Aug. 2, 2007
"You know it, you know the story, you tell the whole wide world, this is Bear Territory."
Behind one of its popular rallying cheers, the California football team aims to put an even larger footprint on the Bay Area as "Bear Territory" in 2007. One of the most potent offenses in college football returns for the 2007 season, ready to show off its stable of playmakers and pile up the points, while the Cal defense will again prepare to shut down its foes. However, head coach Jeff Tedford has some words of caution before another successful season is guaranteed.
"We have the ability and the skill to do some things," Tedford said. "It all comes down to how hard we work and how much attention we pay to detail. That will be the focus as we go into camp. I have a lot of confidence that this team can be a good team, but there's still a lot of work to be done."
Tedford has built the Golden Bears into one of the top programs in the nation, leading California to four straight bowl appearances and top-10 national rankings in each of the last three years. Cal's 36 wins over the last four years are the most in any four-year stretch in over 50 years for the Bears.
While Cal may not seem like an overly experienced team on paper - its 14 returning offensive and defensive starters is just seventh among Pac-10 teams - closer examination reveals the Golden Bears will have tremendous depth in 2007 as 31 players who have started games in their collegiate careers are returning. Even with the loss of key players, including three to the NFL Draft and six more to the league as free agents, Cal has veterans at nearly every position, as well as a group of highly-touted recruits waiting in the wings.
Leading the way to continued success in 2007 is a receiving corps rated among the best in the country. Oakland product Robert Jordan has caught passes in 30 straight games and Stockton native Lavelle Hawkins has developed into a big-play star. However, capturing the bulk of the spotlight has been Heisman Trophy candidate DeSean Jackson, a lightning- quick receiver and the top return man in the nation. Just a junior, Jackson had a Pac-10 record four punt return touchdowns in 2006 while also tallying over 1,000 receiving yards. Meanwhile, quarterback Nate Longshore has the luxury of his three star receivers to build on an impressive 2006 season which saw him become just the second Bear quarterback in history to pass for over 3,000 yards.
The Bears won't be all passing, however, as senior Justin Forsett steps into a prime-time role at running back. The powerful back has exceptional quickness and poise and should prove to be a handful for opposing defenses as he hopes to give Tedford his ninth straight year with a 1,000-yard rusher.
Helping to anchor the potent offensive attack are three returning starters on the offensive line, including all-conference selections Alex Mack and Mike Gibson, as well as 6-5, 258-pound tight end Craig Stevens, who is expected to challenge for the Mackey Award as the top tight end in the nation.
While Cal Football is usually associated with offense, the Golden Bear defense has ranked in the top two in the Pac-10 in points allowed in each of the last three years. Expect more of the same as junior linebackers Zack Follett and Worrell Williams, safeties Thomas DeCoud, Brandon Hampton and Bernard Hicks and cornerback Syd'Quan Thompson prepare to shut down the opposition again in 2007. While the top returnees on the defensive line are 312-pound senior Matt Malele and 305-pound junior Mika Kane, a host of young talent is also expected to make key contributions in 2007.
As any coach will be quick to point out, offense and defense are only two parts of the puzzle. The third phase of a successful program is specials teams. The 2007 Golden Bears are expected to have a special teams corps which will rank among the best in the nation once again. Senior placekicker Tom Schneider and senior punter Andrew Larson are both in line for national recognition while long snapper Nick Sundberg is a star at an under-appreciated position. And with Jackson returning punts, foes will be hard-pressed to gain an edge in the kicking game.
Tedford has built the Bears into an undeniable power on the gridiron and that success has translated to a line of records at the turnstiles. Last season, Cal averaged a record 64,318 fans at its seven home games. In addition, Memorial Stadium, which has been ranked as the No. 1 venue in the country to watch a college football game, has seen 50,000-plus fans at 18 straight games. This year's schedule features six Division I-A opponents, including USC and inter-sectional foe Tennessee, which makes its first trip to Berkeley for the opener on Sept. 1.
Despite the tremendous success of recent seasons, the Golden Bears are not wasting time reading their own press clippings. "It will be exciting in 2007," said Longshore. "We have a lot of playmakers and our fans can expect us to play our hardest and they can expect us to be prepared. Those are things that we can control. There's a lot to work on in the off-season, but if we are willing to put in the time and the work, I think there is the potential for big things to happen."
With Tedford at the helm, there is little doubt the Bears will be among the hardest working and best prepared teams in the nation. And that combination should make for many post-game celebrations with the team chanting, "You know it, you know the story, you tell the whole wide world, this is Bear Territory."
