Aug. 21, 2008
The Cal football team has continued one of the more improbable renaissances in college football history, going from five straight losing seasons from 1997-2001, to six consecutive winning seasons under the direction of head coach Jeff Tedford. With five bowl appearances in a row and top-10 national rankings in each of the last four years, Cal is now recognized as an elite program in the Pac-10 and on the national stage. And head coach Jeff Tedford is determined to continue to build the Golden Bear program, starting with its tremendous fan base which has bolstered the team during his tenure.
"Fans are so important to any football program and I can't say enough about what it was like last year to come into Memorial Stadium and see all that blue and gold for the Tennessee game," Tedford said on his online blog. "Over the last four years we are 20-4 in Memorial Stadium - and every one of our fans played a significant role in those wins. We need to come out on Aug. 30 and see 72,000 fans waving their blue and gold and being fired up for our team. Nothing gives our Bears a better lift than our home fans rooting us on."
With seven home games in 2008, the Bay Area has golden opportunities to be a part of the continued success of the Bears. The campaign opens on Aug. 30 against Big 10 foe Michigan State. The always challenging Pac-10 slate includes powers such as Arizona State, UCLA and Oregon in Berkeley, while the 111th edition of the Big Game against Stanford also returns to Memorial Stadium.
Preseason camp promises to be extra intriguing in Bear Territory as Tedford has made it clear that no position has been decided and that every play in practice will feature hard-nosed competition as the Bears battle to earn coveted starting roles come Aug. 30. Despite the youth of the team, Tedford is excited about the prospects for his program in 2008.
"I'm really happy with the team chemistry," he said. "The way we're working together, the attitude of the team, the focus, the camaraderie - it's all very positive."
A strength for the Golden Bears appears to be a veteran linebacking corps, led by hard-hitting senior Zack Follett, an All-American candidate who has led the team in sacks for two straight years. Fellow seniors Worrell Williams and Tony Felder are joined by rangy sophomore Mike Mohammed and Berkeley High product Eddie Young to give the Bears extensive experience in the middle of the field.
Junior cornerback Syd'Quan Thompson and junior defensive lineman Tyson Alualu join the linebackers as potential stars on defense. Thompson has started every game in his first two years in Berkeley, while Alualu is developing into a potent force up front.
Cal's offensive line also will be a key in 2008. Center Alex Mack, a Playboy Preseason All-American, will be one of the top offensive linemen in the country, while mountainous Mike Tepper, at 6-7 and 330 pounds, slides to the crucial left tackle role. The running game has always been a strength for the Bears under Tedford, and this season Cal will have a trio of talented tailbacks to punish the opposition. Exciting speedster Jahvid Best from Vallejo sparkled as a true freshman in 2007 and is the lead candidate for the primary role in the backfield this year. However, sophomore Tracy Slocum and redshirt freshman Shane Vereen give the Bears multiple options.
With the 2008 season approaching fast, Tedford and the Golden Bears are hoping to tally another winning season and advance to yet another bowl game, continuing the Cal Football renaissance begun in 2002.
Cal has the luxury of two standouts at quarterback as veteran Nate Longshore, who ranks second all-time at Cal in victories and fourth in passing efficiency, will be pushed by sophomore Kevin Riley, who directed Cal to victory in last year's Armed Forces Bowl, throwing for three touchdowns while running for another score and earning MVP honors.
"We're in a good position," Tedford said. "We have two very good quarterbacks and a young guy (Brock Mansion) who has a lot of ability as well. We feel like we're in good hands at quarterback. We're going to go through summer and we're going to go through fall camp, and then see how it shakes down."
Longshore directed Cal to a 5-0 start and the No. 2 ranking in the nation last year. However, after an injury late in Cal's thrilling road victory over Oregon, the quarterback and the Bear offense could not get clicking again. He still finished with over 2,500 passing yards and 16 touchdowns. Riley had an impressive start for the injured Longshore against Oregon State, overcoming early-game jitters to rally the Bears from a 10-point deficit, only to fall short in the final seconds. That was followed by his well-rounded bowl-game effort when he rallied the Bears from a 21-point deficit, showing that the Bears have two top-level signal-callers ready to go in 2008.
