Spring practice has come and gone, but in the fifth part of this series, Cal Sports Digest looks at the top three storylines at a given position. Today, the defensive line.
The sky’s the limit for how good they can be
The Takeaway: There were three position groups that stood above the rest in the Pac-12 in 2011, ultimately telling the story of how the season played out. Oregon’s hydra of running backs led by LaMichael James ran over everyone, save LSU and USC. Not surprisingly those were the Ducks’ only losses. A trio of Stanford tight ends was the cornerstones of the dynamic offense piloted by quarterback Andrew Luck. USC wide receivers Robert Woods and Marqise Lee were beyond dominant down the stretch, pushing the Trojans back into the national consciousness.
The three best teams in the conference, three of the best collections of talent at a given position in the game.
California’s defensive line has that sort of talent, depth and possibility entering this season. To say they were dominant in practice would be an understatement. Consider how a mix-and-match front three had poor Allan Bridgford on the run throughout the spring game.
Defensive ends Deandre Coleman and Mustafa Jalil look like future first-round draft picks. Viliami Moala, an absolute beast in the spring, didn’t make the two deep at nose guard.
The Golden Bears could realistically play nine or 10 defensive linemen, the sort of rotation that is beyond comprehension. New assistant coach Todd Howard can create specialized personnel groupings for any situation imaginable.
Everything about this position screams special. You need special to achieve greatness. I’ve covered enough BCS bowls to know the best of the best have that one special element that sets them apart – Auburn’s front four, Wisconsin’s offensive line, Oregon’s speed, USC’s athleticism. It just looks and feels different.
That is the kind of electricity radiating from the Cal D-line, the energy that can turn around a languishing program.
They’ll need to be as good as advertised to contain the spread
The Takeaway: The Pac-12, the last bastion of the pro-style attack as everyone else went spread crazy, has finally given in with all four new coaching hires running some form of spread offense and even stalwarts like USC trending more toward a shotgun-heavy passing attack late last season.
That trend turned tidal wave will fundamentally alter the way defenses will play going forward, requiring teams to essentially use nickel personnel as their base scheme. More importantly, it places the power in the hands of those teams capable of generating pressure from the defensive line.
Cal knows that first hand, going back to 2010 when it was able to frustrate and nearly upset Oregon’s blur attack as it raced to the BCS title game.
With new starters at both inside linebacker spots, the Bears will need its defensive line to mount the effort it is capable of on a week in and week out basis. The solid ground game and improvement of quarterback Zach Maynard should produce enough points for the offense to hold up its end of the bargain.
Howard is picking up the ball from Tosh Lupoi
The Takeaway: I know Lupoi isn’t exactly on the top of Christmas card lists in Berkeley after his poorly timed and controversial exit for Washington, but his prowess as a recruiter and talent evaluator cannot be understated. The former Cal player turned assistant leaves behind a remarkable crop of players, in addition to his work with Cameron Jordan and Tyson Alualu, building them into first-round selections.
But Howard, who has plenty of experience in the conference after stints at UCLA and Washington State, seems to have recharged the defensive line. Head coach Jeff Tedford praised Howard’s work with Coleman, a mountain of a man at 6-foot-5 and 311 pounds.
The pieces are there. Howard seems more than capable of putting them together.
Dan Greenspan is the publisher of Cal Sports Digest and covers the Pac-12 for Fox Sports/Scout.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanGreenspan.