April 9, 1999
Berkeley - Cal figures to continue the trend that has seen the Bears rise from tenth in the conference in total defense in 1996 (allowing 460.3 ypg), to eighth in 1997 (381.4 ypg) to third last season (340.3 ypg).
The Bears seem to have all the ingredients to contend for the No. 1 position in the Pac-10. Not only are there seven returning starters, but the Cal defense has a total of 137 starts under its collective belt. It's hard to believe many teams around the country can match that number. In the Lyle Setencich system, which demands mature reads and a finely tuned interaction among teammates, experience is a key ingredient.
Cal will certainly have one of the quickest defenses in the land as nearly all the players in the rotation have excellent foot speed. A year ago, that quickness wreaked havoc among opponent offenses with the Bears accounting for 158 hits behind the line of scrimmage. In all, Cal made 125 tackles for loss, which led the Pac-10. This year, the coaching staff believes it has the talent and experience to improve those numbers.
The strength of the defense is in its front seven where at least four NFL prospects roam. However, the answer to just how good the Cal defense can become may reside in the secondary, which could feature at least two new faces. The coaching staff believes that a large influx of freshmen talent, including a trio of redshirt-freshmen (Jameel Powell, LaShaun Ward, Bert Watts) and a pair of fall arrivals (Atari Callen, Nnamdi Asomugha) could push the team's big play ability to a new level.
Cal's main concern is health as stalwarts Skou Sanyika, Jerry DeLoach and Matt Beck all had minor off-season surgery and will likely sit out spring drills. Their return in the fall will signal that everything is in place for what could emerge as the best defense at Cal in over three decades.
DEFENSIVE LINE: Cal returns six proven veterans, all who started at least three games last season. The most decorated in that group are senior tackle Jerry DeLoach (6-4, 310) and junior end Andre Carter (6-4, 250), who each earned second team Pac-10 honors last season.
DeLoach has an unusual amount of quickness and athletic ability for a 310-pounder and the NFL scouting microscope is firmly focused on him this fall. He had his share of big plays while anchoring Cal's interior last season, with eight tackles behind the line of scrimmage. However, people will mostly remember the interception he picked out of the air at Oregon State and returned 11 yards to stop a Beaver threat.
Carter seems ready to bid for All-America honors after progressing steadily in his first two seasons. He now is at a rock solid 250 pounds, up 15 from the time he arrived on campus in '98, and has the skills to dominate action from his defensive end position. He entered last season rated as the No. 8 defensive end in college football by one publication and figures to earn even more pre-season accolades this year.
The nose tackle position will be handled by junior Jacob Waasdorp (6-2, 270), who started all 11 games last season and utilized his quickness and great instincts to register 10 tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Now he has added 20 pounds of muscle and could emerge as one of the top interior players in the league this fall.
Two other veterans who each have sizeable starting experience, Mawuko Tugbenyoh (6-1, 245) and Jeremiah Parker (6-5, 275), will also play critical roles in the playing rotation, as starters or top reserves. Tugbenyoh has an uncanny knack of making big plays, as he returned one fumble for a TD last year and has returned three for scores during his career. The very quick defensive end is up 10 pounds for his senior campaign and figures to move into Cal's career Top 10 list for tackles for loss this fall. He currently has 24 during his first three years on the DL and needs just 10 to earn a spot on that prestigious list.
Parker is another player with big-play ability who hopes to end his career with a bang. He started three games last season and made some big contributions. He made a diving interception of a deflected pass which set up Cal's first touchdown in a win at Oregon State. He's played anywhere from 260 to 300 pounds during his career and seems to have found an optimum level at the 275-pound mark for his senior season.
Nose tackle Nate Geldermann (6-1, 255) made a very successful transition from linebacker to the down line last season and started three times. His tenacity adds a real element of toughness to the Cal defense, but his medical status is uncertain during the spring due to neck and knee injuries.
His absence will give some other players a chance to emerge in '99, including JC transfer Tim Pompa (6-4, 265), who will arrive from Mesa CC this fall with a lot of athletic ability for an interior lineman.
The Cal coaches will also monitor closely the development of redhsirt-freshman end Zach Whittington (6-4, 240) and junior college transfer Johnny Jackson (6-4, 260), who could provide another impact pass rusher with his speed and athletic skills coming out of Sacramento CC.
LINEBACKERS: Cal not only has what many consider the best one-two linebacker pair in the country in Skou Sanyika (6-4, 235) and Matt Beck (6-4, 230), but the Bears also have superior depth at that position with four other players ready to assume significant playing time.
