April 12, 1999
Berkeley - Given the strong probability that Cal will be one of the premier defensive football teams in the country next fall, the equation for success in 1999 is very simple.
If Cal can move the ball and score points on offense, the Bears should emerge as a legitimate contender in the rugged Pac-10 Conference and nail down the program's fifth bowl berth of the current decade.
The program is in stable hands under head coach Tom Holmoe, who saw his team jump from three victories in '97 to five wins last season and foresees further improvement this coming season.
"There's no question in my mind that we've improved our team and we'll see better results in the win-loss column," said Holmoe. "We were one win away from a bowl berth last year with an offense that ranked last in the Pac-10. It doesn't take a genius to see that we can make a big jump if we can make some strides on that side of the football."
More significantly, Holmoe is thrilled about the overall health of the Cal program in the long term. A succession of solid recruiting efforts, highlighted by a banner group this past February, has begun to build the type of depth that only the elite teams in college football enjoy.
Cal returns 16 starters (7-offense, 7-defense, 2-kickers) from last year's squad that bolted out of the blocks to a 4-1 mark before the offensive problems began to take their toll and saw the Bears stumble down the stretch, finishing with a 5-6 mark.
Clearly, the focal point of the Cal Football team in '99 will again be on defense. The Bears have both quality and depth, with as many as four potential All-America candidates and 18 of 22 players returning from last year's two-deep depth chart.
Improving from last year's performance will be a large chore, given the fact that Cal allowed just 340.3 yards a game and opponents averaged only 18.3 first downs a game, but defensive coordinator Lyle Setencich says that anything less will be a disappointment.
"With the type of experience and ability we have on defense, we have some high expectations entering the '99 season," said Setencich. "I'm not sure we can play much harder than we did last year, but there's room for improvement in execution. I'm pretty excited about this group of players, but the key for us will be to stay healthy. We have some guys who are coming off surgeries in the off-season and, while the prognosis is good for all of them, it's something that we'll need to watch closely."
The core of the Cal defense will be a group of five players who will be in the starting line-up for at least their third straight season. That's a wealth of experience to build around for Setencich, regarded as one of the master defensive strategists in the game.
Defensive linemen Andre Carter and Jerry DeLoach will be in their third seasons in the starting line-up while linebackers Skou Sanyika, Matt Beck and safety Pete Destefano will all be in their fourth year as starters in '99. The fact that all five are solid NFL prospects underscores the point that Cal not only has seasoning in its line-up, but also talent to spare.
If there ever was a season to begin with a clean slate, the upcoming season is a perfect opportunity for the Cal offense to leave the past behind and focus on the future.
After enduring dismal performances in '98 which saw the Bears rank last in the league in scoring (16.6 ppg), total offense (292.2 ypg) and first downs (189), head coach Tom Holmoe made some dramatic changes.
He hired an enthusiastic new offensive coordinator in high-energy Steve Hagen, who in turn, has installed a new offensive system that promises to be an exciting departure from the last two seasons.
Another important off-season development was the addition of veteran offensive line coach Ed White to the staff. Regarded as a master motivator and a brilliant technician, he'll be asked to develop a line that was inconsistent last season.
The centerpiece to the offense will be the quarterback position and that battle is wide-open following the graduation of Justin Vedder. Sophomore Samuel Clemons and redshirt-freshman David Page will be given a long look during the spring, but hotshot freshmen QBs Kyle Boller and Ryan Sorahan will arrive in the fall and provide plenty of competition.
The Bears do have a solid nucleus on offense with seven starters back, including three offensive linemen who average 312 pounds in John Romero, Langston Walker and Brandon Ludwig. Cal is also hoping for a break-through year out of 210-pound tailback Marcus Fields, who averaged 4.5 yards a carry as a sophomore.
The Bears are short on experience in the wide receiver corps with only senior Joel Young possessing any real game experience. However, a group of four highly touted redshirt-freshmen will get every chance to have an impact and the coaching staff expects at least two out of that group to emerge in the playing rotation.
Cal will have a challenging schedule to face this fall with only five home games on tap and trips slated for Nebraska and BYU, traditionally two of the most difficult road venues in college football.
DEFENSE 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.
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.
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.
OFFENSE It is nearly impossible to get an accurate read on how Cal will perform offensively this year because so much will be different from last season. For a team that struggled badly on offense in 1998, change will be a good thing for the Golden Bears.
New coordinator Steve Hagen has brought in an offensive system that he says is similar in many ways to what Steve Spurrier runs at Florida and Joe Tiller at Purdue. Both of those teams ranked in the Top 10 in pass offense last season and Cal certainly figures to improve in that category with Hagen in charge.
Hagen's 1993 offense at Nevada led the nation in both passing offense (397.5 ypg) and total offense (569.1 ypg) and when he moved to Nevada-Las Vegas, the Rebels broke 20 school offensive records during his two years there, including a single-game NCAA record of 23 catches for 363 yards by Randy Gatewood in '94.
