Defensive line: Tosh Lupoi has proven that he's more then just a great recruiter. He's also cultivated the strongest and deepest defensive unit on the team. Cal's defensive line rotation runs six to seven deep, and they're all pretty strong.
Cameron Jordan has finally become the defender we've always wanted him to be. He's shown great ability as an edge rusher, and terrorized Nick Foles in the desert last week. He's been able to get pressure by bull-rushing, using leverage, pushing the tackle back to collapse the right side of the pocket, moving the linemen from side-to-side to suffocate the inside running lanes. The other returning starter, Derrick Hill, continues to push centers forward, either plugging the gap or opening it up for the inside linebackers to crash at the tailback. If he can just stay healthy, it leaves one half of the offensive line in a huge pickle having to deal with Jordan and Hill.
Ernest Owusu is not too shabby himself; he hasn't made much noise on the other side of Jordan, but he has solid technique and makes the linemen in front of him work hard. Kendrick Payne and Aaron Tipoti both spell Hill from time to time, but neither is the physical force #76 provides when he steps onto the playing surface. Redshirt freshman Deandre Coleman is the wild-card. Dude just looks flat-out good everytime he sees the field, and he's deserving of more snaps if he can show that his stamina is the same as his raw physicality. He plugs gaps, gets into the backfield, tackles running backs for a loss. A useful skill to have on the second unit.
All-in-all, the most consistent unit on this defense, and a deep one too. There could be some kinks down the road for the Bears defense, but the D-line is unlikely to be the cause of the problems.
Linebackers: Hard to get a reading on this unit, because they haven't played with Mike Mohamed the last two weeks, and Mohamed really sets the tone on the inside. So I'll just say they performed badly against Nevada and were pretty good against everyone else.
The star so far has been D.J. Holt. Even with Mohamed's experience and leadership, Holt has stepped in quite admirably in his absence. He's displayed great decision-making and ability to plug up the gaps and clean up the mess Mohamed's replacements have left for him. Holt leads the team this season with 34 tackles, and he could break 100 when all is said and done.
Mychal Kendricks is starting to show us why Worrell Williams tabbed him to be the next greatest. Kendricks doesn't have the size and the speed of Zack Follett, but he is just as athletic and provides a pretty solid threat. He has been used often as a fourth down linemen. He can play off the edge and also stunt to the inside. Between him and Jordan, expect the right side of opposing offensive lines to have a nightmare of a time gameplanning against them.
A pleasant surprise has been Jarred Price. Price really didn't do much last season, but this year he's performing much better in pass-rushing duties. When Cal ran their four down linemen sets with 2 OLBs manning the outside, 2 DEs anchoring the middle, Price has been able to make lumbering tackles, including the strong Nate Solder, look pretty bad.
Jury's still out on Keith Browner. There's no doubt his game against Nevada was far from his best, but it's not like I can judge him on that because the gameplan seemed faulty to begin with. Browner didn't play too much last week against Arizona with Cal playing most out of dime package, but he'll probably get his second taste of the Pistol in a week. Time to see how he and the inside linebackers handle contain this time.
The big question is depth. There really isn't much behind the top five guys to count on for this season. Let's just say after what I saw of Robert Mullins, J.P. Hurrell, and Stephen Fanua against Nevada, they're not quite ready for the big-time. The top-five guys have to stay healthy for the Cal defense to remain whole.
Darian Hagan is back. He's playing some great football. His duel against Juron Criner was great stuff, and a lot of fun for a defensive-minded fan to watch. He won the battle for three quarters before Criner got the best of him on the final two plays (painful), but it's nothing for Hagan to hang his head on, winning one-on-one battles is something to be impressed by. He has all the cover skills that Syd'Quan Thompson has, with added physical strengths that make him tough to defend.
Marc Anthony isn't quite at the level of Hagan. You can tell because Anthony has more tackles--quarterbacks are targeting him more to evade dealing with the Barbarian. But he's making some great plays. He breaks up passes, including saving two touchdown throws near the end of each half in Tucson. He sticks with his man, and unless he gets faked out somehow he doesn't make it easy for him. I know people want more Steve Williams because he looks like a purer cover corner (and don't get me wrong, Williams has shown he can play), but I feel Anthony's proven his worth.
Bryant Nnabuife is usually our high-variance guy. He'll either make a big play (like run-stuffing against the Wildcats or breaking up a big pass in the slot), or he'll make a big whiff (taking a bad angle on a screen pass and letting the defense pick up too many yards, or completely losing vision of his man and giving him way too big a cushion). Solid nickelback though, and his Arizona performance was encouraging.
Chris Conte was a little inconsistent to start the season. After some rough patches (particularly against Nevada), he's starting to ease into his safety spot. He really gave Arizona all they could handle and made some big open-field tackles. He's not Thomas Decoud, but he's making good plays, and hopefully he'll bring his A-game for the next stretch. Josh Hill was cleaning up the messes in Nevada, and I haven't really seen much of him otherwise. But considering the good play of the rest of the defensive backs, I'll cop out and say "he's putting players in a position to succeed optimally" without having any proof to back that up.
It was good to see D.J. Campbell come in and make plays as a third safety when Hill went out to play cornerback. With Mohamed ailing and Holt needing support inside, Campbell came in and did a fine job. He really sniffed out the shallow and crossing routes, and made at least one crucial pass breakup down the sidelines.
After a horrifying 2009, things are looking much better for the defensive backs. With bigger quarterback tests coming down the road, they'll be tested further week-by-week.
There are things I like with Clancy Pendergast. The multiple looks and formations, like putting the two OLBs/two DEs on the line of scrimmage against most teams, or using the equivalent of a dime package against Arizona. The advantages he manages to turns into disadvantages (utilizing Price on Solder was a stroke of genius). The fact that his units are playing very aggressive with occasional jams, with plenty of press coverage, and showing great confidence when doing so. That his team shut out the vaunted Airraid attack until the final drive (the Wildcats lone field goal came on a two-yard drive off a bad punt) ... all these are things I like.
Still, there are drawbacks. Like the quizzically unprepared scheme the Golden Bears threw out against Nevada. and really, from all the explanations I've heard out there, I STILL don't understand nor do I accept the strategy that Pendergast utilized. I'll presume that as a pro guy Pendergast never had to deal with anything as radical as the Pistol offense, and was legitimately unprepared for how well it could click and burn his unit. If it happens again against a UCLA squad that runs the prototype Pistol, then I'll be most displeased.
And I know his defense played a great game in the heartbreaker in Tucson, but that last drive against Arizona keeps on bothering me. Where was the support for Hagan on the final two completions? Putting him on an island with Juron Criner on a deep fade route seems exceptionally risky and highly ill-advised. Even if Hagan had shut Criner down up to that point, give the man some support. The touchdown throw bothers me even more. Not dropping any linebackers into the end zone to leave the middle wide open is just a bad idea against a quarterback like Foles. The man feasts underneath.
Again, it draws me back to the original concept of bringing too much pressure at the quarterback. It makes fans happy. It makes players happy. But it's also a huge gamble. If our players are extra aggressive, there's a good chance they could cause confusion for opposing offenses. But If our players are too passionate, they commit simple execution errors that cost our teams points it probably shouldn't give up.
There's still a long way to go before Pendergast earns my trust.
After being a detriment for years, the Cal special teams looks solid. Not great, perhaps not even good, but solid is all I'll take after years of pain. Bryan Anger is showing a much more consistent leg, focusing on hitting about 40-45 on every punt instead of going for the fancy 72 yarders and fatiguing his leg (not that he isn't capable of booming one, but he's showing a lot more prudence with technique.
Yes, Giorgio Tavecchio swung those field goals a teensy-bit off the mark, but that's about as downer as I'm going to get. Tavecchio is booming kickoffs after looking hapless last season. Don't really care what people say about Giorgio, he's a MUCH better kicker this season. His technique looks much sounder, and I have full confidence he can hit anything from 45 and inside (I don't think I'd have been comfortable with anything outside 30 last year).
Jeremy Ross is an able punt returner; he's an athlete in open space, he can pick up yards, and that's all you want. Isi Sofele and Keenan Allen are uncertain commodities in the kick return game. I'd probably like to see Covaughn Deboskie-Johnson or one of the young speedsters (although they're probably not playing this season) get a chance here and not risk Allen or Sofele in the return game, but I've been told I have no spine. On the bright side, the coverage on both teams is better. So. Much. Better.
All-in-all, very impressed with the job Jeff Genyk has done. Gold stars for him and Pendergast's unit after mighty struggles in 2010. If the offense can start clicking, we could have a team here.