1998 Football Outlook
Bowl Berth is expected of Bears.
April 9, 1998
Like Kevin Arnold in the show The Wonder Years or the Beaver from an even earlier TV generation, being young and cute only lasts so long.
Thus, the hijinks and mistakes that got the Cal football team in so much hot water last year will no longer be tolerated as inevitable growing pains of a youthful football team.
With 52 lettermen, including 18 starters (7 offense, 9 defense, 2 kickers) back in 1998, head coach Tom Holmoe believes nothing less than the program's fifth bowl berth of the current decade will be an acceptable fate this coming season.
He says the lessons learned when last year's 2-0 start deteriorated into a 3-8 campaign will translate into success in '98.
"We knew going into last season that our youth and inexperience could be problems and that proved to be the case," said Holmoe. "However, that excuse won't fly this year -- for the coaching staff, or more importantly, the players. You learn a lot when you go through a season like last year and that experience will pay off for us this year.
"We expect to win. We expect to go to a bowl game. We expect to be in the race for the league title heading down the stretch run. If that expectation puts pressure on us, so be it. It's time to step up and be counted and I think our team has accepted that challenge."
Cal's hopes for a trip to the post-season will reside in a broad nucleus of solid talent that may be lacking in marquee names. How well that group blends together and executes will tell the story of Cal's success or failure this fall.
The Bears will depend heavily on a defense that loses only two starters and just three players from the 22-player two-deep depth chart last season. Coordinator Lyle Setencich sees all the ingredients for Cal to emerge as one of the top defensive units in the Pac-10.
The Bears played dominant defensively in spurts last season. In fact, only one team in the entire Pac-10 fared better in third down defense, as Cal allowed opponents to convert only 27.5 percent of their third down opportunities. Cal also permitted just 19 first downs a game to rank in the league's upper division in that category. However, chronic breakdowns that allowed opponents to break big play after big play kept Cal from gaining a lot of respect.
"We played hard and we showed a lot of improvement as last year wore on, but it's hard for the average fan to see that progress when you keep giving up 40-yard plays," said Setencich. "However, if we can keep improving and eliminate those big plays, I think in the next two seasons we can accomplish the same type of things our defense did at Arizona State in 1996."
That season, Setencich was a key part of a Sun Devil defensive staff that helped ASU to the No. 1 defensive ranking in the Pac-10, after finishing dead last the previous year.
There's no question that there should be plenty of leadership as 17 different players on the Cal defense who have starting experience return in '98. A year in the system should not only give those players a comfort level, but should provide the type of communication that only teams which have played together for awhile seem to enjoy.
The Bears also return a lot of experience on the offensive side of the ball with seven starters back to fuel Cal's post-season hopes. Similar to the Cal defensive performance, the Bears showed many good signs in '97, but not enough to be considered successful.
Cal rolled up 241 first downs last year, the second-best total in the Pac-10, and led the league in time of possession. However, the Bears didn't make many big plays and that lack of explosiveness meant that Cal finished only seventh in scoring offense and total offense. The Bears had only four runs all year of 25 yards or longer and just had two TD runs of 20 yards or longer during the season. The pass didn't provide any more punch as the Bears had only eight completions over 40 yards and just one TD over 55 yards all year.
Also mirroring the defensive side of the ball, the Cal offense should be much improved as it enters the second year under coordinator Doug Cosbie and his variations of the West Coast Offense.
"We moved the football last year, but the bottom line is scoring points and winning games, and that result wasn't satisfactory," said Holmoe. "Having everybody on the same page for the second year in a row is a big advantage. Plus, I believe we've addressed some of the areas for improvement through recruiting."
The centerpiece of any West Coast Offense is a quarterback who understands the complexities and nuances of the attack, and the Bears have that in senior Justin Vedder who threw for over 2,700 yards last year. Speed and depth at wide receiver should be greatly improved through a recruiting effort that netted five top prospects at that position, all with big play ability.