The Sanyika and Beck combo has already combined to account for an amazing 91 tackles behind the line of scrimmage during their careers, unquestionably the best total by any pair in college football this season. Sanyika is coming off a monster season at OLB, leading the Pac-10 in tackles for loss, with 23 for 125 yards. That was four more tackles and 41 yards more in losses than any other player in the league. A player with great size and long arms, he also has the type of intensity and intelligence to make impact plays game after game. He figures to be the premier defensive player in the conference this season and a strong bet for pre-season All-America honors.
Beck would have matched Sanyika big play for big play last season, except for the fact that he missed one entire game and all but a couple plays of another with a hamstring injury. He still finished second in the league with 19 tackles behind the line of scrimmage and added a pair of interceptions. He is one of the most intense players in the nation and should also contend for All-America honors if he can free himself of the minor injuries that have hampered him over the last few seasons.
The other inside position could offer some fierce competition as three different players have legitimate credentials. Senior Keith Miller (6-2, 240) started three games last season and is a rugged customer in filling running lanes.
He'll be pushed hard by junior Jason Smith (6-0, 225) and sophomore Jamaal Cherry (6-3, 255), who will get long looks during the spring. Smith runs very well and is the type of cerebral player with an understanding of the game that seems to thrive in the Setencich system while Cherry is a flat-out physical specimen who has NFL written all over him. He got a taste of action last season, but should challenge for starting duties this fall, if he continues to develop.
Although the Bears have solid depth on the inside, the coaching staff couldn't pass up adding JC standout Chris Ball (6-3, 225), who arrives in the fall with great foot speed and the type of athletic ability to immediately garner playing time.
Another young player who could begin to have an impact is sophomore Scott Fujita (6-5, 235), who came to Cal as a walk-on but quickly notched a scholarship because of his obvious abilities. A player with the size and intelligence to start on most teams, he's slated to serve another year as an understudy to Sanyika on the outside.
Other linebackers who could emerge in the playing rotation are redshirt-freshmen Matt Nixon (6-1, 215) and Tully Banta-Cain (6-3, 220) along with veterans Juan Jimenez (6-0, 210) and Fa'avae Fa'avae (5-10, 210). All of those players should play important roles on special teams in '99. Freshman walk-ons Derek Zahler (6-1, 220) and John Klotsche (6-0,225) made a nice impression last season as young linebackers working with the scout team.
SECONDARY: The Bears improved dramatically last year in the interception category, going from four in '97 to 14 last season, thanks largely to improved play at the cornerback position. That trend should continue this fall with the return of three experienced corners, who accounted for six picks last year, and an infusion of freshmen talent.
If junior Chidi Iwuoma (5-9, 185) shows the same type of progress he did in his sophomore season, he could contend for all-league honors in '99. He has superior coverage skills and began to show signs of consistency during the latter part of the season.
Cal can also offer a physical presence at the cornerback position in senior Deltha O'Neal (5-11, 195) or redshirt-freshmen LaShaun Ward (6-0, 190) or Jameel Powell (6-1, 185).
O'Neal has the type of athletic ability and instincts that most players can only dream about . He recorded a pair of interceptions last year due mainly to those assets. As he's only played the position one season, his performance could elevate significantly as his comfort level on defense grows.
Ward and Powell have the pure skills that have the coaching staff believing they could develop into two of the best corners in the Pac-10 if they respond to the challenge of performing on Saturdays.
Like Iwuoma, Drae Harris (5-10, 190) has excellent one-on-one abilities and accounted for three interceptions in a reserve role last season, scoring one TD and returning another to an opponent's 1-yard-line.
Junior Harold Pearson (5-11, 185) will provide solid depth as he saw some playing time last season and should continue to contribute on special teams. Senior David Watts (5-10, 185) is a hard worker who will provide depth.
The safety positions have less depth, but still should have enough front-line talent to be a solid area for the Bears. Senior Pete Destefano (6-2, 215) has three years of starting experience under his belt and will be the field general for the secondary from his free safety position. He has improved every season with the Bears and should emerge as one of the better safeties in the league this fall.
Senior Damian Marzett (6-0, 210) should have the inside track at strong safety as he started a pair of games last season and showed good ball-hawking abilities with a pair of interceptions. He'll have competition from soph Dewey Hale (6-0, 190) who made very good strides last season and now is a serious contender for playing time at either of the safety positions.
Others who could make a strong push for playing time are redshirt-freshmen Bert Watts (6-1, 205) and Paul Ugenti (6-0, 205) . They both have good athletic skills, but are inexperienced.
(ON MONDAY, WE'LL PUBLISH AN IN-DEPTH LOOK AT THE CAL OFFENSE)