The offseason has finally gotten to me. Cal Football is like that bad, bad girl(or boy) you know will be the death of you. You're going to have good times and bad, be led on, and ultimately have your heart broken. And yet, you keep coming back for more. So without further ado, here are some early thoughts regarding the 2010 Cal Football team. Please consider these to be the inexpert thoughts and opinions of a casual fan. (Hopefully, the smarter and more knowledgeable posters can be induced to fill in the gaps and provide corrections as needed.)
Additional Disclaimer: This is based solely on personal observations (tv) and an OCD approach to reading every scrap of Cal-related internet info that I could find over the past few months. I have not yet taken my annual pilgrimage to the bookstore to
cry over peruse all the pre-season magazines nor do I have access to any game tape or live practices.
Starting QB - We all know that the "open competition" is just a formality; Kevin Riley will take the starting snaps under center when the season opens. But will Riley finally put it together and be consistent? History favors a senior QB with plenty of starts under his belt. Look at Sean Canfield. He was horrible for his first two years, but was one of the top signal-callers in the league last year. Pessimists can point at Rudy Carpenter or Jevean Snead who both peaked early and fizzled as seniors. But in each case, they were undone in their final years by atrocious offensive lines. In Riley's case, we've seen flashes of brilliance such as the Armed Forces Bowl and we've seen a few train wrecks. (see 2009, vs. 'sc or vs. Oregon) Although some individual criticism has certainly been warranted, the wide receiving corp, pass-blocking (O-line + TE's and backs), starting vs. sitting, and the revolving door at O-coordinator deserve their share of the blame for his struggles. I think the pieces are in place for him to have a solid year. He's got a proven WR, TE, and RB. It's his 2nd year with Ludwig, and the O-line should be more solid with several returning starters under their 2nd year with Marshall. He's certainly been through enough adversity to develop a thick skin. Reports from the spring were promising. He was regularly putting in extra time after practice and generally looked sharp in scrimmages. My suspicion is that his footwork suffered last year when he was under pressure. This led to poor mechanics and a loss of accuracy. I know this was a point of emphasis for him the previous summer, but likely reverted to old habits when under game stress. Perhaps two years of work will do the trick. The big questions are: 1) With improved protection and more playmakers, can the game finally slow down for him? 2) Will he show the mental toughness needed to stay focused after setbacks and mistakes? 3) Can he cut down on his "unforced errors?" We don't need him to be spectacular; we just need him to trust his teammates and make the routine plays.
Backup QB - I think Hydrotech has taken more snaps than Mansion and Sweeney combined. We have got to get these guys some time during our early schedule. Not just as contingency planning, but to have a better idea where we stand for next year. From all reports, Mansion has the physical tools, but is inconsistent. (he was also slowed in the spring by a sprained foot) Sweeney may not have the same arm, but has better command of the huddle and offense. Brigford is the dark horse. I'd love for him to compete well enough to put himself into the mix, but it's unlikely. Recovery from shoulder surgery is no sure thing and he may have simply have too much catching up to do. There are a limited number of snaps available. So, he'll probably need to wait until next spring for his chance.
Starting RB - Baring injury, this is one of the most secure positions on the team. Vereen needs to improve his blitz pickups. (and maybe not throwing ill-advised passes into the end zone) Otherwise, we're set. As the featured back, he's going to have a monster year. He has the speed to take it to the house at any time. But even more importantly, his patient, always-fall-forward style eats up yards and consistently puts the offense in manageable downs. He's also dangerous as a receiver and may also spend some time in the slot or out wide to create mismatches.
Backup RB - No proven player here with plenty of competition. It's important that someone fills this role so that Vereen doesn't wear down. I'm optimistic that Gould will work his magic and we're ok. Worse case is solid...best case could be special. Ball security will probably be the #1 determining criteria. The people's choice sounds like Yarnway. We're all drooling over the possibility of Beast Mode 2.0. It'd be great to have that big back for short yardage situations, or to provide a contrast in styles to keep defenders off-balance. Sofele had a great spring and sounds like he'll demand playing time because he's one of our most dynamic players with the ball in his hands. I'd like to see us be a little more creative than simply using him on a fly sweep. Deboskie is a bit of the forgotten man. He doesn't offer the raw physicality of Yarnway or the electric jitterbug action of Sofele. But, he's had better production than either of the other two backs when he's had his chances. In many ways, he's a bit like Vereen in that he's more workmanlike than flashy. Usually, there are only enough carries for two backs. But, there's enough talent and the backs offer sufficiently different talents that this may be the year where we use a third guy. Briggs will probably blueshirt, but don't forget the name. He already shows a lot of burst for a bigger back along with nice balance and vision.