Junior Nate Longshore stepped into the starting role at quarterback in 2006 and established himself as one of the top signal-callers in the Pac-10, if not the nation. As a sophomore, Longshore connected for 24 touchdowns while directing the California offense to a Pac-10 best 32.8 points per game. He also delivered 51 passes that went for 20 yards or more.
"I thought Nate did a great job last year," Tedford said. "I'm very impressed with what he did, how he learned and progressed through the season."
Sophomore Kyle Reed and redshirt freshman Kevin Riley both gained some good experience during spring ball, but both also battled injuries. The duo will be eager to earn some in-game experience during the 2007 campaign.
"Kyle is a big, strong, fast guy with a nice arm, competitive and tough," Tedford said. "He's got a lot of great physical attributes there. Kevin's fairly mobile, not as mobile as Kyle, but Kevin has a pretty good understanding of what's going on for a young guy. He throws great balls and has a great presence in the pocket.
"It really comes down to their ability to run the offense, understand what we're doing, and put us in position to be successful offensively. There's a lot to it, managing the clock, managing field position and just the whole management of the game and the offense. They really haven't had the chance to do that yet and that's where they are right now."
Justin Forsett is slotted No. 1 on the depth chart at tailback entering the fall after paying his dues for three years in a secondary back role. The senior from Florida by way of Texas has established himself during his time in Berkeley as one of the top non-starting backs in the nation - and with over 1,600 yards, six 100-yard games and an average of 6.4 yards per carry, the veteran is more than ready to handle the bulk of the carries.
"Justin just needs to keep doing what he's been doing," Tedford said. "He's going to have the chance to do it more often now. He's been a very dependable guy for us, hopefully we can keep him healthy and he can play a major role."
While Forsett appears entrenched at tailback, Tedford's offenses have historically relied heavily on multiple running backs. In each of the last three years, Cal has split carries between the likes of J.J. Arrington, Marshawn Lynch, Marcus O'Keith and Forsett. After a strong spring, redshirt freshmen James Montgomery seems poised to take over that secondary role in the backfield. However, classmate Tracy Slocum, who battled hamstring problems in the spring, will also compete for playing time.
A pair of true freshmen speedsters, Jahvid Best and Shane Vereen, will also join the squad for 2007, giving the Golden Bears two of the fastest tailbacks in the nation. Sophomore Bryan Schutte, who scored his first career touchdown in the Holiday Bowl, will also provide depth at running back.
The fullback position will be ably manned by junior Will Ta'ufo'ou who was very impressive in his starting debut last season in the Holiday Bowl in place of the injured Byron Storer. Ta'ufo'ou is a bruising blocker who is capable of handling the ball in short-yardage situations and also showed the skills to catch passes out of the backfield.
Already a two-time All-Pac-10 selection, Craig Stevens returns for his senior season as one of the top tight ends in the nation. Last season, he tallied 17 catches for 239 yards, including seven catches on third or fourth down - all for first downs. He is also a force in the blocking game and was voted a team captain following the season.
"Craig may be unheralded to the media," Tedford said. "But he was second team All-Pac-10; people are recognizing his efforts. He does a lot of things you don't realize; a lot of times, tight ends are evaluated on their catches and yards, but the physical presence he brings to our offense on the edge is very, very important to what we're doing."
While Stevens has become a key to the Golden Bear success, sophomore Cameron Morrah is poised to step into a much larger role in 2007. A big, strong athlete, Morrah will give the Bears an option for multiple tight-end sets as well as contributing on special teams.
An abundance of firepower returns on offense for 2007 and the headliners have been the Golden Bear wide receivers. Voted as the top-rated receivers in the nation by Athlon Sports, Cal's group of pass catchers are led by three experienced veterans in seniors Lavelle Hawkins and Robert Jordan and junior DeSean Jackson.
"Without a doubt our receiving corps is a strength for us," Tedford said. "They have the most experience of any position. I would think our receivers as a group are as good as anyone's in the country."
Jackson is collecting the accolades, as well as the preseason magazine covers, after becoming the fifth player in program history to tally a 1,000-yard receiving season (59 catches, 1,060 yards, 9 TDs). A first-team All-Pac-10 selection at receiver, the burner with 4.29 speed also excelled in his side job as a punt returner, leading the nation with 18.2 yards per return and four touchdowns en route to consensus first team All-America recognition.
