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Cal Secondary Roundtable: From Simmons To Ambrose

1. What do you think of Al Simmons getting axed?

Kodiak: I don't know what to make of it, honestly.  Considering that Jeff Tedford has previously retained assistants whose job performance was noticeably worse than Coach Simmons, I would speculate (repeat speculate) that it really was Coach Simmons' decision to go or perhaps there was some type of internal matter/personality conflict that we're never going to hear about.  From a performance standpoint, we had one year of good to great secondary play('08), one of poor to awful('09), and last year would have to be considered solid to decent.  A lot of the secondary play correlated to having experienced safeties/LB's as well as having a legitimate pass rush.  I thought that the development of Chris Conte at safety as well as getting inexperienced CB's (Marc Anthony/Steve Williams) to where they weren't lit up like a Xmas tree was a good job.  I suppose you could quibble that the DB's didn't cause a lot of turnovers...And you can point to crucial deep completions late in the games against AZ and UW as back-breakers.  However, both instances seemed like the WR's simply out-fought our guys for the ball.  Also, our pass rush was hit or miss throughout the year - mostly miss against the better teams.  Considering that the guys were generally in decent coverage, and played a lot more man (especially against spread teams), it's hard for me to complain. 

HydroTech: The timing of this suggests that this wasn't a "firing".  I'm inclined to believe that Simmons really did want to pursue other options.

2. What do you think of Ashley Ambrose being the new guy?

Kodiak: From what I've read, several Buffs posters regret that he's gone.  He's young, shows signs of being a good recruiter, and did a nice job developing a strong secondary - despite injuries and the fact that the CU offense was so inept that the defense was on the field all the time.  I like the fact that he had a 14-year NFL career.  Besides providing plenty of street cred w/ his All-Pro year, being able to stick in the league that long suggests that he was savvy and technically sound enough to make up for declining speed/athleticism during his later years.  Now the jury's still out on whether he's good at teaching those skills, but the fact that he had to be a student of the game is a lot more promising than if he survived solely on being a superior athlete.  Too early to say, but it seems like a good hire on paper.

3. Were you surprised with how  much man coverage Cal ran this year with Darian Hagan, Marc Anthony and Steve Williams? Against teams like USC and Furd, it seemed like we could never defend anything, no matter how good the pass (on the flip side, we looked dominant in other games).

HydroTech: Nope.  We all presumed Pendergast was going to blitz a lot.  He did against some teams. And when he did, he usually played man coverage. This isn't surprising.  When you blitz, you want to tighten up that coverage so the QB can't get off quick blitz-beating passes, and jam the WRs to knock off their timing and routes.

Kodiak: Not all that surprised from a scheme stand point -  It makes sense to play tight man if you're going to be more aggressive with your pressure and blitz packages.  From a personnel standpoint, it was a bit surprising considering that Hagan was frequently nicked and coming off a down year while Anthony/Williams were both 1st-time starters.  Against 'sc and 'furd, I don't fault the CB's as much as I fault our lack to discover a game-changing pass-rusher.  Both 'sc and 'furd had the o-lines to pick up our various pressure packages and had QB/WR tandems talented enough to take advantage.  In both games, I wish we hadn't panicked and tried to overcompensate for our pass coverage breakdowns.  Our DB's were simply beaten by NFL-level passing attacks.  Hopefully, the combination of young blue-chip talent + veteran LB's + another year in Pendergast's system will find a way to generate a more consistent pass-rush.  I would expect that Anthony/Williams will be better w/ experience.  I am worried about the lack of depth behind them...especially since many Pac-10 teams like to spread things out.

4. Cal ran a lot of nickel packages on defense this year. Did you like the new wrinkle and how effective was it?

Kodiak:  Generally speaking, I liked it a lot because we never discovered an effective OLB to play opposite Kendricks.  Since Browner/Price were largely ineffective, might as well get some more speed/versatility on the field.  For the most part, it made us more effective against speed/spread/finesse teams.  However, it made us very vulnerable to power teams.  ('sc/furd)  Sigh.  Philosophically, I like the fact that Pendergast seems to adjust to the tools he has available to him instead of trying to plug n' play to a rigid system.  For next year, it will be a contest between the young safeties and the young LB's to see how much nickel we run.  I think the best players will see the field and if we have to alter our scheme, so be it.

HydroTech: I agree with Kodiak, above.  I liked the use of nickel because Cal didn't seem to have a fast and dominant 4th linebacker to stick with the 3-4 defense in passing situations.  I like the added speed and coverage abilities that a 5th defensive back brings to the table over a linebacker.

5. Cal got its best safety play since the DeCoud days from Chris Conte. Can Sean Cattouse lead this secondary the way Conte did?

Kodiak:  Tough call.  Cattouse lost a lot of time with his injury and then pressed a lot when he came back.  He's showed an ability to deliver the big hit, the instincts to be a ball-hawk, but also tends to play with a lack of discipline that exposes the defense to big plays.  If he can make that next step as a senior, he has all the tools to follow the lineage of DeCoud, Giordano/Gutierrez/, McClesky, Zomalt, Wilson, etc.  Hill might be very cerebral, but he needs to evolve to where his recognition/instincts can make up for his lack of top-end speed.  Both Moncrease and DJ Campbell showed some promise in limited time this year.

6. Next year Cal returns only THREE real cornerbacks--Anthony, Williams, and RS frosh Adrian Lee. Is corner coverage going to be our real weakness next year?

HydroTech: I think that Williams is going to be good.  Real good.  I think he'll be the type of corner that we can leave on an island.  If that's so, then we just have to worry about the other side of the field. Hopefully, Anthony and Lee (or whomever else may sprout up) is good enough to hold their own.  In all, I don't think the secondary will be particularly bad, but it probably won't be as good as the LBs or DL.

Kodiak: I think Anthony/Williams will be solid.  But the slot is a real issue as is the nickel/dime positions.  Hill or one of the other safeties will have to be ready to slide over...and none of them has shown any real ability to be consistently solid in coverage.  Relying on Lee is simply not a great idea.  See:  Thompson, Syd (Cal vs. Tenn)

7. Project next year's starters and/or depth chart.

Kodiak: Anthony/Williams at starting CB.

Cattouse/Hill starting safeties, backed up by C.J. Moncrease/D.J. Campbell/Avery Walls (!??!)

Lee = slot/Nickel back