While Longshore and Riley are the front-runners for the starting job, redshirt freshman Brock Mansion has not been discounted by Tedford. The tall, lanky youngster impressed during scout team duties through 2007 and is expected to be another in the long-line of standout Tedford disciples at quarterback.
Another challenge for the Golden Bears in 2008 will be replacing all-conference tailback Justin Forsett and his 1,500 rushing yards. Of course, Cal has had question marks at running back regularly over the last five years - only to respond with four different NFL Draft picks, including the aforementioned Forsett.
Leading the way in Cal's quest to find a sixth-straight 1,000-yard rusher will be spectacular sophomore Jahvid Best. A true freshman last year, the Bay Area product averaged 7.6 yards per carry while also ranking second in the Pac-10 in kick returns at 27.0 yards per return. Despite missing the last three games due to a hip injury, Cal hopes to see Best at his best in 2008.
"We feel very fortunate to have great depth at running back," Tedford said. "Even though Jahvid didn't play in the spring, he showed us great potential last year to be a strong contributor. We have some other young guys with a lot of talent in [sophomore] Tracy Slocum and [redshirt freshman] Shane Vereen who have shown signs of being very explosive and exciting players."
Slocum had a tremendous spring, showing the ability to gain tough yards up the middle while also exhibiting a strong burst around the corner. Vereen was also eye-catching in spring drills, showing outstanding sprinter's speed and a knack for finding holes in the defense. Both will challenge for significant playing time in the fall.
Adding talented depth to the running back corps is true freshman Covaughn DeBoskie, who graduated high school early, enrolled at Cal in January and took part in winter conditioning and spring ball, earning a reputation as a hard worker ready to compete immediately.
Cal's fullback position is in good hands with senior Will Ta'ufo'ou returning as a starter. Ta'ufo'ou, who has never had a run for negative yardage, has proven to be a prototypical bruising fullback as a blocker and a runner, while also showing the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield.
After losing three-time all-conference selection Craig Stevens to the NFL Draft, Cal will look at multiple options at tight end for 2008.
Junior Cameron Morrah has the most experience on the roster. The 6-4, 245-pounder caught 13 passes last year for 155 yards. However, a surprise entry into the tight-end battle has been former defensive end Tad Smith, who made the position switch in the spring and showed excellent hands and a nose for physical play on the field.
The position that offers the most opportunities for young players in 2008 is wide receiver. The Bears had a big three of Lavelle Hawkins, DeSean Jackson and Robert Jordan that horded the bulk of the snaps in 2007. However, with all three joining the ranks of the NFL, Cal will look to a new group of speedsters this fall.
The leading candidates to capture significant playing time are junior Nyan Boateng, a former high school All-American who joins the Bears after transferring from Florida; sophomore Jeremy Ross, a strong and athletic receiver from Sacramento; and redshirt freshman Michael Calvin, who dazzled teammates and coaches as a scout-team standout last year.
"They're all in that 6-3 height-range," Tedford said. "They can really run. They can leap out of the gym [Boateng was a high school All-American in basketball as well, while Calvin was a dunk contest star]. And they've got very good ball skills."
Senior LaReylle Cunningham is another potential impact player at receiver. The veteran has 10 career receptions - 77 percent of Cal's catches returning at the receiving position. The other three catches returning belong to senior Sean Young, who gained a sixth year of eligibility after battling injuries through his first five years.
An integral part of Cal's offensive success throughout the Tedford Era has been the play of its offensive line, which has sent six players to the NFL in that time. Over the last two years, Cal has allowed just 24 sacks, a mark that is tops in the Pac-10 and rates third in the nation. Leading the way in 2008 will once again be center Alex Mack, who opted to return to Cal for his senior season, foregoing a sure slot in the NFL Draft.