The lone addition Cal's offensive coaching staff could make the biggest impact. The hiring of offensive line guru Monte Clark will be a huge aid in the development of a unit that returns seven players from last year's 10-man two-deep. Knowing that he has developed six Pro Bowl players, including a pair of Hall of Famers, during his career in the NFL breeds a lot of confidence that he can perform similar miracles in Berkeley.
Cal fans will enjoy what may rank as the best home schedule in several decades, with national champion Nebraska, defending Pac-10 titlist Washington State, possible pre-season No. 1 UCLA and the 101st Big Game vs. Stanford all being hosted in Memorial Stadium.
The mandate in 1998 is very simple: Cut Down on the Big Plays. While that may be easier said than done, it still means that Cal's defensive staff has one major area of emphasis, rather than patching holes all over the place.
The figures tell the story in graphic fashion. Of the 727 defensive plays Cal was on the field last season, the Bears played dominant defense on 661 plays -- giving up just 1925 yards. That means Cal allowed an average of 2.9 yards per play on 91 percent of its defensive plays. As an comparison, the nation's leading defense last year, Michigan, gave up an average of 3.4 yards per play in 1997 and the Pac-10 leader Arizona gave up an average of 4.8 yards per defensive play.
However, it was the other nine percent of the plays that caused all the problems, as Cal surrendered 66 big plays (passes over 20 yards, runs over 15 yards) last year, giving opponents an average of 34.3 yards on those plays. Thirty of the 45 touchdowns the Cal team gave up last year came on big plays.
"The issues we face this year are pretty clear in terms of eliminating the big play," said Setencich. "The solutions may not be as easy, but I fully expect us to be much better in that category due to our experience and familiarity in the system. We may be a year away from being the type of defense we want to be, but I think most people around the league will begin to respect our defense this season."
DEFENSIVE LINE: With three of four starters and eight of the top nine players on the 1997 depth chart returning this fall, new line coach Bill Dutton has plenty of ammunition to choose from.
The Bears have a nice blend of outside speed to go along with the bulk inside to create problems for any offensive attack.
Cal's major strength on the down line comes from its pass-rushing skills on the perimeter as the Bears have three defensive ends who probably could rate as the fastest trio at that position in the country. All three made their debut seasons on Cal's defensive line last season and should take a quantum leap forward this year with a year of experience under their belt.
On one side, returning starter Andre Carter (6-4, 245) comes back for his sophomore season with his sights set on emerging as one of the best defensive players in college football. One of the top three defensive line recruits in the country last spring, Carter developed right on schedule as he moved into the starting line-up by mid-season and started making big plays. He finished the year fifth on the team in tackles for loss despite his limited playing time and figures to have a far greater impact this season. His athletic abilities combined with his work ethic make him a surefire All-America candidate before his Cal career is over.
The other side will be manned by the tandem of Mawuko Tugbenyoh (6-1, 235) and John McLaughlin (6-4, 240), who both established themselves as big play artists last year.
Tugbenyoh not only had five sacks last year, the second-best total on the team, but he always seemed to be in the right place at the right time. He obviously has a ton of athletic ability, which he showed when he picked fumbles off the ground and went 60 yards for a TD at Washington State and 38 yards at Arizona.
McLaughlin earned first team Pac-10 honors for his special teams play last year, but he'll be expected to have a similar impact at a defensive end position this fall. He has gained 15 pounds since last season and it hasn't hurt his speed as he turned in a 4.58 time in the 40 during spring workouts.
A fourth defensive end who also has a lot of credentials is junior Jeremiah Parker (6-5, 300), who has started x games during his first two seasons at Cal. A player who can play either tackle or end, he is slated to concentrate on the outside this year where his size will be a big factor, particularly against teams that like to run the football.
Cal's defensive philosophy centers around stopping the running game first and the bulk of that responsibility will fall to the interior line. The centerpiece of that chore will likely be junior Jerry DeLoach (6-4, 305), who seems primed to come into his own in 1998. After starting five games as a freshman in '96 and nine games last year, DeLoach now has the background of experience and the physical maturity to become a dominant player this season.
An intense sophomore figures to back him up at the tackle position as Jacob Waasdorp (6-2, 250) saw a good amount of action last year as a true-freshman, recording one 6-yard sack in his debut season. The coaches really like his intensity and believe he'll demand more and more playing time as he gains physical maturity and strength.
