CGB Pre-Season: Defensive Backs

TwistNHook:  Syd'Quan, we will miss you.  But can somebody step up in Syd'Quan's absence?  There is a lot of hype around Steve Williams.  What are people's thoughts on the defensive backs? 

NorCalNick:  I feel like this year's defense may be resting on the abilities of Darian Hagan.  As much as he struggled last year, he's the only player to really show an ability to play at a high level.  If he somehow regains his 2008 form then things look a lot more settled in the secondary.

That said, the raves we are hearing about Williams are tough not to get excited about.  What are the chances that two of Hagan, Williams, Bryant Nnabuife and Josh Hill step up to play average to above-average for the Bears?

Berkelium97:  Thankfully for the DBs, Cal has a talented front 7 which ought to make life difficult for opposing QBs.  If the defense can be as disruptive as it was in 2008, life should be easier for the DBs.  They, by proxy, will look better if the Pendergast D forces QBs to make rushed passes..

Still, we'll have to rely on the DBs to guard against one of the deepest classes of Pac-10 QBs in many years.  It sounds like Steve Williams will lock down a spot, but the other starting role is a bit of a mystery.  If Hagan regains his 2008 form (which is definitely possible if he stays injury-free), he could take the starting role.  If not, expect Nnabufie to fill in.

At the very least, we're set with two solid safeties: Sean "Cat-house" Cattouse and Chris Conte.

Kodiak:  Defensive backs always remind me of fighter pilots.  And you could certainly make an argument for "Highway to the Danger Zone" as the theme song for last year's pass defense. (Or "It's the End of the World as We Know It...We Feel Fine")

Just like Cougar from Top Gun, former rising star Darian Hagan lost his edge last year.  His demotion started a domino effect which altered the personnel groupings and schemes for the entire secondary.  If he has his head on straight this year, it could go a long way to shoring up a pass defense that was more cheesecloth than micro filter.     
It sounds like stud RS frosh Steve Williams has played himself into one starting spot.  Although he's one of the shorter DB's, he's earned the attention of the WR's who are already talking about him as their toughest matchup.

    Josh Hill edged out the more touted Marc Anthony for significant PT last year.  He tackled well and was around the ball, but was often a step or so away in coverage and struggled to play the ball in the air.  For a RS frosh, I thought he did okay and should show improvement this year.

    Bryant Nnabuife has the best size of all our corners and also earned some starting time last year.  He had a solid game against 'Zona and 'furd...not so much against UW.  Not a bad tackler, he also struggled with making plays on the ball and with pure speed guys.  If he wins the other starting spot, I'd expect them to play to his size/strength with tight press coverage and have plenty of safety help over the top.

    Marc Anthony and Adrian Lee are probably headed to special teams and a blueshirt year, respectively.  Vachel Samuels is out for the year after separating two bones in his foot.  (ouch)

 

Yellow Fever:  I'm really intrigued by Steve Williams - not only has that been the real name of two of the greatest pro wrestlers in history, but he's been specifically mentioned by name by many of the players on the team as having been a breakout star during training camp.  And of course, the team is going to need it after not playing well last year despite the presence of Syd'Quan Thompson.
But as Berkelium points out, the fortunes of the team's defense will likely depend more on the kind of rush that Pendergast is able to conjure up.  Rex Ryan's shown that a scheme can make even average CBs look good (i.e. Lito Sheppard having a superlative year according to YPA), so we'll have to see if Pendergast's NFL pedigree counts for something.


Kodiak:   At safety, Cattouse and Conte look to be our starters.  Cattouse is one of the few Bears to show any ability to play the ball in the air last year.  He's a fierce hitter and provides a much-needed infusion of attitude.  Provided that he also plays smart, I expect him to be a big upgrade over one of last year's significant weak spots.  I'm not sure about Conte at the other spot.  He seems like he's been the "good-enough" guy throughout his career.  He was good enough to earn time as a true frosh, and in each succeeding year, but has never really had that break-through game.  As a senior, he's at least got plenty of experience...whether he can tackle effectively enough or has enough speed to play a decent center field remains to be seen.  I could see Moncrease, Logan, or Campbell stealing the position from Conte with strong camps.  In fact, I'd hope they give some of the younger guys snaps during our early schedule to help them develop.

    Simmons is a proven position coach and Pendergast is known for improving pass defenses.  It sounds like they're combining an emphasis on getting to the QB with putting the DB's closer to the line of scrimmage.  If we can just stop bubble screens from going 10+ yards a pop, I might re-name one of my daughters "Clancy."  However, with the tighter coverage and more aggressive scheme, we're also going to be more susceptible to big plays over the top...so buckle up for some fireworks.

 

Avinash:  Barring injury, Williams will start. He was really the guy from 2009 I thought would end up contributing for us in a big-time way. He has all the measurables and just jumps off the page as a men among boys.

With Syd'Quan gone, there's just going to be so much uncertainty out here. Which is why I feel Pendergast's schemes could help the corners--none of these guys are exceptionally strong at playing zones, staying in front of their man, and then coming up and making open field tackles (Hagan was in 2008, but had serious trouble with injuries and academics in 2009). However, if they're allowed to play aggressive, jam the receivers at the line of scrimmage, play them tight up, even give them a chance to blitz or play run support, it could be really beneficial to giving offenses more to think about.

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I feel Nnabuife or Hagan will be rotating around--neither of them had great 2009s, but they're both seniors this season, so you'd hope they have the requisite experience to make things work. And like last year, there isn't much behind them--with Conte sliding to safety, that leaves only the young Alex Logan and Marc Anthony to back them up. Health will be critical.

My biggest interest will be what happens at safety. Last year, Cattouse was sometimes overaggressive, charging the line of scrimmage a lot and ran himself out of the play, leading to huge rushing gains by the opposition. Of course, if he plays this way in Pendergast's schemes (which usually calls for an overaggressive blitzing safety) he could be just fine.




That leaves Conte. After being rotated all around the defensive backfield, can he handle being a regular starter and taking the majority of the snaps? If he can just show discipline and the ability to chase down loose receivers it'll be a big step in the right direction, since Marcus Ezeff struggled all of last season. There's also a lot of competition behind him from C.J. Moncrease and D.J. Campbell, so you never know what'll happen.

The secondary will be a very intriguing unit to watch this season, that's for sure.

 

TwistNHook:  I think the key for this season will be Hagan stepping up.  There was a lot of hype surrounding Hagan and now is the time for him to showcase his talents.  The Cal bio notes that he is the active leader in pass breakups:

 

CAL CAREER (Career Stats): Has played in 27 games with 17 starts, collecting 86 tackles (61 unassisted, 25 assisted), 5.5 tackles for loss (-8 yards), three interceptions that he has returned for 12 yards, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and 20 pass breakups on defense, while also adding three kick returns for 68 yards ... Cal's active career leader in pass breakups.

 



Am I right in remembering that he'll have the most experience in this defensive backfield? 

 

Avinash:  Hagan is one of the most experience, but he didn't play much last season, so it's not like he's miles ahead of anyone else. I'd say Conte is probably the guy who has the most starting time of any of them, since he's played since his freshman year.

Hagan should bounce back. He's still very talented and has a lot of confidence when healthy. But he's missed a lot of time and it's always hard to acclimate yourself back to the regular rotation after prolonged injury, especially with so much competition coming from behind.

Recent revelations show why Hagan might have struggled last year.  His infant daughter had cancer.

TwistNHook:  This is surprising.  I am happy to hear that Hagan's daughter is healthy.  Reading this is a startling reminder of the pressure and stress of being an athlete at the collegiate level:



Hagan disclosed recently that his then 1-year-old daughter, Kaiyana, battled cancer all through last season. She was diagnosed in May 2009 with Wilms' tumor, a rare form of kidney cancer that primarily affects toddlers. She had chemotherapy treatments during the season.

