Michael Mohamed is one of those difficult guys to assess as a pro because his situation wasn't typical. He was recruited for one scheme before being converted to play another. He thrived in that scheme outside in his sophomore year, making big plays and tackles, but had to change positions within that scheme and carry much of the burden inside in his junior campaign. And he finally had to play a more instinctive brand of football his senior season and found himself out of way too many plays, although he was probably a much improved player.
Three transitions, four years. A lot to ask of anyone at the collegiate level. And that's why no one is really buzzing in on Mohamed. He doesn't jump out at you on tape. He has few plays that anyone but Cal fans will truly idolize as the harbinger of the next great thing.
But whereever he went, for three years, he produced. And that's why he has a very strong chance of panning out at the next level.
In 2008, with a lot of the attention focused on Worrell Williams, Anthony Felder, and Zack Follett, Mohamed flourished as the fourth man. His greatest skill was preying on passing lanes and making plays on the ball, and also making great open field tackles. In this sophomore campaign he racked up 87 tackles, an impressive number for anyone that age. The dude knew how to get offensive guys down a lot when they came his way.
Unfortunately, the ideal world for Mohamed sealed off after 2009, when Kenwick Thompson and Bob Gregory moved him to the middle to anchor the team defense. It wasn't an enviable place. Mohamed had to bring along the tough but inexperienced D.J. Holt and Mychal Kendricks, had to deal with a 3-4 defense that managed minimal pass rush off the edge with Eddie Young and Devin Bishop, and a secondary that kept on giving up more big plays than it should have behind him.
Being the defensive leader, those sort of performances seemed to reflect poorly on #18, but really Mohamed couldn't have done it without additional help. At times, the Cal defense seemed to be playing eleven on ten, sometimes eleven on nine on every play. Defenders would make fundamental errors, like biting on double moves, not looking back for the football, falling down at the line of scrimmage, failing to tackle properly, etc. As the defensive quarterback, Mohamed can only tell them where to go and get ready to counteract the play they know that's coming. After that, it's out of his hands how well his fellow defenders perform.
Example: The nose tackle. A nose tackle's job is to occupy double teams, but except for a few occasions involving Derrick Hill, that wasn't always needed. When he got injured, the Bears had to go back to playing one-on-one offensive linemen vs. defensive linemen plus inside linebackers, meaning Mohamed was battling the beef on way too many occasions instead of slipping in and getting a chance to make a play.
The good thing that came out of that was that Mohamed was able to learn how to not only escape his blockers, but also fight through the block and eventually get to other areas of the field. Mohamed is not an easy inside linebacker to swallow up whole, which gives him a real good chance to survive in the pro ranks.
Example #2: The lack of pass rushers. A pass rusher doesn't just get to the quarterback, he narrows the window of the quarterback with which to throw in by forcing him to one side of the field. A quarterback that doesn't have to worry about getting sacked enjoys the luxury of stepping up in the pocket, of looking at multiple reads, and eventually finding a receiver that can adapt and escape his coverage or breaking down zone schemes and finding the open hole to exploit.
One good thing to come out of this? Mohamed has better lateral quickness at chasing down running backs who've bounced to the outside. More responsibilities, more improvements.
The situation wasn't better in 2010. The linebacking corps was better with Holt and Kendricks, lessening the load on Mohamed to worry about all the reads and reactions. It was worse on the other lines, with no Tyson Alualu up front and no Syd'Quan Thompson in the back.You could see how valuable he was when he couldn't suit up against Nevada, as the replacement linebackers who tried to take his place did not fare well (nor did some of the starters, as Holt probably wasn't quite as equipped to read the defense on the play).
CAL FOOTBALL - MIKE MOHAMED HIGHLIGHTS (via calbearsgobig)
Through all this turmoil, Mohamed endured. 207 tackles in two years, an impressive feat for any individual linebacker. He chased down running backs when it looked like they were ready to turn for the corner. He bothered passing lanes and made open field tackles in zone coverage. He broke up several passes. He even managed to rush the quarterback on occasion and force a few fumbles; although he wouldn't always finish the play, he did manage to stick some signal-callers on the turf. And of course, he has his one game-changing interception.
Plus his linebacking fundamentals were proper. When he got to his man, he generally took him down. He wrapped his arms around his man up high at the shoulder pads when getting to the quarterback, then forced him backward. When a running back came at him, he'd bend forward, wrap him closer to the waist area, and do fairly well at keeping him from advancing much further. He also did a good job at reaching across and making sure a player wouldn't cut upfield on him, and generally did not make many mistakes in the open field.
And of course, his intelligence is another mark in his favor. Mohamed is a very smart football player, and you need smarts to succeed at the next level. You can get away with being talented and dumb in college sports, but smart and solid talents can also be enough to help you lead on the football field. I've heard the comparisons to Scott Fujita in terms of frame and strength, but don't forget the mental acumen. Mohamed's got a great chance to follow in his footsteps.
I think if he can find the proper scheme that doesn't require him to constantly have him fighting off tackles and have him on a rebuilding defense, he will prosper. At first glance, the 4-3 Sam linebacker seems the place to put him to grow and develop into an every down player--he can play the run, make plays in the open field after the defensive linemen on his side occupy blocks, and he can drop back and play passing lanes.
It'd be another adjustment for Mike, but that's hardly new for him. Whereever he goes, adjustment is a near certainty. After what I saw of him at Cal, I will never doubt his ability to adapt and evolve.
Career stats: 340 tackles (4th all time), 20 tackles for loss, 7 sacks, 4 forced fumbles, 2 interceptions