Mack was a unanimous first-team All-Pac-10 selection and a finalist for the Rimington Trophy last year, but his most impressive honor may be the 2007 Morris Trophy - awarded to the top offensive lineman in the Pac-10 as voted on by the league's defensive linemen.
With Mack back at center, the Bears have moved 6-7, 321-pound Mike Tepper from right to left tackle, replacing sixth-round draft pick Mike Gibson. Another returning starter is right guard Noris Malele, who has 22 starts in the last two years.
"I think it's important that we have a good nucleus of young guys," Tedford said. "It will be great to see how they fit into the offensive line chemistry and really form the top 8-9 guys in that group. Guys that have been here a couple of years like Chet Teofilo and Chris Guarnero have some time in the program; the young guys like Mitchell Schwartz, Sam DeMartinis, Justin Cheadle, we are really excited to see what they can do."
Schwartz (right tackle), Cheadle (right guard) and DeMartinis (left tackle) have all cracked the depth chart as redshirt freshmen. They, along with Todd Huber and Matt Summers-Gavin, were among the best offensive line recruiting classes in the nation for 2007. Huber battled injuries last year while Summers-Gavin did not enroll at Cal until January due to injuries as well.
Once again, the Bears have exceptional talent and depth at the linebacker position -Cal has five linebackers active in the NFL currently. With the abilities at that position, the Golden Bear coaching staff began to experiment with the implementation of a 3-4 alignment during the spring. Defensive coordinator Bob Gregory has said he is pleased with the flexibility the 3-4 option offers while also pointing out that it is not a common defense in the Pac-10.
Three senior 'backers will anchor the corps for Cal as Zack Follett, Anthony Felder and Worrell Williams all return after starting in 2007. Listed on preseason watch lists for multiple national awards, Follett is the disruptive play-maker - he has led the team in sacks in each of the last two years, while forcing eight fumbles in his career.
Felder and Williams both recorded over 100 tackles last season - in fact, among Pac-10 returning linebackers, Cal's group ranks first in tackles (334) and second in sacks (9.5) and tackles for loss (26.5). Felder had 101 takedowns and a game-changing interception in the big Oregon win, while Williams had 105 stops and scooped up a fumble (forced by Follett) against Tennessee and ran it in for a touchdown on the opening drive.
In the 3-4 alignment, sophomore Michael Mohamed (46 tackles in 2007) will join Follett outside, using his speed and athletic ability to cause trouble from the edge. Juniors Eddie Young (13 games played in 2007) and Devin Bishop (2007 redshirt) will also see action on the outside.
Junior Matt Russi and redshirt freshman D.J. Holt will battle to crack the deep linebacking rotation, as will sophomore Charles Johnson, who had an excellent spring, junior Shea McIntyre and redshirt freshman Solomona Aigamaua.
Cal's defensive line struggled through injuries in 2007, including significant setbacks to the line's veteran leader Matt Malele (battled knee problems throughout year, missing three full games) and athletic end Rulon Davis (limited to six games due to knee and ankle injuries).
While hoping to dodge the training room in 2008, Cal now has the luxury of the added experience earned by players last season, as well as a talented group of young linemen.
"One of our goals is to create more of a pass rush," Tedford said. "Spring was really important for evaluating some of those young defensive linemen. We're looking forward to seeing how some of the young guys fit in; we feel really good about that class. Those guys will fill in with the guys who played last year."
A pair of Hawaiians, senior Mika Kane and junior Tyson Alualu, are the most experienced players on the line this season. Kane has seen action in 30 games and is a top candidate for the starting noseguard position if/when Cal plays in its new-look 3-4 alignment. Alualu paced the defensive line with 52 tackles in 2007, the most by a Bear d-lineman since current NFL-standout Andre Carter had 60 in 2000.
Davis, a 6-5, 275-pound physical specimen, is emerging as a team leader and appears ready to make the most of his final season in Blue and Gold. Last year, he had 16 tackles, three tackles for loss and one-and-a-half sacks despite the injuries. He and Alualu hold the top slots on the depth chart at end.