FB - Kapp, Stevens and Tyndall are filling this spot by committee. The good: they all bring something to the table. The bad: no one has distinguished themselves yet. Kapp might be the best technician, but he's a little smaller. Stevens has some wheels as evidenced by his 40+ yd run in a spring scrimmage. Tyndall is physical, but has less experience. The optimist says that it's good to have three potential starters. The pessimist says that if you have three potential candidates, it means you don't have one true starter. Last year, there was a noticeable drop-off whenever Holley couldn't play. I'm afraid that none of them offer the brute force of Tau'fu, or the steady all-around game of Manderino at this stage of their careers. Fortunately, in the Tedford/Ludwig offense, we just need the FB to know his blocking assignments and be consistent. Any carries or swing passes would be considered gravy. If we don't get someone to step up, maybe we go single-back + two TE's, or substitute mis-direction for power and use a 2nd RB in the backfield?
TE - Miller has been a pleasant surprise. He's got nice hands and has proven to be a good threat down the field. He still needs to improve his blocking on the edge, but isn't a liability like some receiver-only TE's that we've had in the past. Depth at this position is a bit of a concern. Ladner was more touted than Miller but has been slowed by injuries. It'd be really nice if he could have a break-out year. Aigamaua, Eselu, and Sparks are probably next in line. Sparks is a converted WR, Aigamaua is a converted DE, and Eselu is more of a blocking threat.
WR - Can anyone besides Jones get open down the field? Will Ross have a Semien-esque senior ah-ha moment and shed his stone-hands days? Breakout year for Loggy or Calvin? Which of the newcomers will earn PT? Jones had a great spring and will likely continue to make strides as Cal's #1 WR. He's very smooth, has good speed, and combines good routes with solid hands. I've had trouble placing which previous WR he reminds me of...He's not from the Djax, Hawk, RoJo small/quick mold. But, he's also not a more physical receiver like MacArthur or Douglas. Maybe a taller/faster Bobby Shaw? The other spots are up for grabs. Ross on the outside and Lagemann in the slot are the most likely candidates from the incumbents. Ross is fast and plays a lot bigger than his listed 5'11 height. He's still more of a straight-ahead or one-cut and go type of player than a start/stop or quick-juking type of guy. Lagemann, on the other hand, appears to be more quick than fast. He seems to have a knack for finding space in the middle of the field a la Wes Welker, and some observers claim that he has the best hands on the team. On potential alone, Calvin is in the mix, but is apparently still slowed by injuries and confidence issues associated with his prolonged recovery/rehab times. Of the new receivers, (Allen, Edmond, Montgomery, Carter, Clay) I would expect/hope Allen to contribute immediately and perhaps Edmond. Tedford's stated philosophy towards JC-transfers is that they are recruited in order to play sooner rather than later. However, it usually takes a year of adjusting to a new system and level of competition before they're at full-speed. Ideally, all of them except for Allen would allowed to blueshirt. However, based on comments after spring ball it sounds like we're still looking for better production from this position. If Allen is as advertised, he'll start opposite Jones with either Ross or Lagemann as the next WR's. Although not the pure burner that DJax was, Allen is physical, has a knack for attacking the ball in the air, and is very elusive for a bigger guy. I suspect that Ross or Loggy will still get plenty of reps because it'll take time for Allen to pick-up the offense while also learning defensive assignments as a nickel back. Edmond might be the field-stretching speed demon used when we go to 4-5 WR sets.
OL - Can MSG stay healthy? Is Coach Marshall the real deal? I was worried about reports that he focused more on scheme and not on technique last year. Cali49a made me feel better about this with his assertion(midway down in comments) that the line was simply young due to previous recruiting misses and injury issues. On paper, MSG(LT), Schwenke(LG), Guarnero(C), Cheadle(RG), Schwartz(RT) seems serviceable...will they make a leap from last year's growing pains? What about quality depth? We had some touted recruits the last couple of years...when will they be ready to contribute? (A good list of all linemen here from TheSeymoreBear.) From the spring reports: Edwards was backing up all five positions, Galas and Brazinski got reps at backup center, Fisher was backing up LG, Siddoway and DeMartinis got reps at RT. I'm cautiously optimistic here. It's the second year for both Ludwig and Marshall. The young guys on the line should be more experienced and more comfortable with our schemes. We've had quality O-line recruits the last couple of years and that depth should help now that they've had a chance to blueshirt and get stronger. If we don't have at least solid play on the line this year, we've either made some grave recruiting errors or you really have to start giving Marshall the hairy eyeball.
