside and then grab his outside shoulder pad. The key is to get a good grab and then turn your shoulders."
Alexander is starting to discover what makes a great defensive tackle. For all the strength and power needed to play the position and stop the run, it is finesse that turns a good player into a great one.
"He can go as far as he wants to go," said Delgado. "Everyone has aspirations of the NFL. Some people have delusions and for some it's a reality. For Lorenzo, it's a reality. Most defensive linemen are defined by their ability to rush the passer. You don't want to be one-dimensional as a pass rusher. If there is one area he needs to improve, that's it."
While making steady improvements in his technique, he has become a greater presence in the Bears' locker room as well. As one of two returning starters on a Cal defense learning on the fly, Alexander has been called upon to bring veteran leadership. He has now served as a team captain for the last four weeks.
"I've started to become a little more vocal," explains Alexander. "I'm not a rah rah guy, but I do make sure people stay in the game and people stay on a positive note. Captain is just a title the coaches give out each week. I try and do the same things every week anyway. It just shows that the coaches respect what I've been doing and I work hard."
But Alexander's leadership has been incredibly important for the 2003 Golden Bears, with so many familiar faces gone this year.
"You like to think it doesn't really matter, but those guys were a big impact," Alexander said. "We have been starting slow. We don't really know how to go out and start a game yet. That's just being part of a young team."
On a team of cubs, Alexander has matured into a bear in front of our very eyes. The coaches are thankful that they have a player whose work ethic and ability have started to rub off on the younger players.
"Getting some leadership has been a real issue on this team," Delgado said. "We have asked Lorenzo to step up and be more vocal, and he has answered that call. He needs a little push, but he has responded well the last few weeks. He has to do it in his own way though. Leadership is still validated by performance."
Alexander's performance has not been questioned. He has shown he can take over a game against the best competition in the land.
"His best game was against USC," Delgado said. "He was dominating the interior of the line. Player of the week without a doubt."
"There was a lot of emotion going into that game," said Alexander. "I was going against a guy that dominated me my freshman and sophomore years. So I just wanted to go out and dominate that much more."
Alexander dominated to the tune of two solo tackles. That's right, two. You're probably wondering how a guy with two tackles changed the complexion of an entire game.
Well, because he's good, that's why. Haven't you been paying attention? The players know it, the scouts know it, the coaches know it, and its high time you knew it too.