April 11, 2000
Berkeley - The Cal Football program has proven in recent years it can excel. But that statement is only a half-truth and therein lies the rub.
The Bears clearly have been dominant in virtually every area one can imagine in recent seasons, whether it be defense, offense, the kicking game or the return area. Unfortunately, the program has failed to put those elements together in the same campaign, and that has meant the program has not posted a winning record in the last seven years.
Now, the task is to put things together and head coach Tom Holmoe is hoping the start of the new millennium will mark a breakthrough for his Cal Football program as he welcomes back 46 lettermen, including 15 starters (8 offense, 5 defense, 2 kickers), for the 2000 season.
Last season, a No. 1 ranked Cal defense, the top punter in the Pac-10 and one of the nation's premier return specialists were combined with a sputtering offense and a dismal field goal unit. The result was a 4-7 season that left a bad taste in the mouth for those involved in the Cal Football program.
It's a familiar scenario for Cal in recent years. One hearkens back to 1996 when Cal led the Pac-10 in total offense but was last in total defense. The past couple years, in addition to offensive and defensive disparities, Cal has also ranked among the top punting and return teams in college football, but combined it with one of the least efficient placekicking squads.
"We've put some things in very good shape and that means progress," said head coach Tom Holmoe. "I'm confident we've established ourselves defensively and that we'll continue to be very solid in that area in the future. But, we have to be more productive on offense. It's really this simple. If we improve on offense and score points, we'll be in a bowl game."
The Bears do have eight starters returning on the offensive side of the football which should translate into better overall performance. The defense loses some key performers, but the coaching staff believes there is enough talent this year to maintain a level of performance that has seen the Bears finish among the top three defenses in the Pac-10 the last two seasons.
Predicting the Pac-10 race has been a fruitless endeavor over the past several seasons. The eventual league champion had been projected by the pre-season experts to be a second-division club in four of the past seven seasons, including Stanford last year, which was picked to finish in 8th place.
With Cal's recent performance, rather than its potential for the coming season, being the focus of the 2000 prognosticators, the Bears are likely to be picked in the second division of the league standings. Given the recent history, that may be just where Tom Holmoe and team wants to be.
Cal's non-conference schedule is less challenging than a year ago when the Bears took to the road for games at ranked opponents Nebraska and BYU. However, all three of Cal's 2000 non-conference foes (Utah, Illinois, Fresno State) are coming off bowl berths with improved expectations for the coming season, so the Bears will get tested early in the season.
Cal's offensive coaching staff meetings in the last few months can best be described by the word "intense" as the Bears attempt to re-energize an offense that has failed to average 300 yards a game in either of the last two seasons.
Last season's performance was understandable when considering it was the first year under coordinator Steve Hagen's offensive system and there often as many as four or five freshmen in the starting line-up, including quarterback Kyle Boller.
Still, Cal needs to improve its output from a year ago when the team managed just 250.8 yards and only 16.4 points a game.
The off-season meetings focused on a complete analysis of last year's successes and failures as well as tinkering with the offense to take advantage of Cal's strengths in 2000.
That likely means that the Bears will get the ball in the hands of their running backs as much as possible with the use of an "H" Back in many situations, instead of a straight "I" formation. Cal will also emphasize a controlled passing game until the quarterback-receiver combinations prove they can push the ball downfield. Returning four starters on the offensive line should also play into that "move the chains" philosophy.
"The strength of our offense certainly resides at the running back position, and that combined with an experienced offensive line, should enable us to create a more balanced attack this season," said Hagen. "If we can open holes and run the football, it's going to make our passing game that much more dangerous. Certainly, we need to develop a higher percentage passing attack, but we feel the package we're developing which will include throwing to the backs out of the backfield will not only help the completion rate but also create more problems for the defense."
QUARTERBACKS: A year ago, highly touted prep star Kyle Boller (6-4, 200) came to Cal with a wealth of talent but very little playing experience as he was just a one-year high school starter.