The nose tackle position appears to be open for a battle during the spring. Soph Rashawn Davis (6-4, 330) has enormous physical presence, but has been hindered by a string of minor injuries during his brief time at Cal. He started one game last year, but spent the last part of the campaign with a foot injury that may still hamper him for part of the spring drills.
He'll be challenged by senior James Gibson (6-4, 265), who started five games last year after transferring from Citrus CC. An active player with a nose for the football, he had a pair of fumble recoveries to go along with 15 tackles last season. His natural instincts getting to the football are a big plus and if his strength continues to improve, he'll be a big part of the playing rotation this fall.
The coaches are excited about the prospects of noseguard Kasey Jackson (6-3, 280), who comes to Cal from Snow JC after turning down scholarship offers from UCLA, Illinois and Wyoming. He rates as one of the strongest players on the team and certainly will be given every opportunity to compete for starting duties as his rugged style of play against the run could be a major benefit to the Cal defense.
LINEBACKERS: The Bears may be lacking in proven depth at linebacker, but there is absolutely no deficiency in front-line talent at that position. A trio of juniors have inside tracks for starting duties, all with starting experience.
A standard in the Cal line-up the last two seasons, Matt Beck (6-4, 230) has already made almost 200 tackles in his career and clearly has established himself as one of the team leaders entering his junior season. His fierce competitiveness and sure tackling ability should be bolstered by an additional year of physical maturity. He started last year with a bang as he set a school record with six tackles behind the line of scrimmage in the win over Oklahoma and finished second in the Pac-10 in that category with 21, despite missing two entire games with a shoulder injury. He played the last part of the season almost 15 pounds below his playing weight, but figures to be bigger and sturdier this year. After picking up honorable mention Pac-10 honors as a soph, he figures to bid for first team honors in '98.
While Beck will be a standard on the inside, Sekou Sanyika (6-3, 230) will be just as solid on the outside. His ability to play the sweep while stringing out blockers rates with the best in the Pac-10. He had a breakthrough season as a soph in '97, picking up 15 tackles behind the line of scrimmage and playing solid football in all 11 starting assignments. If he continues to improve, he likewise will be a strong honors candidate in 1998.
The other inside linebacker spot is less solidified, but junior Keith Miller (6-2, 240) earned the starting nod a year ago before a knee injury in the opening game caused him to redshirt. As he's bigger and stronger, knows the defense better and is fully recovered from the injury, he is expected to make a strong run at regaining his starting duties. If he plays up to expectations, he'll be a solidifying force with his physical play against the running game. However, he'll be on hold until the fall as he'll sit out spring drills following a skiing mishap which resulted in a broken wrist.
Developing back-up depth will be a major focus during the spring drills. One player who could enter into the mix for playing time is soph Nate Geldermann (6-1, 245), who returns after sitting out last year with a knee injury. Geldermann started eight games as a freshman in '96 before knee problems curtailed his activity, and he has the type of competitive attitude that the coaching staff loves. If he doesn't unseat Miller for a starting spot, he'll likely see a good amount of playing time assuming he's fully healthy.
Two other players with starting experience, Albert Dorsey (6-2, 235) and Justin Flagg (6-1, 235) provide excellent depth at one of the inside positions. Dorsey started six of the final eight games last year and ended up as the team's fourth leading tackler with 40 stops, including four behind the line of scrimmage. Flagg started four games last year, ending the season with 30 stops and a fumble recovery.
Depth at the other inside position and on the outside is more of a question mark. Special teams stalwart Fa'avae Fa'avae (5-10, 210) will battle JC standout Juan Jimenez (6-0, 205) for the primary back-up spot to Matt Beck. Neither has exceptional size, but both can run to the football with the best of them and sport a fearless style of play.
On the outside, redshirt-freshman Scott Fugita (6-5, 230) has turned a lot of heads in the brief time he's been in the program since walking-on from a small high school in Camarillo. He arrived as a 210-pound safety last season, but his size and his intelligence make him a natural for the outside linebacker spot. He'll battle senior Josh Trowbridge (6-5, 225) for playing time as Trowbridge has an experience edge with three years of playing time under his belt. Both figure to be key special teams players.