That shouldn't be taken as a full scale commitment to throw the ball from the opening whistle to the final gun, as Hagen believes in the concept of balance and wants to run the ball as close to 50 percent of the time as is feasible.
"Our goal is to be a balanced offensive team," said Hagen. "To be successful, you don't want to be in a shoot-out every week. The best offensive teams are ones that can mix it up and run the ball when they need to. That's what we want to achieve here at Cal."
The Bears have uncertainties at every position, but seven starters and 14 players from the 22-man two-deep depth chart are back to provide a solid nucleus.
QUARTERBACK: This will be the most intriguing position competition in the Cal program in many seasons as four different quarterbacks all are in the hunt for starting duties - and none of them has more than a whisper of experience. Sophomore Samuel Clemons (6-2, 210) has thrown for exactly two yards and has 12 pass attempts in his young career, but he is the most experienced of all the Cal candidates.
He has great arm strength and reminds some of former Cal QB Mike Pawlawski, a former Pac-10 Player of the Year, because of his aggressive approach to the position. He'll have every opportunity to show he can consistently be accurate and can exercise command of the new offensive system. But the fact remains that he has run only nine offensive series in his career (5 vs. UCLA, 2 at USC and 2 at ASU) and thus the jury is still out as to what kind of quarterback he will become.
That inexperience opens the door slightly for the other candidates, including redshirt-freshman David Page (6-1, 185). He created a good amount of attention last season while running the scout team offense and showing excellent instincts. The coaches really liked his ability to throw the football on the run and move the team.
The most ballyhooed Cal recruit in several years arrives this fall from Hart HS with a firm intent to interject himself into the quarterback equation. Prep All-American Kyle Boller (6-4, 195) turned down offers from Florida State, Tennessee, Colorado, and many expect him to push for starting duties in his first season at Cal.
He has an unbelievable arm, with prep films to back up claims that some of his pass completions last year sailed over 70 yards in the air. Another plus is that he grew up in a very similar offensive system at Hart HS. He seems to have all the tools to have an immediate impact and Hagen has gone on record saying he would give all four quarterbacks an equal chance to compete for starting duties. The other newcomer to the QB wars is incoming freshman Ryan Sorahan (6-3, 205). He, likewise, has impressive prep credentials and many feel his greatest strength is the accuracy with which he delivers the football.
RUNNING BACKS: The master plan is for a slender sophomore who quietly ran for 734 yards (sixth best in the Pac-10) last year to evolve into a bruising junior who could be a dominant force in college football. Marcus Fields (6-2, 210) has gained a little more than 10 pounds from last season and should even play at around the 215-pound level come the fall. With 4.5 speed, that will present more than a few problems for opponent defenses.
He had four games over the 100-yard barrier last year, including against both Arizona and Oklahoma, two of the nation's best rush defenses.
Junior Marcus Oliver (5-11, 210) is another player who has gained 10 pounds during the off-season and he will again provide solid relief at the tailback position. He carried the ball in nine of 11 games last season, including a 5-carry, 32-yard performance at Washington.
The Bears are also excited about the arrival of three highly touted prep tailbacks this fall, any of whom could find a way into the playing rotation. Joe Igber (5-8, 190) set all kinds of rushing records while nailing down state Offensive Player of the Year honors in Hawaii. His shifty style of running reminds many of Barry Sanders and so he could be a perfect complement to the powerful style of Fields.
Cal returns starting fullback Joshua White (6-0, 250), who has shown flashes of superior play during the last two seasons but has been hampered by injuries. He is a tough man to bring down in short yardage situations and plays a key role with his blocking prowess.
Soph Saleem Muhammad (6-0, 195) offers a different dimension as a smaller fullback who is a bigger threat with the ball in his hands. He was expected to redshirt in his first season, but ended up in the rotation after an early-season injury to White and finished as the team's second leading rusher, including a pair of very solid outings at USC and Oregon State.
Cal got some depth with the addition of JC transfer Keala Keanaaina (6-3. 260), who might rate as the biggest fullback in the league. He'll be a significant force as a blocker and has enough athletic ability that the coaches may even give him a look at the tight end position. Redshirt-freshman Ryan Stanger (6-2, 220) may get his feet wet this year as his role will grow precipitously as his career at Cal evolves.
One of the most respected coaches in the business, pro or college, White has his hands full rebuilding the confidence of a group that gave up 58 sacks last season, plus lost a first team Pac-10 player to graduation in John Welbourn. The Bears do have a good core to build around as center John Romero (6-3, 315) is a sure-bet NFL prospect and one of three returning starters on the Cal line. Romero will be a powerful force on the interior of the line, but more importantly, give the Bears a big dose of maturity as a three-year starter.