He got all the experience anybody could have asked for and more last season, starting eight games and enduring a difficult transition to the major college level. He paid the price for his inexperience, a factor that was complicated by an unsettled receiving corps and an inconsistent offensive line effort, as he completed only 38.6 percent (100-of-259) of his passes, had 15 interceptions and managed just nine touchdown passes. For a QB coming off a final prep season that saw him connect on 59 touchdowns with just three interceptions, that was a disappointing college debut.
The Cal coaches believe Cal fans will see a much different quarterback at the helm this season, as Boller will not only benefit from a year of Pac-10 experience but will also have the advantage of working with the coaching staff and receivers through spring practice in 2000. There is plenty of precedent of a quarterback paying his dues early in his college career before blossoming and Cal fans are hoping Boller follows in the footsteps of former All-Americans Cade McNown (UCLA) and Ryan Leaf (Washington State) in that regard.
He'll be pushed by junior college transfer Eric Holtfreter (6-2, 220), who threw for over 4,300 yards the past two seasons at L.A. Valley CC. He has the type of experience and poise which should offer a good alternative to Boller, if the Cal offense needs a spark.
Redshirt freshman Kevin Klein (6-1, 180) will get a lot of reps during the spring and the Bears will also took a long look at the athletic Reggie Robertson (6-2, 180) from Tucson's Sahuaro HS when he arrives this fall.
RUNNING BACKS: Clearly, this position is the strength of the Cal offense and the coaches will emphasize getting the ball to the backs as much as possible this fall. That also means that one will likely see some formations in which both explosive Joe Igber (5-8, 190) and powerful Marcus Fields (6-2, 220) are in the backfield at the same time.
Igber seemed primed to make a run for Freshman All-America honors last year after posting three consecutive 100-yard games in his first three collegiate starts, but then a shoulder injury slowed his progress. Still, he had a banner debut season, rushing for 694 yards and averaging 4.7 yards a carry.
His ability to evade tacklers with quick, darting moves reminded many of Barry Sanders. If he can build on his freshman accomplishments and stay healthy, he could emerge as an All-America candidate before his college career is over.
Fields had a disappointing junior season as he suffered from being moved between the tailback and receiver positions midway through the year. He does have the potential to be a dominant performer as his five career 100-yard rushing games attest and the Bears really could use his size as a counter-point to the elusive Igber. The coaches seemed committed to ensuring he'll have an opportunity to make plays this fall, often in the same backfield as Igber.
Cal's depth in the backfield is illustrated by junior Saleem Muhammad (6-0, 205), who has the skills to contend for starting duties on the Pac-10 level. His performance at UCLA last year was eye-opener. He had 77 yards on 16 carries, including an impressive 34-yard TD run in which his head-and-shoulder fake left a Bruin safety grasping for air as Muhammad flew by towards the endzone.
While the focus this season could be on the above players, soph Joseph Echema (5-11, 215) has the type of power and speed to make him one to watch closely in the future.
The Bears have plenty of size in traditional fullbacks Keala Keanaaina (6-3, 260) and Ryan Stanger (6-2, 240), who both have the ability to be dominant blockers and factors in short-yardage situations.
OFFENSIVE LINE: Four starters return on the Cal line and that provides plenty of stability for a group that has a lot to prove after an inconsistent 1999 season.
Off-season workouts in the weight room and players' meetings orchestrated by the veterans of the line during the past few months have been focused affairs regarding a resolve to put last season behind them and emerge as one of the Pac-10's top offensive lines.
A key off-season move sees senior Reid Diehl (6-4, 300) shift from a tackle position to center, where his experience and intelligence can be best harnessed in anchoring Cal's forward wall and making prudent calls at the line of scrimmage.
Cal has a pair of honors candidates at the guard positions in Scott Tercero (6-5, 285) and Brandon Ludwig (6-4, 295). Tercero, a third team Freshman All-American after starting eight games last year, and Ludwig, who has started most of the past two years, offer an element of athleticism that is rarely found in players approaching the 300-pound range. Langston Walker (6-8, 330) also has unique athletic ability for a giant offensive tackle. He'll enter his third year in the starting line-up, intent on establishing himself as a premier NFL prospect.
