Sept. 25, 2006
by Patrick Merrill, California Class of 2001
[This story originally appeared in the September 16 issue of "Kickoff," the official California game day program]
It should come as no great surprise that college football players today are bigger, stronger and faster than in prior years, especially in the Pac-10. In order to compete, everyone has had to adapt.
So what sets today's top collegiate football players apart on Saturday? Think preparation, confidence, desire, speed and technique.
Senior linebacker Desmond Bishop will showcase all of those attributes this afternoon when California's defensive unit stands up against Arizona State. The match-up will be an opportunity for Bishop to demonstrate yet again just how good he is against one of the nation's top offensive units.
A preseason All-American, Bishop began the 2006 season ranked fifth among the Pac-10's returning tacklers after leading the Bears with 89 stops in 2005, for which he was named All-Pac-10 following his first season of Division I football. Now a year later, he finds himself on the Butkus Award watch list among the nation's top linebackers.
A City College of San Francisco standout prior to moving across the Bay, Bishop quickly proved why he was such a heavily recruited JC transfer, making his presence felt as a 12-game starter in '05.
"My personality is such that I would rather stay home and help Cal become a national powerhouse," said the 6-foot-2, 243 pound middle linebacker. "I didn't want to take my talent to another city. And I couldn't overlook Cal's great academic reputation."
Thank fellow CCSF teammates-turned-Golden Bears Joe Ayoob and Lavelle Hawkins for bringing Cal football to Bishop's attention during the recruiting process. When he started to think about the benefits of playing in Memorial Stadium, Bishop recognized that Bears' head coach Jeff Tedford was loading up on talent, and not just his CCSF teammates. Bishop saw Marshawn Lynch and Brandon Mebane playing in Strawberry Canyon, to name just two, and knew it was the right place for him.
"I saw some talent over here," said Bishop. "I knew together we could build Cal into a powerhouse."
And that is just what Bishop has been doing, along with his teammates and coaches, ever since.
Bishop came to Cal to win, but also to be surrounded by good people, good coaches and a great academic university. That is who Bishop is, a good guy with goals who knows what he needs to do to succeed.
In football, that means preparation, and Bishop spends a lot of time each week in meetings and watching film priming for each game. Lots of film. All that groundwork allows Bishop to get a feel for each week's opponent and every individual offensive player he might have to face. And tackle. Then he goes to practice.
"Desmond has an intensity constantly for learning and improving himself," commented linebackers coach Bob Foster. "He's confident, enjoys life and has a positive outlook. If he keeps doing what he's been doing, he'll have a great senior season."
Putting all that preparation to work on Saturdays still requires physical skills, something Bishop is not lacking for football. Indeed, he has the football instincts required to be one of the nation's premier linebackers and the speed that translates into tackles.
"Desmond is a pretty big guy, strong and explosive, who accelerates well," Foster said. "He's one of those guys that flies around the football field, and part of that is instincts. He doesn't slow down and won't let someone else wear him down. Even if things aren't going well, he still won't let down. Some players just have better instincts, and that's where Desmond shows up."
Bishop gets so involved in his mental preparation each week he sometimes finds himself slipping off into a daydream, visualizing himself making big plays. It's even happened to him while eating dinner, surrounded by his teammates at training table. He just slips into another universe, imagining a play. When he completes the tackle and rejoins the table, his teammates know where he was. They even ask what the play was.
"It's more than just playing physical and making hits," described Bishop, "It's mental, almost like a chess game. You have to know your weaknesses and be ready to defend against them."
Talking to Bishop, it is as if he's been playing Division I football at Cal since his freshman year. That is how well he knows the game and how confident he is about it.
"He didn't miss a beat coming from JC," said the Bears' defensive coordinator Bob Gregory. "He adjusted very well. One of the biggest factors to overcome is the mental aspect because so much is going on and the defense has to be prepared to anything, but Desmond has very good instincts. I think playing that position comes naturally to him."
It is not just Bishop's play that impresses those around him; it is the type of person he is beneath that No. 10 jersey.
"Desmond is so well respected by his teammates," said Foster. "They love and respect him because he's such a positive guy. What he does for his teammates and coaches, I can't say enough about how important that is for our success.
"We are lucky to have Desmond on this campus," Foster continued. "He's the kind of guy who will be loyal to Cal forever. It's just who he is."
Gregory feels the same way, adding "When he speaks, the guys listen."
Perhaps that is why Bishop's teammates shout "Darkside" breaking out of huddles. It comes from an old Star Wars story his father told him years ago.
"To take away all life from the opposing offense," Bishop said. "To be the Darkside."