Offensive Coordinator: I don't think anyone would disagree that the offense didn't consistently perform up to expectations last year. It's hard to say how much of that was on Ludwig or simply on execution. I don't think it was the play-calling alone that was our rate-determining step. Honestly, if your line is prone to be sieve-like, your backs/TE's don't consistently pick up blitzes or seal the edge, your WR's don't get open, and your QB has schizophrenic accuracy issues, the best X's and O's in the world won't help. I know that there are plenty of Oregon and Utah fans who love to hate on this guy. But, I watched his play-calling for Utah against Alabama absolutely befuddle a team with superior athletes for an entire game. I'd expect an improvement here simply from having another year for Ludwig to grow more comfortable with his personnel and for the players to grow more versed in his schemes. Rather than trying to out-smart or out-scheme everyone, perhaps our personnel dictates that we'd benefit from building on a core of bread n' butter plays where our execution simply cannot be stopped. As exciting as they are, there was too much of a reliance on the big play last year. Personally, I'd like to see the return of creativity and boldness to the Cal offense. I want us to dictate terms, keep the defense backpedaling and off-balance, and cram it down the other team's throats with sustained soul-crushing drives that defeats their will to compete or even dare remain on the same field. Is that too much to ask?
Defensive End: Jordan is set at one spot. I expect a big year from him. He has all the physical tools, but has reportedly had focus/maturity issues over the past few years. By some accounts, he's figured it out. He would also benefit from having a pass-rushing threat from the linebackers so that he doesn't have to run into double-teams all game long. The other end is unsettled. After a great game against Maryland, we didn't really hear Owusu's name the rest of the year. Guyton was getting starting reps in the spring as was Coleman. Tipoti got some time here last year. It depends on how Pendergast is going to scheme his hybrid 3-4. We might also see Browner or Davis getting reps here in pass-rushing situations. I would guess that Gabe King blueshirts...but I could see him getting time if we have injury issues and have to shift someone inside.
Nose Tackle: Kendrick Payne had a great, great spring and was reportedly pushing incumbent Derrick Hill for starters minutes. Hill has been solid even though he's been slowed by nagging injuries the last two years. Either way, I'd expect both of them to play a lot because of the pounding received at this position. Our depth took a hit when we lost practice squad standout Keni Kafusi to shoulder surgery for the year. Tipoti, Coleman and possibly Costanzo are likely the next reserves in line.
LB: We have a fairly decent guy holding down one of these slots. Maybe you've heard of him? Saw him pick off a pass to seal the win in last year's Big Game? Good ol' MikeyMo. Great instincts along with good speed make him arguably the best player on our defense. Solid tackler who also has the range to drop into coverage. (right Mr. Luck?) Still needs to work on taking better angles on some plays, but that even happens to guys like Patrick Willis. The other spots are unsettled. I was going to do ILB vs. OLB, but I really don't know enough about Pendergast's scheme or where he envisions the players to make enough educated guesses. Reportedly, Price had a great spring and was getting starters minutes on the outside. Although Tedford mentioned that he might not have the size to hold up against the power-run game, I don't see that as a negative. (Neither does Zach Thomas or Dat Nguyen) Let the thumpers and lineman occupy blockers while a speed guy like Price shoots the gap or cuts off the edges. DJ Holt had some starts inside last year and had his moments. Kendricks started last year great, slumped a little, and then had a great last game. I think he was a victim of having his position changed mid-season. He also might have been a tad overly aggressive and not as assignment-oriented as our previous DC liked. Meadows, Davis, Browner, and Fanua are in the mix. And then there's arguably the best-ever group of LB recruits coming in: Martin, Whiteside, Forbes, McCain, and Wilkerson. Of this group, Martin is the most likely to earn immediate playing time. I doubt that he'd start right away, but would likely be brought along initially with a set of packages where his assignments are simple. "Please run over to their QB and plant him in the turf." For the rest, I would expect blueshirts. However, our LB play besides the Prophet was uneven enough last year that I could see one or two of the new guys demanding playing time simply because of the speed and athleticism that they bring.
CB: Ugh. I miss Syd already. Hagan's comeback didn't exactly start off ideally when he spent most of the spring sitting out to concentrate on academics. If he can return to form, we have a solid player who has speed, size, and instincts with the potential to be great. If not...I think we've heard that song already. Josh Hill and Nnabuife both got time as starters last year, but haven't really impressed to date. They're both decent tacklers who haven't shown great ball skills.(yet) You'd have to give a pass to Hill simply because he was a true freshman last year. There have been plenty of Cal DB's who were lit up as freshmen and ended up having pretty nice careers. Also in the mix are touted youngsters Marc Anthony, Vachel Samuels, and Steve Williams. Both Samuels and Williams were mentioned as having good springs. In particular, Williams was singled out as the "fastest DB ever coached" by Coach Simmons. (who helped convert Deltha O'Neal from a RB into an NFL draft pick) Thanks to last year's facepalm festival, this is arguably the most open position on the team. Incoming recruit Lee will probably blueshirt. Allen has been mentioned as getting a look here as a nickel back even though he was top safety in HS. That fact that they're considering playing him two-ways is both a credit to his athletic ability and an indictment of how poorly our secondary performed last year.
S: Cattouse is set at one spot and Conte probably gets the nod at the other. Cattouse is a hard-hitter and was one of the few Cal defensive backs to show any ability to track a ball in the air. I'd like him to pose less and focus more on being in position. But, the potential is there for continued improvement. Conte has had a bit of a rough career to date. He showed enough promise to earn starts as a freshman, but has bounced around from corner to nickel and now to safety. I'm not sure that he's a strong enough tackler to be considered a true strong safety, nor does he have the ball-hawking skills to play a good center field. Logan, Campbell, and Moncrease are the backups. Moncrease and Campbell were mentioned in the spring as standouts. I could see someone supplanting Conte if they have a great training camp. New frosh Coley is destined for a blueshirt. I wonder if Allen gets any time here eventually. It's probably more difficult to learn all the coverages as a safety than as a DB...not to mention playing WR. Someone may need to page the Band to break out the 'Superman' theme again.
Defensive Coordinator: Largely unknown. Clancy Pendergast had his share of success in the NFL, but also had years where his defenses were maligned. He runs a hybrid 3-4 and reputedly prefers an attacking style.
My hopes here: 1) Be flexible enough to make good use of our personnel; no round peg/square hole type of thinking. Let's put the guys in the best position to succeed. If that means using more 4-3, then go for it. 2) Help the guys play fast. I suspect that some of the issues from last year were related to inexperienced guys having too many reads or checks. Instead of playing instinctively, they spent too much time thinking instead of simply reacting. I know this is a gross oversimplification. I've admired how Oregon State always manages to field a stout defense with no-name players. They don't run the most complex scheme, but they practice it over and over until it is absolutely a reflex. That's one of the reasons they tend to start slow and get really tough by the season's end. 3) Be aggressive, but be creative and balanced. I really did watch the Hit Squad defenses in person. Great on 1st and 2nd down. Give up the long gain or TD on 3rd. Statistically, we had the #3 defense in the Pac-10 in '98 and #1 defense in '99. But, we went 5-6 in '98 and 4-7 in '99 and this is one case where the stats don't tell you everything. Teams were able to take advantage of our aggressive schemes and made us pay with big plays.
Pac-10 offenses are too sophisticated to simply pin your ears back and blitz all game long. For example, we actually did send 5 and even 6 guys several times in the 1st half against UW. But, we did so right into the teeth of a max protect scheme. Our guys got picked up, and then our overmatched secondary got lit up.
I'd like to see us mix it up both with the number of pass rushers and more importantly, with where the extra rusher comes from. The Steelers have run one of the better 3-4 defenses for years, but they actually blitz fewer times per game than almost every other team. However, that 4th pass rusher can come from anywhere at any time and on any down. My issue with last year wasn't so much with the defensive scheme and play-calls. After all, we didn't have a dynamic pass-rusher, at least one corner might as well have had "Toast" on his jersey, and our LB's and safeties were inconsistent at best with dropping into their proper zones. But, I rarely saw anything different in terms of our pass-rush. Either it was the now infamous rush 3/drop 8, or it was rush the outside linebacker.(who crept up to the line pre-snap signaling "hey lookit me, I'm rushing!" Granted, I'm not the most savvy viewer, but I didn't see a lot of variety with stunting, inside charges, corner blitzes, or safety blitzes. The much-maligned Gregory had used all of those during his time at Cal, so it may be that we simply didn't have the personnel to make it work.
In any case, the nagging worry in the back of my head is "be careful what you wish for." With the emphasis on aggression, I think we're going to see more big plays this year...both from our defense and the opposing offense.