While Walker will play on either the left or right side, the other starting tackle has various possibilities. Among the candidates to watch are redshirt-freshman Mark Wilson (6-6, 290), a former prep basketball star who has a load of potential as he matures, and a pair of JC transfers who arrive in the fall, Eddie Martinez (6-4, 290) from Glendale CC and Nofoallii Tuitama (6-7, 290) from El Camino CC.
The versatile Chris Chick (6-5, 295) will provide depth at a number of positions along the forward wall and could contend for starting duties, while senior Robert Truhitte (6-5, 290) could also be a factor on the depth chart, if healthy.
WIDE RECEIVERS: A major disappointment a year ago, Cal's wide receivers will have an entirely new look in 2000. The addition of three talented JC transfers and a trio of accomplished prep receivers is critical. More important, perhaps, is the expertise and energy provided by new receiver coach Ken Margerum, a former All-American and Super Bowl participant. Margerum provides both a technical knowledge and competitive hunger that should prove invaluable to an untested Golden Bear receiver corps.
The fact, though, is Cal's returning wide receiver group has only 20 career catches entering the 2000 season, meaning Margerum will need all his teaching and motivational skills to generate a productive season.
Philip Pipersburg (5-10, 185) has the speed to be a premier deep threat as his 10.48 time in the 1999 Pac-10 track finals confirms. His contribution thus far on the gridiron has been minimal (13 catches last year, 20 overall), but he has a wide-open depth chart offers a chance to finish his career in fine fashion.
While all eyes may be on Cal's six newcomers, including the three JC players on display this spring, one shouldn't ignore junior Sean Currin (6-1, 185), a heady route-runner who has started a handful of games the last two years and shown he can catch a ball in traffic.
Still, the Bears can't succeed without a sizeable contribution from a new group of enrollees. The most intriguing are Charon Arnold (5-11, 185), who averaged 18.3 yards per catch and nine TDs at El Camino CC last year, and freshman Geoff McArthur (6-2, 200), who led the entire nation with an amazing 1,779 yards and 28 TD catches last fall at Palisades HS in Los Angeles.
However, it's also hard to discount the enormous production last year from first team JC All-American Chad Heydorff (6-1, 185) from Glendale CC, who caught 86 passes last fall, or the maturity and athletic skills of Derek Swafford (5-10, 175), a former prep All-American who came back to Ventura JC last year after five years in pro baseball with the Pittsburgh Pirates organization.
TIGHT ENDS: An emphasis on the short and intermediate passing game could mean a bigger role for Cal's tight ends and the Bears feel comfortable with the duo of senior Brian Surgener (6-4, 235) and junior Corey Smith (6-4, 250). Surgener has three years of starting experience under his belt and now has the size to be a factor on the line of scrimmage, in addition to his pass-catching skills. Smith hopes to overcome various minor injuries that have plagued his career and emerge as a dominant tight end, with the type of play that earned him prep All-America honors coming out of high school three years ago.
Having now accomplished the monumental task of going from dead last in total defense to the No. 1 position in the Pac-10 over a three-year period, coordinator Lyle Setencich now faces the equally daunting task of staying on top. The Bears managed to win the league total defense title last season, despite playing virtually the entire year without stalwarts Matt Beck and Jerry DeLoach. Their absence provided critical playing experience for several younger players, which should pay dividends this fall. In all, Cal returns five starters and 11 different players who were in the starting line-up at least once last season. That's a solid foundation of experience to build around.
However, Cal must find answers for the absence of three stars that will leave a huge void in NCAA interception leader Deltha O'Neal, Pac-10 sack champ Mawuko Tugbenyoh and Sekou Sanyika, Cal's career leader in tackles for loss. While there may be some reloading involved in 2000, Setencich believes he has enough talent among 24 returning lettermen on defense to remain one of the top defenses in the Pac-10.
"We have a good amount of players who have experience and know the system. Now, it's time for them to step up and emerge as key performers," said Setencich. "No question, we lost some major talents on defense, but I still feel we have the ingredients to be among the top defenses in the Pac-10."
DEFENSIVE LINE: California not only led the Pac-10 last season with a school-record 52 sacks, but the Bears also were superior against the run, allowing 2.9 yards per rush, the best mark in the league by far.