Working inside with Kane will be sophomore Derrick Hill, who established himself as a potential force last season. He had an outstanding performance as the nosetackle in Cal's Armed Forces Bowl victory and finished the year with 24 tackles, adding a goal-line interception against Colorado State.
Junior Cody Jones is another experienced player who is capable of playing inside and outside. A former high school hockey standout, the 6-4, 276-pounder has recorded 27 tackles in two years of action for Cal.
Cameron Jordan, the son of former NFL Pro Bowler Steve Jordan, was a revelation as a true freshman at defensive end last season, collecting Freshman All-America recognition from Scout.com while tallying 18 tackles as well as his first career touchdown on a fumble recovery (forced by Davis) against Arizona State.
Sophomore Michael Costanzo will also look to break into the lineup in 2008 after seeing limited action in 2007. Other potential contributors on the defensive line include sophomore Keith Browner, junior Jonathan Karacozoff and redshirt freshmen Ernest Owusu and Scott Smith.
Cal returns two full-time starters at defensive back from last season, as well as three other players who earned limited starting time, giving it a solid base of experience in its secondary.
Junior Syd'Quan Thompson has started all 26 games in his Golden Bear career and is expected to challenge for all-conference recognition in 2008. He recorded 78 tackles last season and led the team with 10 pass break-ups.
The front-runner to start at the opposite corner spot is sophomore Chris Conte, who started three games as a fearless true freshman, recording 32 tackles and being recognized as a Freshman All-American. Sophomores Darian Hagan and Charles Amadi are expected to push for increased playing time this year at corner. "We have some guys who have been around for a couple of years," Tedford said. "Guys like Hagan and Amadi, who have played for us a little bit, now is really their time to shine. Sean Cattouse is a young guy at corner and D.J. Campbell is a guy who can play safety or corner. We'll take a close look at them in camp."
Both redshirt freshmen with good size, Cattouse is a 6-2, 200-pounder from Illinois while Campbell is 5-11 and 194 pounds from Nevada. Junior Gary Doxy is a veteran special teams player who was a standout in spring ball with his hard-hitting style.
At the safety position, senior Bernard Hicks and junior Marcus Ezeff are the top returnees. Hicks has started 17 games in the last two years and posted 40 tackles in 2007. Ezeff had four starts last year and registered 47 tackles - the most memorable being a goal-line stop in the final minutes against Oregon, forcing a fumble through the end zone to clinch the game for the Golden Bears.
Junior Brett Johnson is a speedster who has excelled on special teams, earning his first career start in the Armed Forces Bowl and responding with a career-best five tackles. Junior Jesse Brooks and Campbell will also be in the mix at the safety positions.
Senior Jordan Kaye is the incumbent at placekicker after connecting on 13 field goals, as well as all 48 of his extra-point attempts in 2007. Strong-legged incoming freshman David Seawright could challenge on field goals and is expected to handle the kickoff duties in 2008.
At punter, Cal will look to highly-touted redshirt freshman Bryan Anger, who was impressive in spring ball with excellent hang-time and great distance. "Bryan is as good of a young punter as there is in the country and we have high expectations for him," Tedford said.
Returning at arguably the most under-appreciated position in football is veteran long snapper Nick Sundberg. Recognized as one of the best in the nation, Sundberg was dead-on with 128-of-129 snaps (99.2%) in 2007.
The Cal return game will feature a group of speedsters and shifty runners that could again put the Bears among the best in the nation. Sophomore Jahvid Best posted a 100-meter time (10.31 seconds) in high school that would have earned him seventh place at the 2007 NCAA Outdoor Track Championships; he ranked second in the Pac-10 with 27.0 yards per kick return last season. Redshirt freshman Shane Vereen was a top California sprinter in high school and could see action on both punts and kickoffs. Junior Syd'Quan Thompson could get his debut on returns in 2008. As a junior in high school, the Sacramento product returned five punts and one kickoff for touchdowns and he showed he still has that ability with multiple long returns in spring ball.