SECONDARY: The defensive backfield has been an area of concern in recent years, but the coaching staff believes it should be improved dramatically from last season when the Bears were able to produce just four interceptions. Some improvement should come with the second year of familiarity of coverages introduced last season, some should come from the experience of four players with previous starting experience and some should come from the infusion of new talent that includes three junior college standouts who figure to bid for playing time and the move of multi-talented Deltha O'Neal from offense to a cornerback position.
Cal has what it believes may be one of the premier safeties in all of college football in senior Marquis Smith (6-3, 220). The veteran player not only has intimidating size, but turned in a 4.53 time in the 40-yard dash during the spring. Nobody disputes his hitting ability as Arizona State tailback Michael Martin found out last year when he was knocked out before he hit the ground by a vicious Smith hit. He has played well the last two seasons, ranking either first or second in tackles each season and picking up honorable mention Pac-10 honors last year. However, he has the type of physical ability that could make him a high draft choice and now has the experience and savvy to emerge as an All-America candidate this fall.
He'll anchor the secondary from the strong safety position, but the other safety in the line-up remains problematic. Junior Pete Destefano (6-2, 215) should improve by leaps and bounds with the experience he gained last season when he started 10 games and saw every type of play thrown at him.
He'll have to compete with a pair of juniors for starting duties, including Don Lonon (6-0, 195) who has fine athletic ability, but like Destefano, his lack of experience means there may be an issue if he can perform at a consistent level. The wild card in the equation is the arrival of Damian Marzett (6-0, 200) after a brilliant career at Southwest CC in Los Angeles. Marzett is a player with great instincts and could emerge as a starter if he picks up the Cal defense quickly and shows the type of skills that allowed him to deflect 17 passes, pick off four fumbles and grab four interceptions last season.
Another veteran who will provide quality depth is senior David Burnside (6-2, 215), who has started a handful of games over the last two seasons and is one of the most intelligent players on the Cal defense.
The cornerback situation has some similar elements of experience and new talent that must be mixed in the pre-season. Senior Derrick Gardner (6-0, 185) is a proven commodity who will provide a steady hand. He isn't known as a speed merchant, but a 4.58 time in the 40 this spring means he may have improved significantly in that area, which could be a big omen for things to come. He led the team with 10 pass deflections last year and also showed he could make a big play when he returned a fumble 72 yards for a TD against Arizona State.
The most significant experiment of the spring will see explosive tailback and return specialist Deltha O'Neal (5-11, 190) moving to the cornerback spot. He played there during a handful of plays late last season and the coaches want to see if he can become an impact player as a fulltime defensive player. He appears in the best condition of his collegiate career entering spring drills and his emergence could be a huge building block towards a successful season for the Cal defense.
He'll have to overcome junior Chidi Iwuoma (5-9, 175), who comes back after starting the last three games last season. He has the best quickness of any player in the Cal secondary and figures to bid for starting duties if he continues to improve.
A pair of talented junior college players who arrived last fall and redshirted will also be given every opportunity to make bids for starting assignments. Harold Pearson (5-11, 170) and Drae Harris (5-10, 175) could play major roles if they prove to be as good in man-to-man coverage as they looked last fall in scouting team duties.
Veteran Mark Orr (5-11, 180) will be a valuable player in nickel coverages as he's a heady player who doesn't make a lot of mistakes.
Cal returns seven starters and 13 different players who have starting experience on a more mature offense in 1998. That experience, combined with the lessons learned by Doug Cosbie and his staff in their first season together, should make a big difference in Cal's offense this fall.