Those numbers will be hard to duplicate, but Cal still figures to be the best defensive line in the league again in 2000 with the return of Outland Trophy candidate Andre Carter (6-4, 260) on the outside and Jacob Waasdorp (6-2, 275) on the interior. Both were first team All-Pac-10 selections a year ago.
Carter put up monster numbers last year (20 tackles for loss, including 10 sacks), but he appears ready to be even more dominant in 2000. Eschewing a chance to become a high NFL draft choice in order to return to Cal for his senior year, Carter has been a workhorse in the weight room in the off-season, adding almost 10 pounds to his chiseled physique. He just doesn't have any weaknesses as he plays the run equally well to his explosive pass rush. He'll be watched closely by Outland Trophy voters this fall.
One of the reasons offensive lines find it difficult to apply all resources on Carter is the presence of the inexorable Waasdorp inside. A relentless competitor, Waasdorp is nearly impossible to block due to the quickness of both his feet and hands and his ability to recognize plays developing.
While that duo rates with any in the nation, Cal also feels it has a pair of rising stars in sophomores Daniel Nwangwu (6-4, 295) and Wayne Hunter (6-6, 280). Both got a solid taste of experience last season as true-freshmen and served notice they'll bid for honors over the next few years.
Nwangwu ended up in the starting line-up at tackle midway through the season and he responded with seven tackles behind the line of scrimmage. He's a rock against the run, but his emerging pass-rushing skills make him one the pros will watch very closely over the next few seasons. Hunter is one of the biggest defensive ends in college football and could be close to 300 pounds before his college career is over.
Soph defensive end Tully Banta-Cain (6-4, 240) doesn't have the experience or the size of Tugbenyoh, but he does bring the same type of quickness and nose for the quarterback. His development as a pass-rushing threat is one of the critical issues as Cal prepares for the '00 season. Another player to keep an eye on is junior Tim Pompa (6-4, 275). He caught the coaches' attention last year with his athletic ability, but injuries kept him on the sideline almost all season. He appears healthy now and that may mean he will push hard for significant playing time.
A number of players could emerge as key members of the playing rotation with solid springs, including junior Nate DeSomber (6-4, 295), and redshirt-freshmen Derek Deutsch (6-3, 285) and Josh Beckham (6-2, 275).
LINEBACKERS: A transition year will test Lyle Setencich's many coaching skills in 2000 as familiar faces such as Sekou Sanyika, Matt Beck and Keith Miller have graduated and are making plans for the NFL.
However, the cupboard is far from empty as J.P. Segura (6-0, 230), Jamaal Cherry (6-4, 270), Juan Jimenez 6-0, 210) and Scott Fujita (6-5, 235) all were in the starting line-up at various points last season and will provide a nucleus of experience to build around.
Segura is a heady player who reminds some people of former Texas A&M All-American Dat Nguyen as he isn't an overpowering physical specimen, but he always seems to be around the ball, making plays. After moving into the starting line-up late last year, he averaged eight tackles a game over the last three contests, including 10 (8 unassisted) at Oregon State.
Cherry is a freight train who can run. He started a pair of games last year and registered six tackles behind the line of scrimmage. If he doesn't assume a starting position at linebacker, the coaches want him in the line-up somewhere. That may mean, he could move down to the rush end position where opposing quarterbacks would endure his wrath on a frequent basis.
Jimenez has the ability to run and a great feel for the game, particularly in passing situations, while Fujita will miss spring with a neck injury, but should be back this fall to contend for starting duties on the outside.
A player who could very well be in the starting line-up at either an inside or outside linebacker position is junior Chris Ball (6-3, 215), who has all the earmarks of a playmaker with his ability to run and his thirst for contact. He originally signed with Cal a year ago out of Mt. Sac JC but sat out last season while fulfilling one class requirement. Inside linebacker Jason Smith (6-0, 225) is another player with great field savvy and he finally appears healthy, after a pair of seasons nursing injuries. Soph Paul Ugenti (6-0, 210) has made the move from safety and will provide a steadying influence, particularly in pass situations.