The other returning starters are sophomores Langston Walker (6-8, 335) and Brandon Ludwig (6-4, 290). They both had some peaks and valleys while learning the ropes in fulltime duty as rookies, but that experience will pay big dividends this fall. Both also have the type of athletic ability that could make them all-conference candidates over the next few years.
Cal could find another component in a starting unit in senior Kevin Doherty (6-5, 295), who started six games last season. He appears dedicated toward ending his college career on a strong note and the Bears need him to play well if they are to be successful up front.
Junior Reid Diehl (6-4, 290) is another player whose development is critical to the Cal fortunes this fall. A former tight end, he has an exciting combination of athletic ability and strength, but struggled in his first start last season and never was given another chance. He'll have that opportunity under White.
A pair of redshirt-freshmen in Adam Fisher (6-4, 275) and Brian Gray (6-4, 270), along with JC transfer Chris Chick (6-5, 270), figure to provide depth in '99. Although they need to continue to develop, they'll get a long look in the spring to see if White can bring them along more quickly.
Walk-on Russell Wittman (6-4, 285) has a solid work ethic and will get a lot of work at center in the absence of Romero (who will be nursing a sprained knee), seeing if he can insert himself into the playing rotation.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Cal is loaded with unproven talent. That best sums up the team's wide receiver situation. How many of those inexperienced, but gifted, receivers can emerge will go a long ways toward establishing whether Cal's passing game will soar or sputter.
Cal has a pair of veterans who begin with the edge in the battle for starting duties.
Senior Joel Young (6-2, 185) is a heady veteran with good hands. He caught 28 passes for 281 yards and one TD last season. Always slender, he has bulked up some for his senior year and should be a more physical receiver in '99.
Junior Phillip Pipersburg (5-10, 185) has great speed and could play a big role this season, if he becomes a consistent performer. He caught a 30-yard touchdown pass among four receptions in the Houston opener last year, but managed only three catches the entire rest of the season.
Cal had six incoming freshmen a year ago, including some heralded recruits. That group will hold the key to Cal's passing game this fall as all of them will get an opportunity to earn significant playing time.
Sean Currin (6-1, 185) is a walk-on whose steady play earned him a start in the final game of the season.
Both redshirt-freshmen Eddie Macha (5-10, 190) and Omar Bennett (6-1, 180) also had good seasons on the scout team and will make strong bids for playing time. Macha has a reputation as a great competitor with glue for hands and Bennett is a hard player to cover and also catches the ball well.
Finally, redshirt-freshman Brian White (6-0, 180) is still learning the game after playing in a wing-back offense as a prep, but has the type of speed that could move him into contention for playing time earlier than normal.
Surgener has started several games the last two seasons and is an excellent pass-catcher at the tight end position. After catching 12 passes as a freshman in '97, he added nine more last season.
Smith has great size and unlimited potential. He's been nagged by injuries the first two seasons in the program, but did start one game last year and could be in for a big season in '99, if he's fully healthy.
Sophomore Marcus Helfman (6-5, 220) will provide depth as he gains maturity and strength.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Cal should have three of the four special teams areas rate with the best in the country as punter Nick Harris has a big leg and Deltha O'Neal is a threat every time he touches the ball on kickoff or punt returns.
The big question mark for the Bears is whether they can improve on the placekicking department and that continues to loom large for a team that missed eight field goals of 45 yards or shorter last season.
PUNTING: Nick Harris (6-3, 215) was absolutely superb over the last half of the '98 season, as he averaged 44.7 yards on 36 punts over the final five games. The first half of the season, he was asked to pooch punt on regular occasion, and while he managed to place nine inside opponents 5-yard-line and had 27 punts over the course of the season inside the 20, his average did suffer some. If he booms the ball like he did late last season, there's nobody better in college football and he should get serious All-America consideration.
PLACEKICKING: Senior Igancio Brache (6-0, 210) returns as the starter, but will need to show more consistency if he hopes to hold on to that job. He hit 11-of-19 field goal attempts and missed several extra points over the last two seasons, and he'll need to gain the coaching staff's confidence before they'll hand him another starting assignment.
Redshirt-freshmen Joshua Feldman (6-0, 215) and Mark-Christian Jensen (6-2, 180) will contend for playing time after unspectacular debut seasons, but the real important development could be the arrival of true-freshman Jeremy Hershey (6-0, 180) in the fall as he was rated by some as the second best placekicking prospect on the West Coast last year. RETURN SPECIALISTS: Deltha O'Neal has been doing the same thing now for three straight seasons, causing opponent special teams coaches sleepless nights. He is a game-breaker in every sense of the word as he had five kickoff returns over 40 yards and seven punt returns over 20 yards last season.
He has good speed and fine quickness, but what sets him apart is his instincts in finding the seams and making the right cut at the right time. He ended last year rank