Only league champ Washington State (which averaged 502.2 ypg to rank second nationally in total offense) had more first downs in the Pac-10 than Cal last season. However, Cal needs to eliminate the execution errors -- namely penalties and turnovers -- if it hopes to re-emerge as one of the dominant offenses in the Pac-10. Cosbie believes that having the bulk of his players and coaching staff together for a full year will make a big difference. "There's no doubt that the West Coast offense can move the ball and we proved that last year," he said. "But, it really starts to click when it becomes like second nature for the players and staff. We felt our way around a little last year, but I think you'll see a big difference this fall. The mistakes we made last year will be minimized as we continue to grow on offense. I expect us to be much more efficient and I think we have the tools to become one of the top offenses in the league this year."
QUARTERBACKS: Southpaw Justin Vedder (6-0, 200) returns for his senior season after enjoying the most prolific debut season by a quarterback in Cal history, throwing for 2,718 yards and 20 touchdowns in 1997. He ended the year ranked No. 22 nationally in total offense (249.4 ypg) and only All-America selections Ryan Leaf of Washington State and Cade McNown of UCLA threw for more yards in the Pac-10 last season.
A year in the West Coast system and a season of experience playing in the Pac-10 shouldn't be underestimated, and the Cal coaching staff believes Vedder will be a much improved quarterback this fall. Areas of emphasis will be producing more big plays (Cal had only nine passes over 40 yards last year) and cutting down on interceptions (Vedder led the league with 14 picks in '97). A player with a good amount of confidence and leadership abilities, Vedder believes that everything will come together for his senior season.
Vedder will be pushed by redshirt-freshman Samuel Clemons (6-2, 210), who has the type of physical tools that most quarterbacks only dream about. He has a rocket for an arm and the athletic ability to create problems when he moves out the pocket. What remains to be seen is how much command of the offense he has gained during his first year and whether he can be a factor this early in his career. Certainly, his ability to throw the long ball will provide the Cal offense a new dimension and the coaches would like to see him get a solid amount of experience this season.
Cal's depth at quarterback will come from last year's primary back-ups Wesley Dalton (6-1, 195) and Ryan Tollner (6-1, 195). Both are similar in that they are walk-ons who have excellent knowledge of the offense and a competitive approach to the game.
Incoming freshman David Page (6-1, 180) will have a chance to show his skills when he arrives in the fall and could move as high as third on the depth chart if he develops quickly.
RUNNING BACKS: The move of explosive Deltha O'Neal from tailback to cornerback during the off season speaks volumes about the confidence the coaches have in sophomore Marcus Fields (6-2, 200). He created a lot of excitement in his debut season last fall as he was the team's second leading rusher, averaging 4.4 yards a carry. He figures to put up big numbers with the type of opportunity he'll be afforded in 1997. He carried the ball 10 times or more in a game only four times last season and he produced over 50 yards in each of those games, ending the year as the squad's second leading rusher with 419 yards and 5 touchdowns.
Naturally strong, he broke countless tackles last season, a feat at is relatively unheard of by a true-freshman in a league such as the Pac-10. Because he has been training for track this spring, his weight has held steady at about 200 pounds, but he figures to play at the 210 to 215-pound range next fall which should make him even more dangerous.
The Bears have a number of candidates for reserve duties behind Fields, but senior Brandon Willis (5-9, 190) could be a big help if he returns to the form that made him the Pac-10's seventh leading rusher in 1996. He sat out last season with a knee injury and probably won't compete in the spring. However, he does have superior speed and figures to be motivated to come on strong for his final college campaign.
Two other players with a chance for playing time are soph Marcus Oliver (5-11, 200) and redshirt-freshman Demetrius Stampley (5-11, 180). A year ago in the spring, Oliver caught the coaching staff's eye with his solid play and now he's moved up enough in the depth chart to make a contribution. Stampley was a phenomenal prep running back who moves back to offense after experimenting at both cornerback and wide receiver over the past year. He has great instincts and could surprise some people by bidding for a spot in the playing rotation.
Cal has the cupboard full at the fullback position with the return of juniors Joshua White (5-11, 240) and Josh Del Prado (6-1, 245) along with senior Mike Freeman (6-1, 240). All three now have a full year's experience and give the Bears a powerful trio in the backfield. White has immense potential as he showed he can carry two or three defenders on his back while he churns out the tough yards inside. He should be greatly aided by his familiarity with the Cal system and could blossom as an honors candidate in '98. Del Prado and Freeman are both solid, dependable blockers who will provide quality depth.