SECONDARY: Replacing both starting safeties and All-America cornerback Deltha O'Neal may seem a daunting task, but with nine returning lettermen in the defensive backfield, the Bears aren't in a panic mode.
Things are well stocked at the cornerback position led by senior Chidi Iwuoma (5-9, 185), an honorable All-Pac-10 selection last season. Regarded as one of the best coverage corners in the league, Iwuoma has tremendous experience, as this will be his fourth season in the starting line-up.
Cal is excited about the potential of LaShaun Ward (6-1, 190), who may the best athlete on the team. A former prep quarterback with 4.4 speed, Ward is a clone of Deltha O'Neal with his all-around abilities and the Bears will utilize him on offense again, as they did last year when he caught a pair of long passes, including a 55-yard TD at BYU, and completed a 24-yard pass as well.
Cal has three other corners who will also contest for starting positions. Senior Harold Pearson (5-11, 180) is entering his third year in the playing rotation, while sophomore Jemeel Powell (6-1, 185) has the fluidity and speed to develop into a blue-chip corner with experience. Another player with exciting potential is former prep All-American Atari Callen (5-9, 190), who has excellent speed.
The safety position is more unsettled and the development at this position will be a huge priority during the spring. Junior Dewey Hale (6-0, 200) should occupy one of the spots, as he's a physical player who got a lot of playing experience last year, including a start vs. USC. Hale showed some big-play ability in '99 and his emergence this fall will go a long ways toward solidifying the safety position.
Sophomore Nnamdi Asomugha (6-2, 200) has a load of ability, but very little experience. However, he's the type of talent the Bears want on the field and the coaching staff feels the rewards will be great once he learns the ropes as a full-time player.
A pair of other players fit in a similar category of talented, but inexperienced safeties in sophomore Bert Watts (6-1, 205) and redshirt-freshman Joe DeBise (6-2, 205). They will get a lot of reps in the spring and will have a big opportunity to establish themselves in the playing rotation, even as starting candidates.
Senior David Watts (5-11, 185) provides a veteran influence as the coaches like his intelligent approach to the game and his mistake-free play.
SPECIAL TEAMS Cal hits both ends of the spectrum with the confidence of having perhaps the nation's best punting team and the uneasiness of an unproven placekicking game. The Bears also face the task of replacing return specialist Deltha O'Neal, who returned more punts and kickoffs over the last four years than anybody in NCAA history. Cal has always placed a high priority on special team's play and this season will offer an interesting change as head coach Tom Holmoe will take over the overall responsibility of coordinating Cal's special teams.
PUNTING: Cal has its punting game in good hands with senior Nick Harris 6-3, 220), who enters the 2000 season as a pre-season All-America selection by Playboy. It's not just his gaudy 44.6 yards per punt average that's impressive, but his ability to place balls deep inside opponent territory (56 punts downed inside opponent's 20-yard-line in his career that makes him such a weapon. He is helped by a superb coverage team, as the Bears finished 9th nationally last season in net punting.
PLACEKICKING: If one wants a sense of the unknown and a large dose of anxiety, Cal's placekickers have delivered over the last two seasons. Last year, Cal placekickers hit the upright on four of their first five field goal attempts. Certainly the Cal coaches could do with a little less angst when the Bears line up in placekicking situations and they are hopeful one of two sophomores develops into a consistent performer.
Jeremy Hershey (6-0, 180) hit a game-winning 25-yard field goal vs. Arizona State last season and has the leg to be one of the top kickers in the Pac-10. Mark-Christian Jensen (6-2, 200) also had some good moments last season, hitting four of five field goal attempts inside 40 yards.
RETURN SPECIALISTS: A trio of players will have the opportunity to show what they can accomplish outside the shadow of the graduated Deltha O'Neal. Chidi Iwuoma was ranked among the national punt return leaders after his 46 yards on 3 returns in the season-opener, but never got the chance to show his return skills the rest of the season. He'll get that chance this year.
Soph LaShaun Ward has the type of big-play ability that could make him a big threat on either punts or kickoffs as he has the type of speed that will mean the goalline if he breaks into the clear. Atari Callen made a ton of big plays on returns as a prep at De La Salle HS and he figures to have a similar chance this season.