Pass The Roses
Is It Finally Next Year?

 

May 3, 2009

New Years Day 1959. Alaska and Hawaii have not achieved statehood. Fidel Castro has not taken full control of Cuba. The Barbie doll hasnít been introduced. The Daytona 500 has never been run. Cal, led by quarterback Joe Kapp, is playing in another Rose Bowl. The Bears would get routed that day by Iowa and have yet to make another glorious New Years Day pilgrimage to Pasadena. This will be the season that ends the drought.

 

The Golden Bears went into a deep hibernation after the 1958 season, rising about once a decade to field a formidable team but never getting over the championship hump. In 1968 coach Ray Wilseyís Bears, led by the Bear Minimum defense, went 7-3-1 but USC took the conference crown. In 1975 quarterback Joe Roth and Heisman runner-up running back Chuck Muncie led Cal to a 6-1 conference record, good enough to tie for the conference championship with UCLA. Alas, the Bruins had the tiebreaker and took the Rose Bowl berth. In 1991 Cal coach Bruce Snyderís Bears went 10-2, finished in the top 10 in the nation, but watched undefeated National Champion Washington win the Rose Bowl.

 

Coach Jeff Tedford arrived in 2002 and made the Bears into contenders but has yet to scale the Rose Bowl mountain. In 2003 Cal missed the Rose Bowl by having a special teams implosion lose one game (zero net points on 6 field goal attempts in an overtime loss) and a fluke play cause a blown late 10 point lead in another. In 2004 Cal finished the regular season 10-1 and was ranked number 4 in the nation. Undefeated USC, who Cal had played in LA earlier that season and beaten everywhere but the scoreboard, would go to the Rose Bowl. In 2006 Cal was riding high with 3 weeks to go in the regular season. The Bears went into Tuscon, took a halftime lead, and watched as every single break (including the game winning touchdown being overturned, the game tying touchdown not being scored because a wide open receiver tripped on his way into the endzone, and a mind-numbingly atrocious pass interference call to wipe out a game saving interception) went against them in the second half to lose a close game. Cal would tie for the conference championship and again watch a conference rival play in Pasadena on New Years Day. But the past is in the past; 2009 will be the year of the Bear.

 

Schedule and experience play a big factor in college football. The 2008 Bears return 17 starters and numerous other contributors from a team that went 9-4 despite an inept passing game and an injury ravaged offensive line. The 2008 Bears had five conference home games (out of 9 total conference games) but faced the top two teams in the conference, OSU and USC, on the road late in the season (OSU and USC have a recent history of improving as the season wears on). In 2009 Cal will play 5 conference road games but will get a shot at USC at home early in the season. The last time Cal had such an opportunity was back in 2003, which was also the last time Cal defeated USC and their traveling band of bought and paid for referees (who are not to be mistaken for USCís highly paid players). USC is dominant down the stretch but vulnerable early on the road against PAC10 teams (but they do blow out SEC and Big 10 teams regularly), and ultimately to take the PAC10 crown Cal (and anyone else) will have to go through USC. It also helps that USC is replacing much of their defense and will have virtually no experience at qb.

 

It has long been said that defense wins championships. Even in the often pass-happy PAC10 this has held true in the 2000s. Pete Carroll, a defensive coach, built the USC dynasty on dominant defenses. Calís two best teams of the Tedford era, the 2004 and 2006 Bears, had good or better defenses. The 2009 Cal defense should be the best in the conference and has the potential to be among the elite in the country. Cal returns its entire defensive secondary and adds two very promising defensive backs, Marc Anthony and Josh Hill, to the back of the rotation. Led by SydíQuan Thompson and Darian Hagan, Cal boasts arguably the best cornerbacks in the country. The front seven and the safeties should be able to attack freely knowing that they can comfortably leave their corners on islands with opposing receivers and not get burned. Calís ball-hawking secondary had the Bears among the nationís elite in interceptions last year and should be even more productive in 2009.

 

The Bearsí linebacking core is losing Zach Follett, Worrell Williams, and Anthony Felder (hopefully to graduation and the NFL) but the cupboard is hardly bare. Cal switched to the 3-4 defense last season in part because of the multitude of talented linebackers on the roster. Eddie Young was a regular starter last year and returns this season. Mike Mohamed, who backed up all four positions last season and actually played more than any of the starters, returns for what could be a spectacular junior campaign. Mohamed was the rare backup to earn All Conference honors (honorable mention All PAC10) and should vie for 1st team All PAC10 this season. Devin Bishop, younger brother of former Cal star and current Green Bay Packer Desmond Bishop, received playing time last year and will compete for a starting spot at outside linebacker. True sophomore Mychal Kendricks is perhaps the most talented of the Cal linebackers, talented enough to get playing time as a true freshman amongst a sea of talented veterans, and will likely start at one of the inside linebacker positions. Three talented JC transfers will join the team in fall and push the returning players for spots in the rotation.

