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CGB Pre-Season: Linebackers

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TwistNHook:  Cal is still working on replacing the quality of play from the 2008 season when we have one of the greatest Linebacking corps in recent memory.  Can this squad of backers, led by superstud and instant Big Game legend Michael Mohamed, come close to matching the 2008 team's output? 

Avinash:  No?

TwistNHook:  Fair enough.  Short and to the point.  What level of output do you predict from the 2010 class of linebackers?

Solarise:  First of all, we have a good depth of linebackers.  Highly-touted Nick Forbes and David Wilkerson are likely to not redshirt and play this season.  MikMo should get plenty of support inside with Forbes, Steve Fanua, and D.J. Holt.  Next year also looks good when we get grayshirts Chris McCain and Cecil Whiteside back on the field.  


The question that remains is who will be the weakside linebacker supplying quarterback pressure.  Mychal Kenricks is going to be the key imo.  If he can deliver on what Worrell Williams sees in him then we could be in good shape.  Otherwise the duty of hassling quarterbacks falls to a combination of players such as Keith Browner, Jarred Price, and potentially David Wilkerson.  Both Browner and Price had their moments but it's unclear whether either of them can step up consistently and deliver what the Cal Defense has been lacking since Zack Follett.

There hasn't been much news about Steve Fanua, Ryan Davis, or Jerome Meadows from training camp.  JO reports that D.J. Holt was hurt and Robert Mullins has been taking reps with the 1st team.  Barring any injuries, I think we are going to see w/ Mohamed, Holt on the inside and Kendricks, Browner on the outside to start the season.

Avinash:  I'm not sure. They should be better. We lose Devin Bishop and Eddie Young, but Mohamed, Kendricks and Holt are all back. So the experience factor will be there. MikeyMo's a stud, Kendricks has the gifts, and Holt should contribute plenty and be solid enough to anchor the middle.

Still, a lot of things to account for. One question is depth--although the starting linebackers will be better, there's really no one behind them. Robert Mullins and Steven Fanua are the two big guys vying for playing time behind the starters, and they've seen virtually no PT at all. One injury can drop the level of efficiency of the back four considerably.

The other question is pass rush. Chris Little, Chris Martin, and Cecil Whiteside were the likeliest candidates to pass rush, and now all of them are gone for 2010 or permanently. Keith Browner is a little oversized, so it's hard to tell if he can get pressure consistently. Jarred Price played pass rush almost exclusively last season...which made it easy for other offenses to figure out how to exploit him. It might end up being Kendricks, just because he has the best raw ability to get to the passer.

The key will be how well they can play in Pendergast's scheme. Will he put linebackers closer to the LoS and make the defense tougher to predict where the blitz looks are coming from, and to compensate for the lack of pass rush ability? Or will he play it straight and just go with multiple blitz angles, hoping that the aggressive gap cancellation schemes by the D-line allow more opportunities for the linebackers to break through?

We haven't even talked about run defense, which might be even more critical than generating pass rush or pass defense. Lots of questions yet to be answered about these guys. They should be better though. Don't know HOW much better.


OhioBear: I don't know what to make of the linebacker position.  A couple of years ago, we switched to the 3-4, in part, due to the depth we had at that position as compared with D-linemen.  In the long run, I think the switch to the 3-4 is a good idea.  But as far as depth goes, I have worries about it for this year's team. 

 
Our only known commodity is Mike Mohamed.  He's good.   We all know it, Andrew Luck knows it, and the rest of the Pac-10 knows it.  He is, unquestionably, the most respected player on our defense.  After that, it gets uncertain.  There is a lot of potential, but no proven players.   
 
With Chris Martin transferring and Cecil Whiteside ineligible, our depth took a hit.  I, for one, expected Martin to be a starter at OLB.  But he is gone, so no sense wondering what might have been.  So who will be our OLBs?  Will we see Keith Browner putting it all together in his senior year and stepping up his game?  How about David Wilkerson, the freshman from Monte Vista in Danville who has been impressive in training camp, by all accounts?  Or will Jerome Meadows or Jarred Price step up?  D.J. Holt and Mychal Kendricks have played some on the outside, but either or both of them might be needed at ILB alongside Mohamed. 
 
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Kendricks is the guy many Cal fans have expected great things from.  We've seen flashes of his game, but have not seen him excel on a consistent basis.  If he can start to show that potential we've been led to believe he has, our linebacking corps can go from a question mark to a strength.  
 
I also wonder if redshirt freshman Steven Fanua will be in the mix at ILB.  I read good things about him coming out of Milpitas High a couple of years ago; I got the sense he was an underrated recruit. 

 

Kodiak:  When faced with the loss of Felder, Follett, and Williams, I remember the coaching staff saying that we had the potential to be even faster and more athletic at the LB spot.  Anyone else think that "potential" should be a four-letter word? 



    Although the new guys didn't do so poorly with playing the run, no one emerged as a consistent pass-rushing threat, and we struggled with our zone coverage for most of last year.  Injuries, juggled line-ups and position changes all contributed to our defensive nightmare which devolved from Treehouse of Horrors into Bride of Chucky.  But, with another year of experience and an infusion of young talent, we have the pote...nevermind.

MikeyMo is our one proven star and playmaker.  Seeing him emerge as one of the league leaders in tackles and the #1 spooky image that haunts Mr. Luck's bad, bad dreams, all I can say is, "Please sir, I want some moar."

  DJ Holt should start at the other inside spot, but has been a bit limited in camp with injuries.  He's arguably the most physical of our LB's and should improve on his up/down performance last year.  While he recovers, forgotten man Mullins has been taking 1st team snaps.  Before a serious injury knocked him out for the year, Mullins had worked his way into the two-deeps last year.

  Mychal Kendricks was a revelation at the beginning of last year before getting hurt.  He was never the same guy until the last game against Utah.  If fully recovered from shoulder surgery (which caused him to miss spring ball), I'd suspect he'll lock down one of the outside spots.

LeonPowe:  I think one thing to be excited about - remember hydrotech talking about the older d linemen recognizing Tyson early on? Weren't the linebackers from two years ago (follett and bishop?) equally high on kendricks? I think talent recognizes talent - so I expect big things from him this year

TwistNHook:  That would explain all the hubbub about atomsareenough.  Talent recognizes talent!

Kodiak:  The other outside spot had been a fierce competition between Browner and Price.  Definitely a contrast in styles and body types.  Browner is a fast 6'5 physical specimen who used to play some DE.  Price is generously listed at 5'11.  Both of them have shown flickers of pass-rush ability.  In the spring, Price was running with the 1's.  So far this summer, it's been all Browner.  Price has been nicked up and might be looked at as a pass-rush specialist instead of an every-down player.


  Steve Fanua has reportedly played well in both camps and will probably get snaps backing up both of the inside spots.  Davis had a tough transition from JC DE to OLB, but has been working hard and has a shot at cracking the two-deep.

  It's sounding like stud true freshmen Forbes and Wilkerson will both earn playing time because they have too much talent, athleticism, and attitude to keep off the field.  Even though he was rated as one of the top MLB recruits, Wilkerson has been playing OLB in camp (to offset the losses of Martin and Little, plus Whiteside's greyshirt)...and has reportedly been excelling despite the challenge of learning a new position.

If the D-line is now focused on penetration instead of holding gaps, I wonder how that affects the LB's vs. the opposing running game.  I would guess that they'll really have to be on their game to avoid traps, counters, and misdirection as well as being ready to fight off/slip more blocks.  For pass defense, I'll just have to hope that another year of experience means more instinctive play and fewer assignment errors.  Fortunately, after last year's mass TE exodus to the NFL, we have the best remaining TE's in the league, so practicing against Miller, Ladner and Wark ought to be good preparation.  We don't have a lot of experienced depth at this position and even if the new scheme is more player-friendly, there are bound to be some growing pains.  I hope the younger guys get plenty of reps in the first couple of games before we start seeing the more explosive offenses on our schedule.

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Avinash:  What does everyone else think of the linebackers? Mohamed's going to do his thing, but do people feel Holt, Kendricks, and whoever becomes our rush linebacker are up to the task?

 

HydroTech:  Maybe I'm being a bit too optimistic about our young guys that might play this year, but I'm almost thinking that this year's crop of LBs could be better than last year's.  And in a few more years, our linebacker group could be REALLY REALLY good.