Despite Jackson's tremendous success in his first two seasons at Cal, it would be ill-advised for opposing defenses to focus solely on him with their game plans. Jordan and Hawkins combined for 92 catches, 1,276 yards and nine touchdowns as both were honorable mention All-Pac-10 selections in 2006.
Jordan (46 catches, 571 yards, 4 TDs) enters the 2007 campaign with a streak of 30 straight games with catches - the fourth longest streak in the nation. His 25 career games started also leads the Golden Bears. "Robert's one of our leaders on offense; he's an experienced guy who has a great understanding of all of our positions and what we're doing," Tedford said. "He's a very solid team-guy who has big-play potential."
Hawkins (46 catches, 705 yards, 5 TDs) showed excellent ability to make catches in traffic and to use his athleticism to create big plays. He had touchdown catches in each of the last three games of 2006.
While seniors Sean Young and San DeSa and junior LaReylle Cunningham bring the most experience to the lineup after the big three receivers, redshirt freshman Daniel Lofton, the son of NFL Hall-of-Famer James, and Jeremy Ross, who has added 20 pounds of muscle since his arrival last summer, will also be in the mix for playing time at wide receiver in 2007.
Junior Alex Mack established himself as one of the most improved offensive linemen in the nation as he earned first team all-conference honors at center in his first year as a starter. While he is considered a top candidate for the Rimington Award as the top center in the nation in 2007, Mack used his skills and athleticism to allow the Bear coaching staff to experiment with moving him to the tackle position in the spring. With Mack's versatility being a key factor in the ability to try him out at tackle, the other key factor in that experiment was the continued development of redshirt freshman Chris Guarnero at center. Between Guarnero and senior Mark Gray, the Bears have solid options if the Mack position-switch happens.
Senior Mike Gibson, who excelled at right tackle last season as a junior-college transfer and earned all-conference honors, is expected to slide to the opposite side of the line, anchoring Longshore's blind side from the all-important left tackle position. Junior Mike Tepper, who at 6-7 and 308 pounds is still a mountain of a man despite dropping 28 pounds, saw action in all 13 games last year and should get the starting nod at right tackle.
Junior Noris Malele, who started nine games at right guard in 2006, is expected to return to the same slot in 2007 despite missing the spring to rehabilitate an ankle injury. Senior Brian De La Puente played in 10 games with three starts last year and should use that experience to take over the starting left guard role.
"I thought De La Puente had a good spring," Tedford said. "Guarnero also did a nice job through the spring. When we get back in fall camp, it will be important to get the eight or nine that have the chemistry to play and the versatility to play. We played Mack at the tackle position, we know he's a solid center, but he has the versatility to move out and do some other things. I think we'll be fine on the offensive line. We have a good group there."
In addition to a solid group of veterans returning, the Golden Bears' 2007 Signing Class included one of the top hauls of offensive linemen in the country in Justin Cheadle, Sam DeMartinis, Todd Huber, Mitchell Schwartz and Matt Summers-Gavin, all Top-100 players in the state of California.
Despite losing three starters from 2006, including three-time all-conference selection Brandon Mebane, the Cal defensive line could see improvement in 2007 with added experience and a pair of talented redshirt freshmen in Derrick Hill and Michael Costanzo ready to make significant contributions.
Matt Malele is the veteran leader of the line. After dropping 23 pounds in the off-season, the senior tackle will look to improve on his numbers from last season. Junior Mika Kane, who has played in 19 games in his first two seasons, is poised to move into a starting tackle role as well. Expected to join the rotation in the middle will be Hill and Costanzo, both high school All-Americans two seasons ago who redshirted their first campaigns in Berkeley.
Sophomores Tyson Alualu and Cody Jones both gained invaluable experience as freshmen, and are currently slotted at the top of the depth chart at the end positions. Alualu leads the returning linemen with 16 tackles while both young players saw action in all 13 games during their rookie campaigns.
Junior Rulon Davis, an impressive physical specimen at 6-5, 275 pounds, has made outstanding progress learning the game of football after joining Cal with just one year of junior college action since graduating from high school in 2001. He will be joined in battle for playing time at end by senior John Allen and sophomore Tad Smith.
"I think we'll see a youth movement - guys like Hill and Costanzo will have the opportunity to step inside at the tackle positions," Tedford said. "We'll see if we can play Alualu inside or outside. Davis gained some good experience at this level. We feel good about Malele and Kane who both had significant playing time. A big thing will be to check our flexibility with our freshmen."