 

Whether you run the 4-3, the 3-4, the 5-2, or any other defense, it always starts up front. The team that wins in the trenches usually wins the game. Cal should have an elite defensive line in 2009. Any 3-4 defense needs a high level nose tackle and former 5* recruit Derrick Hill looks ready to be an All PAC10 defensive tackle. At 6í2 and over 300 pounds Hill has the requisite size for the job, and he has the athleticism to wow observers. Itís amazing to watch a mammoth man track down a running back from behind along the sidelines 20 yards down field. Hillís backup, redshirt freshman Kendrick Payne, had an impressive Spring and should be able to provide quality play off the bench when Hill needs a breather.

 

Flanking Hill will be a pair of All PAC10 defensive ends. Tyson Alualu (2nd team All PAC10 in 2008) has been Calís best defensive lineman the past two seasons and has improved as a disruptive force each year. Last season Alualu had six sacks and five other tackles for losses, six quarterback hurries, forced a pair of fumbles, and was athletic enough to tally two pass breakups. The full time student and full time father of two returns for a senior season that promises to be his best yet. On Hillís other side is Cameron Jordan (Honorable Mention All PAC10 in 2008), reputedly one of Calís most impressive athletes. Last season the then true sophomore came into his own and recorded 11 tackles for losses, forced a fumble, recovered two fumbles, and even intercepted a pass. Hill, Alualu, and Jordan come into 2009 with extensive playing experience and strong familiarity with the 3-4 defense (which was brand new to them a year ago). Theyíve performed well in the past and are poised to further tap their considerable talents. There is young, talented depth behind them on the depth chart but Calís fearsome threesome should spend 2009 making life uncomfortable at best for opposing linemen, running backs, and quarterbacks.

 

Calís special teams was up and down last season, as it often is under rightfully maligned special teams coach Pete Alamar (who is the only coach I know of to have undermined fan confidence to the point where a group of fans paid for a message to the coach on the jumbotron at halftime to humorously express their frustration; bravo and Go Bears! to my anonymous fellow denizens of section QQ). Calís return teams, led by punt returner SydQuan Thompson and kick returner Jahvid Best, were above average. As long as exceptionally talented individuals are given return duties (both Best and Thompson return Ė pardon the pun Ė for 2009, though itís possible given their pivotal roles on offense and defense that others will be tasked with their special teams duties), the return teams tend to do well. The punt unit had a strong year. Freshman punter Brian Anger wowed the Golden Bear faithful as he sent numerous punts sailing high above the picturesque rim of California Memorial Stadium. Due to inexperience, an early season injury that had him punting with a knee brace, and having to learn a shorter approach (taking one less step before punting the ball in order to expedite the ballís departure time and minimize the risk of punt blocks) Anger did occasionally have consistency issues. Returning for his sophomore season experienced, healthy, and knowledgeable, Anger looks to vie for All America honors this fall.

 

The black sheep of the special teams unit (aside from coach Alamar) were the kicking teams. Freshman Giorgio Tavecchio walked onto the team 3 days before the season and won the kickoff specialist job. A few weeks later, redshirt freshman David Seawright was injured and Tavecchio took over placekicking duties as well. Cal struggled all season in both areas, especially with kickoffs. It often seemed as if there was an invisible forcefield at the 10 yard line preventing kickoffs from having anything resembling respectable distance and on numerous occasions the Bears simply gave up on having an effective deep kickoff and settled for popping up a kick to the 30 or 35 yard line and hoping for no return. An improved Tavecchio will battle it out with touted incoming freshman Vince DíAmato and a hopefully healthy Seawright for both placekicking and kickoff duties. May the best Bear win. May we never again have a loud ovation at spring practice simply because a kickoff reached the endzone.

 

Discussion of Calís offense, and indeed most discussion of Cal football period these days, begins with running back Jahvid Best. Best is one of the fastest backs in the county (he was a California state champion sprinter in high school) and arguably the best (no pun intended). Last season as a true sophomore in his first season as a starter Best put up eye-popping numbers. He led all lead backs in yards per carry by a wide margin, rushed for 15 touchdowns, had three touchdowns of 80 or more yards, and tied for 2nd on the Bears in receptions. His 1580 rushing yards are the most of any returning rusher in the country. Best did this behind a patchwork offensive line and with nothing resembling a threat from the passing game.