Berkelium97:  Kendricks' injuries last year held him back, but he should be productive this year if he can stay healthy.  The coaches sound optimistic when talking about him, so I have some optimism that he'll do well this year.  The other two spots? They may not have starters penciled in, but whoever fills in should do a decent job.

The loss of Whiteside and Martin is unfortunate, but it looks like it's opened the door for Nick Forbes and David Wilkerson.  If Tedford and Pendergast are willing to play those two as freshman, I expect them to do fairly well.  Wilkerson is apparently a very physical LB, so he could be a disruptive force.

Overall, I'm content with the talent at LB.  The D-line should be great, the LBs should be good, and the secondary is tough to predict right now.

HydroTech:  One person who sort of puzzles me is Mohamed.  Statistically he's a pretty good player with 105 tackles last year.  But I'm just not entirely sure how good he is.  I mean, you can't just determine a player's NFL talent by looking at statistics.  Because kids in college with incredible numbers often don't have the talent to cut it in the NFL.  From my amateur eye, he doesn't seem to have that power and pop when it comes to confronting blockers and/or making a tackle on the ball carrier.  Remember some of the crushing hits that Felder, Williams, and Follet used to deliver?  Have we ever seen Mohamed deliver those kind of hits on a regular basis like the old 2008 LB wrecking crew?  Off the top of my head, I can't really remember any.  So while Mohamed might be one of our best LBs as of now, I'm sort of concerned that he isn't quite as rounded out in his skill set -- plugging holes and not allowing RAC (run after contact) -- as he will need to be to get drafted very high.  Of course, NFL skill sets are different from college skill sets so perhaps I'm asking too much of him.  We only need Mohamed to be good in college, and he already is.  So my hopes here are that he gets even better, plays even better, and helps us dominate games defensively. 


Avinash:  This is about right Hydro. Mohamed has had a more slender build than any of his 2008 Wrecking Crew buddies, so it's a lot harder for him to fight through the massive blockers on the inside. He hops around with his feet a lot to try and evade blockers, but that sometimes opens a running hole for running backs when the linemen execute their assignments. I'm not sure HOW guilty he was last season, but I do recall him missing a few assignments or not getting the tackles he should have.

I think he was a better OLB because of his ability to pick off passes and his more active feet--Follett handled the rush while MikeyMo punished errant throws. Because he's not a great pass rusher and we're in a 3-4 (I think he'd be better in a 4-3 alignment as an OLB, where he doesn't play so much the interior but has multiple responsibilities instead of primarily playing the run), we've put him inside.

I don't know about his pro prospects (I wouldn't put them super high), but as a college linebacker he's pretty good. His leadership ability is probably more important than his other tangibles (http://california.scout.com/2/991379.html). It'll be interesting to see if he can inspire the youngsters to play better now that he's the most vocal defensive leader.

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TwistNHook:  Yes, Kendricks has untapped potential.  This Daily Cal story from last year is what you guys are referring to:

On an emotion-filled evening at the 2008 Emerald Bowl, then-Cal linebacker Worrell Williams offered his individual goodbyes, imputing players with his departing words.

And for his final personal blessing, Williams grabbed freshman linebacker Mychal Kendricks, looked him straight in the eye and told him this: You have the potential to be the best linebacker ever to come out of Berkeley.

It's a scene that Kendricks remembers quite clearly.

 

Avinash:  Let's look at recruiting tape to get a feel for the newcomers. Feel free to add in your thoughts guys.  First, Steve Fanua:

He looks very explosive and active. Has great burst. I can see why Tedford was high on him in spring; if he's playing like that it's hard not to see his individual energy bursting around the field.

Then, Mullins:


Lots of physicality. He grabs guys, wraps them up, and while he had trouble bringing people to the ground, he could be a good gang tackler where he runs into a guy, holds him, and waits for the support to come and takes down his man.

Here's video of Wilkerson.


Good active feet and decent discipline. Doesn't leave his position a lot. Looks like he good be a solid ILB down the road, which is why it's worrying that they're moving him to OLB. Not sure how he'll handle a lot of PT this season and how much offenses pick on his inexperience there. I kind of hope he doesn't have to play too much this season and he can slide back to the inside when we seal off the depth issue on the edge.

I've already written all I need to write on Forbes.  Check out the summary of his tape by ttgiang for the salient details.

What are your guys thoughts on the linebackers?  Put your thoughts in the comments!  GO BEARS!