Cal's linebackers were recognized as some of the best in the nation in 2006 and despite the loss of talented playmakers Desmond Bishop and Mickey Pimentel, expect more of the same big plays in 2007. Breaking down positions for the multi-dimensional Bear 'backers is a challenge as versatility is the name of the game for seniors Justin Moye and Greg Van Hoesen and juniors Anthony Felder, Zack Follett and Worrell Williams.
Follett was the only non-starter in the nation to earn all-conference honors at linebacker. A strong, athletic play-maker and a Butkus Award and Ronnie Lott Trophy candidate in 2007, the Fresno product led the Bears with 5.5 sacks while adding 62 tackles and an interception in 2006. After seeing the bulk of his action on the weakside last year, he will be given a look at the SAM position this season.
Williams is ready to step into the considerable task of replacing Bishop, the Pac-10's leading tackler in 2006, at the middle linebacker position. The brother of NFL linebacker D.J. Williams, he registered 51 tackles while starting 12 games last season and is expected to improve that production in 2007.
Felder joined Follett as a Freshman All-American in 2005, but injuries limited him to just 18 tackles last season. Back to full health, the Seattle product was exceptional in the spring and is penciled in as a starter on the weakside for 2007.
Moye is a legacy player for the Golden Bears, following in the footsteps of his father Jeff who helped the Bears to a Pac-10 Co-Championship in 1975. Now a senior, the former walk-on started three games while seeing action in all 13 last year, tallying 23 tackles. Van Hoesen is an experienced veteran with 31 games played (tops among the linebackers) and 42 career takedowns.
"We were so multiple last year with so many guys playing, that there is still experience," Tedford said. "Moye, Williams, Follett, Felder and Van Hoesen all had significant playing time and gained good experience. We will mix and match to find out what is best."
Sophomore Eddie Young, a Berkeley High School product, was one of the break-out players of the spring, catching eyes through camp with his play-making ability. Despite the depth and experience at linebacker, he could push for significant action at the position.
The Golden Bears return four starters in the secondary in 2007. However, three are safeties and only one is a cornerback, as Cal must develop a replacement for consensus All-American Daymeion Hughes at one corner.
Senior Thomas DeCoud started the first four games at free safety in 2006 and was leading the team with 27 tackles before suffering a knee injury which limited him for much of the rest of the season. Junior Bernard Hicks took advantage of the opportunity and started the final nine games at the position, tallying 58 tackles. Following the spring, DeCoud has regained his slot at free safety, while Hicks is penciled in at the starting rover position.
Brandon Hampton, last year's starting rover and the team's top returning tackler with 63 takedowns in 2006, is expected to use his versatility for more of a utility role this season. The senior is capable of filling in at rover, but he is also in the mix for the open corner position. Sophomore Marcus Ezeff also stood out in limited action and will battle for playing time at both safety positions.
Sophomore Syd'Quan Thompson will be the Bears' top cornerback in 2007 after starting all 13 games as an untested redshirt freshman in 2006. The Sacramento product registered 60 tackles and also showed a nose for the ball with a pair of fumble recoveries, including one for a 15-yard score against Stanford in the Big Game.
The remaining corner position will be an interesting battle in fall camp. The most experienced contender, sophomore Robert Peele, who also has seen action at safety, emerged from the spring as the frontrunner. However, redshirt freshmen Charles Amadi, Darian Hagan and Brandon Jones are most definitely in the mix as well.
"Daymeion Hughes was an All-American player for us," Tedford said. "But there is a list of guys that have ability to fill that role; they just need an opportunity to play."
The Golden Bears come into 2007 with one of the most impressive arrays of special teams weapons in the nation. Junior DeSean Jackson was recognized as the top return man in the nation, senior Tom Schneider was as clutch as any placekicker in the country and senior Andrew Larson was nearly flawless throughout his first season of Division I punting. In addition, long snapper Nick Sundberg continues to draw raves from the coaching staff for his often under-appreciated (by fans and media) skills.
"We don't have as many question marks as last year," Tedford said. "Larson has established himself as a premier punter in the conference and Schneider has been very consistent. The experience is very good; we'll use fall camp to continue to figure out our backups."
In addition to Jackson and his protection teams leading the nation with his 18.2 yards per punt return, Larson and the Golden Bears' coverage teams paced the Pac-10 with a net punting average of 38.3 yards - nearly nine yards better than opponents.
In the kicking game, Schneider was perfect on all 52 of his extra-point attempts while nailing 15-of-20 field goals, including 13-of-15 from inside 50 yards. The veteran kicker needs just 32 points to surpass Doug Brien as Cal's all-time leading scorer.