Jason O. Watson
The first of a two part column that examines six different position groups worth paying close attention to during spring practices. Here are the first three.
Coming off a 3-9 nightmare in 2012, it might be easy to say that the California Golden Bears need improvement everywhere. Yet, as the Bears enter 2013 in pursuit of Roses once again, some positions will undoubtedly be more crucial to that pursuit than others. The following column - the first of a two parter - is an attempt at identifying and previewing some areas worth keeping an eye on at the new open practices, where we can, for the first time in nearly forever, observe for themselves.That being said...let's begin.
[Obligatory disclaimer that this list is merely this author’s opinion and intended for discussion. Please do refrain from excoriating him for any oversights, omissions, or mental mistakes. They are unintentional, he swears.]
Honorable Mention - linebacker
The California linebacking core did not earn its place on this list out of concern - rather, because the Bears boast an embarrassment of riches here, because there is a wide open depth chart, and because defensive coordinator Andy Buh is planning to play more 4-3, this group should make for some pretty fascinating theater.
First up are some position changes: Brennan Scarlett, Chris McCain, Nathan Broussard, Harrison Wilfley, and Dan Camporeale have moved down to DE. [McCain, it should be noted, will be out for spring, recovering from surgery on his shoulder. Scarlett will also be out with a hand injury.]
Considering the massive group of linebackers the Bears had at their disposal, these position changes will help ease things somewhat. Even so, there remain a bunch of players who could end up starting at linebacker in 2013.
Let's begin with the remaining guys who played last year: Jalen Jefferson and Nick Forbes. Both took over as starters against Ohio State and never really looked back, improving consistently throughout the season. Forbes eventually earned Pac-12 Honorable Mention for his efforts, part of an impressive season for the first year starter. Considering their youth and athleticism, it would be easy to pencil those two back in again at middle linebacker...except that there is only be one middle linebacker spot now. Is a move outside in store for either?
In addition to Jefferson and Forbes, there are some intriguing returners - guys who didn't play last year, but could be huge factors and challenge for spots: namely, Penn State transfer Khairi Fortt, and the finally healthy duo of Jason Gibson and David Wilkerson.The latter two, if you recall, were on track to start, before injuries derailed both their 2012 campaigns. Seeing as that implies they are more talented than either Jefferson or Forbes, it wouldn't be much of a surprise to see one of them take a starting role either...
In light of the recent positional changes, it would seem likely that Wilkerson moves back outside, as well.
This discussion has yet to even include the guys who didn't play last year: highly touted redshirters Hardy Nickerson Jr. and Michael Barton. There's a lot to like here, people - and a lot of positional intrigue as a result.
Honorable Mention - running back
I know, I know. The Bears will go into 2013 having lost their co-starters and 70% of last year's rushing production, yet you think that this position is only an honorable mention?
Sure do - and here's why:
With Brendan Bigelow and presumable backup Daniel Lasco both out, whoever you see at tailback over the next 15 practices is highly unlikely to be the starter come August 31st, barring some sort of incredible breakout.
Instead of getting a good sense of whether or not Bigelow and Lasco are ready to carry the team's run game, all we will be able to glean from the running backs this spring is how the staff plans to utilize the group as a whole. 4-star running back Khalfani Muhammad - who Dykes seems likely to play as a true freshman - will not arrive until summer, which further limits the usefulness of observing this group.
While it is a big loss to have both backs unavailable, Bigelow's injury is especially unfortunate, as that he seemed poised to truly break out in the new Bear Raid attack. Just check out how much hype he received from new running backs coach Pierre Ingram. Alas, we will just have to wait until fall to see The Fresno Flash truly unleashed.
For now, we all we can do is watch the highlights he has already created.
[Did I just want an excuse to post this video? Maybe.]
In the immediate future, though, with Bigelow and Lasco out, an already thin Cal backfield gets even thinner. A quick look at the team's roster lists only 3 other running backs: Mitchel Bartolo, Darren Ervin, Jonah Hodges, all of whom are even less experienced, and none of whom have ever seen a single offensive snap. Jeffrey Coprich remains listed at defensive back for the moment, but has reported that he will move back to running back permanently.
Even though Ervin will reportedly take most of the reps in spring, this isn't exactly a group of world beaters waiting in the wings, so we likely won't learn much more than how the Bear Raid deploys its running backs.
With the linemen around him struggling mightily all year, Brian Schwenke’s steady play at center was the only bright spot up front in 2012, earning him a place on the All Pac-12 First Team. [Of course, he also provided a massive upgrade over Dominic Galas simply by being able to snap the ball cleanly.]
Coach Dykes and Tony Franklin will continue their center-oriented offense in Berkeley, so the Bears face extra pressure to fill the void created in Schwenke's departure. After left tackle - hang on, we’ll get to that - center is considered by many to be the second most crucial position on the offensive line, often tasked with calling and changing protections, and adding playcalling/snap count duties only makes it more crucial to find a good replacement.
Redshirt freshman Matt Cochran, a 4 star prospect coming out of high school, appears to be the best candidate for the job, having played there on the second unit last season. At 6’2", 345, Cochran would also give the Bears a much bigger presence up front than the 6’4", 300 pound Schwenke. Keeping in mind Sonny Dykes' declaration that the Bears needed to get bigger, odds seem to favor Cochran as of now.
Mark Brazinski should also battle for the open center spot - though he has been plagued by injury, moved positions and otherwise seen only little playing time at Cal, he was highly rated at that position coming out of high school. Come February 21st, we'll see if there's a move back in the works. Beyond the two of them, though, choices appear slim. The Bears could conceivably try Chris Adcock at center as well - he took snaps there as Schwenke's backup - but he spent last year starting at right guard, and is reportedly unavailable for spring practice, as he recovers from an injury. It seems likelier that he will retain his spot at RG.
Both tackles will also have to be replaced, with Matt Summers-Gavin and Tyler Rigsbee having graduated. An educated guess would put 6'8, 340 pound manbeast Freddie Tagaloa into Rigsbee's vacated left tackle position - after all, he was getting more and more playing time there toward the end of last season already. Having some stability there would be huge, though - anyone who saw Johnny Manziel's absurd comfort level in the pocket last season was also watching the work of one Luke Joeckel. Think Kline [or Goff, or Boehm, or...] wouldn't like to have that kind of time?
Right tackle, though, could be up for grabs entirely - Bill Tyndall didn't impress spectacularly in Summers-Gavin's stead last year, but his playing time there would make him the slight favorite heading into spring. Maybe Brian Farley or Christian Okafor wins the job instead. Unlike at center, though, whoever takes these the two tackle spots will have an incredibly low level of play to surpass - a standard so low, that improvement from the offensive line is a near certainty next season.
With the second three previews set to run Monday, what are your thoughts thus far? Are there candidates you prefer more than the ones I listed? What are your predictions for the three previews left? Sound off below.