You could say that junior linebackers Michael Barton and Hardy Nickerson Jr. are the heart & soul of the 2015 Cal defense. They're both Bay Area natives - Mike is a DLS (Concord) alum, and Hardy went to Bishop O'Dowd (Oakland) - and both guys bleed blue & gold. Barton is Cal's current active career leader in tackles for loss (15.5), and has played in 23 games with 13 starts. He's also a preseason All-Pac 12 (Phil Steele) & national honors candidate. Nickerson has 133 career tackles (3rd among active players), and has played in 22 games with 14 starts. He's also a two-time Pac-12 All-Academic Team selection, and is - without any doubt - a Cal legacy.
I spoke to Mike and Hardy after practice a couple weeks ago. Here are excerpts of their more notable comments:
CGB: How has fall camp gone so far, and how great is it to put the pads back on after a long offseason?
HN: "Camp has been a lot of fun. We've gotten a lot better since the end of spring. I'm excited for the progress we've been making… We've taken a lot of strides since last fall…"
MB: "The game always changes when you put pads on… We've had an opportunity to get some physical contact in, which is a good thing… Camp overall has been going really well - the big thing is being able to improve every day…"
CGB: It seems like the competition this camp is very intense, especially on the defense. Do you think it's because of improved depth and experience on your side of the ball?
MB: "We have so much depth and experience everywhere… And the competition makes all of us better… When guys are competing hard every day it makes practice much more intense. That's how you build a great team… We also have leaders in place - including myself, Hardy, Jalen, Stef - and their leadership and experience make people around them better…"
HN: "We're also very confident, in our second season with Coach Kaufman. We have experience - the majority of guys on defense have seen game action… Everyone knows their jobs and what to do. We're now able to focus on the little things, and being technically sound…"
CGB: In addition to experience and confidence, what is the overall mindset of your unit - specifically the LB group?
HN: "We try to set the tone as a linebacker unit, and the entire defense feeds off of us… We're focused on getting a stop every play… And when we're in the red zone, we want to blow up…"
MB: "We're the emotional leaders of the defense. We're moving as one unit, communicating well, and flowing to the ball… When the defense is synchronized, we can play fast - play fast without thinking too much… The best defenses run to the ball, hustle, are physical & intense, are tenacious & furious, and never give up & keep trucking… We want to have that mindset every day… "
CGB: What are your thoughts on the new freshmen - you know, guys like Evan Rambo, who had 4 picks in 3 days?
HN: "They're learning, competing, and giving it their all… A lot of them have made plays… We call Rambo "ballhawk" in the locker room… The young guys are all picking up the system as fast as they can…"
MB: "The young guys are tough, and are playing loose… Evan Rambo is making plays… We've got a lot of depth now because they came here ready to play and have been playing well…"
CGB: What are your goals and expectations for the season?
MB: "Our goal is to win a championship - that's the standard we set every year… We want to win the Pac-12… If you were to describe our team in one word, it's HUNGRY…"
HN: "I definitely feel that we're a different team this year… The biggest thing is that guys 'get it' - guys understand that every play matters… We're hungry, this is the hungriest I've seen Cal in a minute! The sky's the limit…"
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And here are your 2015 California Golden Bear linebackers: "Expect nothing less than nasty, dominant, hungry players... We're coming to EAT this year... Go Bears!"