Kaiyana lives with her mother, Kimiye Hampton, in Los Angeles, so Hagan rarely saw his daughter as she fought the illness. Combined with the fact he was struggling to stay academically eligible and also lost his starting job, Hagan felt overwhelmed at times during 2009.

 

It is easy for us to sit back and just criticize, but so often we lack the real facts around a situation.  My thoughts and prayers are with Darian Hagan and his family that the worst is behind them. 

OhioBear:  Sometimes, I get these crazy ideas that percolate in my head.  I think through the crazy ideas and actually buy into them sometimes.  Other times, my crazy ideas never leave the confines of my brain, either because I have no one to talk to or because I convince myself the ideas are crazy and shouldn't be shared.  You know -- better to keep quiet and have people think you are stupid than to talk and confirm it.

 
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Oh, screw it, I'll talk and confirm it:  I have a feeling our defensive backs will be good.  
 
I'll start with our safeties.  I like Sean Cattouse.  A lot.  The guy can bring the lumber and he has (IMO) some decent cover skills.  I think he'll just get better.  As for the other safety, it looks like Chris Conte might have a bead on that spot.  Say what you want about Conte, but he is an experienced senior who has had some good moments over the last three years (fumble recovery vs. USC 2007; great INT against Rudy Carpenter and ASU in 2008; heads up special teams play vs Ucla 2008 to thwart a fake punt; big TFL to force a 4th down and get us the ball back at OSU 2008).  If not Conte, maybe it's C.J. Moncrease, who has the look to me of a guy who can be very physical. 
 

We've been blessed to have SQT and Hughes as "shutdown" cover corners over the last few years.  I am not going to expect that we have that kind of a guy.  Yet.  But I am quite intrigued by all I am reading about Steve Williams.  For this kid to step in and snag a starting spot tells me a lot.  If that happens (and it looks like it is), it means he's beating out somebody with playing experience, whether that be Josh Hill, Bryant Nnabuife, or Darian Hagan.  I can't wait to see Williams play. 
 
Speaking of Nnabuife, Hill, and Hagan, I expect Hagan to be other CB opposite Williams.  Hagan has had his ups and downs during his Cal career, certainly.  Can he make it more up than down this season?  I'm an optimist about Hagan -- he's a talented athlete, he's a senior, and he has worked hard (from what I've read) to get himself back after missing spring practice.  If not Hagan, we'll see what progress Nnabuife and Hill have made after getting some playing experience last year at CB. 
 
Oh, and then there's the wild card: do we see Keenan Allen on defense sometime this season? 

 

HydroTech: Aren't there a lot of similarities between Steve Williams and Syd'Quan Thompson?  Steve Williams spurned Oklahoma to come to Cal.  If I recall correctly, wasn't Syd'Quan Thompson also considering Oklahoma?  Yup, Thompson was also considering Oklahoma.  And Steve Williams had offers from Oklahoma, Miami, Auburn, Oklahoma St., Texas A&M, and many others.  Both Williams and Thompson are similar in size and stature.  And now Tedford has gone on the record and said that Steve Williams is the best cornerback he's had?!?!?  [does anyone have the link to that article?]  Wow.  I can't wait to see Steve Williams in action.  There seems to be little doubt that he's going to be one of our starters this year. 

 

Avinash:  This was at yellow fever's NYC meeting, yes. Bears With Fangs grabbed it in his recap

"Tedford also stated that a young guy who is going to play a lot for us this year is Steve Williams. I quote, "We have a guy, Steve Williams, who is probably the best cover corner we've had here." He even compared him to Syd'Quan Thompson."

 

Let's take a look at some videos of our younger guys.

DJ Campbell:


Chris Moncrease:


So, what do you guys think about our Defensive Backs???  Leave your thoughts in the comments!

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