OFFENSIVE LINE: Cal suffered a blow with the early departure of center Jeremy Newberry to the NFL, but the Bears still return four players with significant starting experience and seven of the top 10 players on the depth chart. That type of quality depth and the addition of highly regarded Monte Clark as the offensive line coach should give the Bears a chance to have one of the top forward walls in the conference in 1998.
While the pieces seem to be present, the puzzle remains to be put together by Clark as only senior John Welbourn (6-5, 300) is absolutely set at a certain position -- right tackle. Welbourn enters his third year in the starting line-up and figures to be ready to strongly bid for first team all-conference honors. He started all 11 games last season after recovering from a knee injury he suffered late in the '96 season and pulled down honorable mention Pac-10 honors despite not being 100 percent physically. This year, his knee is fully recovered and his performance figures to take another jump up.
The other bookend could be the key issue for Cal's O-line development in '98 as redshirt-freshman Langston Walker (6-8, 340) will be given an opportunity to nail down starting duties at left tackle. The massive player has good feet to along with his size and has a chance to develop into one more in a long line of Cal offensive line greats who matriculated to the NFL. However, he has a tall order in being asked to contribute so early in his career and he'll obviously draw a lot of attention from Clark as the coaches prepare him quickly.
If Walker needs more seasoning, junior Jeff Martin (6-4, 295) could step in to fill that role as he came to Cal a year ago after a fine junior college career, has made strides in learning the Cal system and building strength, and now appears ready to make a contribution.
Another junior, Kevin Doherty (6-5, 310), could bid for starting duties at one of the tackle positions as he's been on the verge of the playing rotation the last two years, but has been set back by minor injuries each season. If healthy, he has the strength and maturity to finally come into his own in '98.
Cal has a trio of 300-pound guards with starting experience and that figures to be an area of strength for the line. Senior Yauger Williams (6-6, 300) was developing into one of Cal's bright stars on the line last year until his knee started acting up early in the year. He sat out a few games and tried to come back, but the knee didn't cooperate and his performance suffered. After getting the knee scoped and sitting out this spring, he should be back in full strength in the fall which will go a long ways toward solidifying the line.
He'll have to be at his best to push either John Romero (6-3, 315) or Kevin Swillis (6-5, 315) out of one of the guard positions. Romero is one of the strongest players on the team and has made tremendous strides over the last two years. He started three games last year and now appears ready to not only become a fulltime starter, but bid for honors as a junior. Swillis started 7 of 11 games last year and now understands what it takes to be successful at the Pac-10 level. That experience should pay major dividends for him this fall.
Another player who might emerge is redshirt-freshman Brandon Ludwig (6-4, 275) who has gained 25 pounds since he arrived last year and is making a transition from defense to offensive guard, where he could bid for immediate playing time.
The center position could also prove pivotal for the Bears in '98. Cal returns senior Caleb Brown (6-4, 305), who has been bidding for starting duties the last two seasons and learned a lot as a back-up to Newberry. He indicates that a long series of minor injuries to his hands and knees are over and is ready to assume a starting position.
He'll contend with soph Reed Diehl (6-4, 280), who moves back to the center position after manning the tight end spot in '97 and seeing extensive playing time at that position, particularly when Cal needed a push in the running game. He has the type of athletic ability that new coach Monte Clark likes in his linemen and he has the frame to carry 290 pounds by the fall, which makes him a very viable starting candidate.
Among the players who will provide depth on the line are senior Tate McCallister (6-3, 270) and redshirt-freshmen Joe Major (6-4, 305) and Jeff Styles (6-7, 280).
RECEIVERs/Tight Ends: When you lose a first team All-American such as Bobby Shaw, many might expect that there could be a drop-off in performance, but Cal believes that it may be improved overall in this department.