P - Anger! Smash! He had a bit of a relapse year last year. At risk of growing pedantic, let's just chalk that up to less than ideal coaching and assume that this year he will return to his dominating ways. (When a guy has to go back to his HS coach to get his mechanics right...geez.) Of course, we'd all prefer that he work exclusively on his tan all game long.
Long-snapper - Matt Rios doesn't get his name mentioned much and that means he's doing his job. He was able to hit the goal post on a "double or nothing" bet for gassers during spring ball. That can't be easy. The great news is that he's only a sophomore. We've been really fortunate to have solid performance out of this position for several years.
PK - After the spring, the clear forerunner here was Giorgio Tavecchio for both kickoffs and place-kicking. There were some good days of booming kicks...and then there was the scrimmage where we missed a FG from the 10-yd line during the end of the game two-minute drill. Sigh. Your guess is as good as mine. I don't think this will be a position of strength. It would be nice, however, for this to not be a glaring weakness. D'Amato and Seawright are the competition at PK. Seawright seems to have never made it back all the way from injury. There are rumors of another walk-on PK, but it's unlikely that he'd be in the mix at this point.
PR/KR: Unknown. Sofele, Yarnway, and Williams took the first snaps here in the spring. Ross did a nice job at KR last year. My guess is Sofele is the punt returner. Ross and either Sofele/Yarnway/Williams will return kicks.
Special Teams Coach: Whoever sold their soul, sent Jobu rum or finally bought/stole back Tedford's blackmail photos (kidding), thank you from the bottom of my heart. My mental image of the previous coach was Farmer Fran making the guys run laps. This quote says it all: "Coach Alamar kind of let us do what we wanted a little bit more. During practice, he'd work on our stuff, but it was more of a relaxed atmosphere." Sigh.
This article sums up just about everything you'd need to know about Genyk's background and his approach to improving our kicking game. (Reference) I love the emphasis on fundamentals, repetition, and mental toughness. I really like the seemingly common-sense idea of pacing to prevent dead-legs. And, I'm impressed by the new kickoff drill forcing them to consistently put it in a box near the goal line. I think this area has been ranted on to the point where the dead horse is pulverized ash, but let's just say that the bar has been set pretty darn low. If we get average to competent play out of this phase of the game, I might do backflips.
Overall Coaching: Whatever quibbles or faults we might have with game-day decisions, or who plays QB, Jeff Tedford is easily the best thing to happen to Cal Football in the last decade(s). As a fourth-gen Bear, I've been going to Cal games since I was around 8 years old and I've seen a lot of bad football. We are very lucky to have a team that generally presents itself with class on and off the field. And we can be proud of the fact that there is more than just lip service to the title "student-athlete." That being said, my personal feeling is that the program hasn't been quite the same the past few years. I'm not talking about any of the long-debated specific decisions. You could go back and forth on Riley vs. Longshore or the kneel-down, etc. I'm talking about the overall morale and mindset of the team. When Tedford became the coach in 2002, one of the first things he did was sit down with all of the players for interviews. He picked leaders, created a system of internal accountability, and revived a sense of team. When you saw them on the field, you saw confidence, boldness, and innovation. You saw a team go for it on 4th down because that's what good teams do. Even when they didn't convert, you liked the fact that he believed in his guys. You saw a team draw up an innovative play to wind out the clock (a backwards pass to Makonnen for a kneel down) and said "damn, that was smart." You saw a team practicing in wet-ball conditions or loud stadium noise or at different times of the day (prior to the Michigan State game, home of the famous "75,000...Disappointed Fans!" pre-game speech) because he would leave nothing to chance. I almost think that something changed that day Riley didn't spike the ball against OSU and made Tedford throw his clipboard. Ever since then, it almost feels like we've been playing the odds; playing more not to lose than playing for the win. Statistically, many of the decisions are probably sound. But this game is played by young men. In college sports, morale and spirit are arguably more important than the athletes themselves. I think that it may have been forgotten that the right football decision is sometimes the wrong decision for a leader of young men.
The good news is that Tedford cares more about this team than we do. He's shown a capacity for self-reflection and is willing to make changes as needed. Before you slam him for not adapting sooner, take a look in the mirror. Part of what makes any successful, competitive individual great is confidence. It's not the easiest thing in the world to admit fault or to make a change which implies that you were wrong. You have to like the fact that he's man enough to continue to try to evolve as a coach and a leader.
I am positive that the best days of Cal football are still to come and I can't wait to see how our team shapes up this fall. All together now: "This year could be our year!" Go Bears!
As a refresher, here are links to reports from each of the spring scrimmages:
Scrimmage #1, part 2
Scrimmage #2, part 2
Scrimmage #3, part 2