Despite the losses of center Alex Mack (winner of the Drady Award, aka the Academic Heisman) and fullback Will Taíufoíou, each of whom was amongst the best in the country at their respective positions, Calís blocking up front should be improved from a good effort a year ago. The four linemen who were to join Mack as starters all went down with injuries by the middle of the season. While this effectively ended Calís championship chances last year, it means that the Bears have talented, experienced depth and increased competition for playing time this year. Filling Mackís substantial shoes at center will be Chris Guarnero, who played guard last season because he was too talented to keep off the field. The line will be bookended by Mike Tepper, a sixth year senior and good Samaritan at large who has 26 games of experience and 15 games of starting experience under his considerable belt, and Mitchell Schwartz, considered by many to be the next elite Cal lineman. Several other starters and rotation players return to fight for the remaining two starting spots and three rotation slots. Will T will not easily be replaced and will certainly be missed, but Calís offensive front should be improved and above average.

 

Calís Rose Bowl hopes hinge on the passing game, and likely on the arm of quarterback Kevin Riley. Last season Cal had to replace all parts of its passing game (with Riley beating out incumbent quarterback Nate Longshore and the departure of starting receivers DeSean Jackson, Robert Jordan, and Lavelle Hawkins, starting tight end Craig Stevens, and starting running back Justin Forsett) and the product on the field vacillated from competent to woeful. Riley, who was spectacular at times in his two chances at extended playing time during the 2007 season, began the 2008 season with a strong performance against a good Michigan State team and then proceeded to regress throughout the remainder of the season, culminating with a benching (possibly injury induced) for the entirety of the bowl game.

 

Riley wasnít helped by a green receiving core. The running backs capably stepped up and did their part, with Best and Vereen each tying for 2nd on the team in receptions, but none of the wide receivers played at a consistently high level. Nyan Boateng has the look of a high level receiver and excelled as a blocker, but struggled at times with getting separation and with catching the ball. Redshirt freshman Michael Calvin looked like the man at wide receiver throughout spring and fall practice until he injured his foot, struggled through a few games, and then had his season ended with a knee injury. Michael Tucker, a junior college transfer, struggled with learning the playbook during the first half of the season and didnít come on as a significant contributor until late in the year. Jeremy Ross set school records in the weight room but failed to do much heavy lifting on the field. Alex Lagemann missed the entire season with injuries. True freshman Marvin Jones struggled through injuries.

 

That was last year. This year they all return, a year wiser, a year more experienced, a year humbler, a year healthier, a year better. There are simply too many athletic, talented receivers on the roster for all of them to fail. Receivers often need some time to learn the position and gain game experience, and Cal was in the unfortunate position not to have any established veterans around to help tutor the Bear cubs last year. This year there are no excuses, this year there is only production.

 

Receivers canít catch a ball that isnít thrown to them. So the thorn on the Rose is still the quarterback position (which is confounding considering that Tedford is known as a leading quarterback guru). Riley returns without the shadow of Longshore to play under and will now assume the role of veteran starter trying to fend off young challengers, namely redshirt sophomore Brock Mansion and redshirt freshman Beau Sweeney (grandson of Tedfordís college coach Jim Sweeney). All three are highly regarded, talented quarterback prospects. All will benefit from the tutelage of Tedford, who has guided numerous quarterbacks to the NFL, and new offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig who, having followed Tedford at Fresno State and Oregon, is well versed in the Tedford offense and is known for his hands on development of quarterbacks. Last season Ludwig helped Utah go undefeated, beat Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, and finish ranked number two in the nation. Sweeney had a good spring for a freshman but may have enough time in the system to be able to fully take the reigns. The competition likely comes down to the incumbent Riley and the challenger Mansion. Both have the talent to get the job done, and neither is being asked to be spectacular nor to win games single handedly.

 

The winner of the quarterback competition will be backed by a very good defense, one that has a chance to be dominant. The winner will have the considerable support of a spectacular running game that should be the focus of opposing defenses and draw safeties and linebackers toward the line of scrimmage, leaving passing lanes open and receivers in single coverage. All the quarterbacks have to do is find the open receiver and make a reasonably accurate pass. This year they will deliver the ball. This year they will deliver the Roses.

 


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