The key figure will obviously be senior Dameane Douglas (6-1, 195) and he can hardly contain his enthusiasm and resolve to put together the type of season that could challenge some of Shaw's incredible stats from last year. Nobody in the country finished the '97 season in better fashion than Douglas as he hauled in 12 catches for 143 yards at Arizona and 11 catches for 143 yards at Stanford in the final two games. That rates as the best consecutive-game performance in Cal history and should provide a boost to his bid to attract national attention. During the spring, he showed that he's in the best condition of his life as he turned in a 4.43 time in the 40, indicating he'll not only be able to make the catches over the middle as he's done his entire career, but also be a key factor in Cal's plans to re-energize it's vertical passing game.
The other side of the field may also feature a speed-burner in soph Phillip Pipersburg (5-10, 180). He also has 4.4 speed in the 40, but doesn't have a good amount of experience. However he did show flashes of his potential last year, hauling in catches of 33 and 25 yards among his three receptions.
Cal also can turn to Bruce Pierre (6-1, 195), who should be much more comfortable after being in the system for a year following his arrival from Laney CC in '97. He had four catches last year, including a pair of touchdowns.
Juniors Joel Young (6-2, 180) and Brian Stumpf (6-3, 195) will have an opportunity to move into the playing rotation with a strong spring, but a huge influx of freshmen talent in the fall will also be factored into the equation for '98. No less than five highly regarded prep receivers signed letters-of-intent with Cal during the spring, and the coaching staff believes that at least a pair of them could emerge as strong candidates for extensive playing time.
Cal has a plethora of talent at the tight end spot, including incumbent starter Brian Surgener (6-4, 220). He had a impressive debut season, averaging 18.7 yards on his 12 catches. However, he'll be pushed hard by redshirt-freshman Corey Smith (6-4, 250) who has the tools to become a dominant force in the Cal offense and senior A.J. Kunkle (6-2, 230) who got a significant dose of experience last season, learned the Cal offense, and now can let his natural athletic skills show through. All three should see a significant amount of playing time at the tight end position, which figures to be much more involved in the passing game this fall.
Attention to special teams play is a major tenet of Tom Holmoe's philosophy and thus Cal's middle-of-the-road performance in this area became somewhat of a disappointment last year. The Bears did finish fourth in the Pac-10 in punt returns and covered kickoffs and punts solidly, allowing opponent averages of just 18.5 and 9.6, respectively.
However, Holmoe wants Cal's special teams to have a major impact and thus you can expect to see even more emphasis placed in this area, with a significant amount of Cal's recruiting evaluations involving what type of contribution a prospect could play on special teams.
The good news is that almost all of Cal's key special teams players return, including one of the premier return specialists in the country in Deltha O'Neal, first team Pac-10 special teams performer John McLaughlin.
KICKING: The Bears have one of the bright young punters in college football in sophomore Nick Harris (6-3, 205). A left-footed kicker with a powerful move through the ball, Harris boomed punts of at least 48 yards or longer, including a long of 63, in all 11 games last season. He finished the year ranked No. 38 nationally with a 42.2 ypp average (the seventh best single-season in Cal history), and should be able to move way up on the NCAA charts this season with increased consistency. A former prep all-state player as a defensive end in Arizona, he has a wealth of athletic ability.
The place-kicking situation is more problematic. Junior Ignacio Brache (6-0, 210) finished strongly last year as he hit a career-long 45-yard field goal at Stanford. However, neither he or senior Tim Wolleck (6-0, 220) showed the consistency needed and will be pushed by a trio of incoming freshmen walk-ons this fall.
RETURN SPECIALISTS: Cal has placed its return duties squarely on the shoulders of junior Deltha O'Neal and he figures to rate among the elite players in the nation in that category this fall. He finished fifth in the league (40 in NCAA) last year with a 10.2 yards per punt return average, including a long of 56 yards at Stanford and figures to be even more explosive in '98 as his physical condition has improved greatly. He'll also have an impact as the primary kickoff return specialist as he's coming off a solid season in which he finished ninth in the Pac-10 with a 21.5 average that included a 53-yard return against Oklahoma.
Others who could play a factor as either punt return or kickoff return specialists are Dameane Douglas, Phillip Pipersburg, Derrick Gardner, Chidi Iwuoma, or a large group of incoming freshmen who have distinguished return stats while preps last season.