Aug. 24, 2000
Turlock, CA - As Cal prepares for its season-opener just over two weeks away, there's a sense of apprehension about how well an inexperienced group of safeties will perform in 2000.
Clearly, things will be different from the past three seasons when the trio of Pete Destefano, Marquis Smith and Damian Marzett roamed the Cal secondary, providing big hit after big hit and helping shut down opponent rushing attacks.
This year, the names are far less recognizable with Dewey Hale combining with Nnamdi Asomugha, Bert Watts and David Watts to form a brand new playing rotation. Between them, they have only one game of starting experience under their belts.
To many, that's a recipe for disaster in a league of sophisticated offenses which can pinpoint opponent deficiencies and attack without mercy.
But, Hale isn't one who seems particularly nervous about the challenge ahead. The 6-2, 205-pound junior believes the new safety group will offer a new dimension of athleticism in 2000.
"I think you'll find our safeties will cover receivers better than we have in the past and eliminate some of the big plays that we've given up," says Hale. "It's an energetic group with a lot to prove, but I'm really confident we'll be able to get the job done."
The acknowledged leader of the Cal secondary is senior cornerback Chidi Iwuoma, but he isn't one to be particularly vocal. That void is filled enthusiastically by Hale, who is constantly chattering during practice, cajoling teammates to make plays and fulfill assignments. He's also the one on the sidelines making sure that everyone is staying loose and enjoying the practice competition.
"Dewey has a charisma about him," says head coach Tom Holmoe. "He truly enjoys playing the game of football and it shows. He's always smiling and talking on the field, on the sidelines or in the locker room. The players enjoy being around him. It really adds to the chemistry of our secondary."
But Hale isn't all talk. He's the one Cal safety who has a solid amount of playing time the past two seasons. When his number has been called, Hale has shown an ability to make big plays. He recovered a pair of fumbles early last season, one at Nebraska and another he returned 15 yards vs. Arizona State to set up a Cal TD drive.
A few weeks later, he started against USC and made a pass deflections to go along with three tackles.
"Dewey is a guy who comes alive in games," says Holmoe. "He is better on Saturdays than he is on the practice field. Tim McDonald (former San Francisco 49er teammate) was the same way. He elevated his performance when the lights came on. It's about being competitive and instinctive. Dewey seems to have those qualities."
Hale is set for Cal's starting line-up, but it hasn't been an easy road for him since the days he roamed the secondary at Fremont HS in Oakland. The summer before he enrolled at Cal, he broke his leg (both the fibula and tibia) clean through.
There were questions whether he would ever play the game of football again. Hard work paid off, but it didn't come overnight. "I lost my speed and that was hard," says Hale. "I was always a fast player, but I couldn't run after that injury. It took awhile to get it all back."
He played in all 11 games in 1998, almost exclusively on special teams. Last year, he added spot safety duty to his special team chores and ended the season with 19 tackles. This year, he has much more ambitious goals.
"I know I have to be the man this year," says Hale. "My goal is to lead the Pac-10 in interceptions and help our team get to a bowl game. I just want to be the best player I possibly can be."
He says that his high energy on the field has always been part of his repertoire since his days playing Pop Warner football. "You have to make sure you're having fun out there or why play," says Hale. "When it's business, business, business, you get tense and make mistakes. I think you play your best when you're relaxed."
Hale suffered a slight hamstring pull during Thursday's scrimmage and will likely be held out of action the next few days as a precaution. Despite his inexperience, Cal can't afford to lose his presence in the backfield because the players around him are even more green.
A possible starter opposite him at free safety is soph Nnamdi Asomugha. He has tremendous physical gifts, but only was on the field for a handful of plays last year and missed most of the spring drills rehabilitating a broken ankle from last year.
His back-up David Watts is a tremendous student of the game, but the walk-on from Mountain View is on the smallish size and limited athletic skills.
Soph Bert Watts has enjoyed a very solid off-season and should see a lot of playing time. The coaches are even considering moving him to the free safety spot as a starter, if Asomugha is slow to come around.
Hale is the lynch pin in the Golden Bear safety equation. As he says, he has to be "The Man." That's a long way from three years ago, when he was hobbling around on crutches wondering if he'd ever play the game again. No wonder, he has that infectious smile on his face.
By Kevin Reneau