Coming tomorrow: Defense
"I'm gonna slide out of here, like I said, and people will forget me in a couple of months and start thinking about next year, and the recruits, and everything else," he said as he adjusted the ice pack that was failing miserably to provide comfort to his badly bruised ribs. "I did what I came here to do, and I'm glad it ended up good. I'll slide off into obscurity now. We got the Axe, and that's all that matters."
-- Former Cal running back Joe Igber after the 2002 Big Game, in which he rushed for 226 yards and one TD
“I wish I was a little bit taller, I wish I was Kyle Boller”
-- Cyrus Hadidi
The biggest question mark for the 2003 Cal Bears is at the most visible position in football. Blueshirt Junior #17 Reggie Robertson, blueshirt Sophomore #14 Richard Schwartz, and incoming Sophomore transfer #8 Aaron Rodgers will compete to be Cal’s starting signal caller. Robertson is the incumbent, having seen occasional playing time in 2001 and mop-up duty in 2002. He has good, though not great mobility and may have the longest familiarity with the Cal offense, while some observers worry about whether he has the arm-strength to be a big-time Pac-10 quarterback. Rodgers, who is transferring to Cal after one stellar year at highly-ranked Butte JC, is reported to show tremendous promise with good speed, throwing ability, and leadership qualities, but will face a tough task learning the ropes of the Bears’ offense in a matter of weeks. Schwartz is more of a taller, pocket-oriented passer, and despite flashes during camp, is most likely to provide depth at third-string for the second season in a row, backed up by blueshirt Freshman #3 Steve Levy at fourth string. Incoming Freshman #7 Cary Dove is likely to blueshirt this season while learning Tedford’s offense.
Projected Starter: Robertson at the start of the season, Rodgers by season’s end.
#18 Adimchinobe Echemandu inherits the tailback position from Joe Igber and seems to be a worthy heir on paper. Last season during spring camp, Echemandu, formerly named Joe Echema, beat out Igber for the starting spot, only to suffer a major knee injury that knocked him out for the 2002 season. While he has played for Cal at both running back and wide receiver, he has never been a starter during the regular season. Nevertheless, he has great size (6’0” 225#) and speed (legitimate 4.4), and coaches rave about his slashing running style. Of course, Echemandu must stay healthy this year to realize all of this potential.
Providing depth are a couple of promising newcomers and a steady walk-on. Blueshirt Freshman #2 Marcus O’Keith was arguably Tedford’s top recruit a year ago and scored a touchdown in garbage time against Baylor before blueshirting for the season. He is fairly slim for a back, but fast and elusive, and may provide a perfect change of pace in concert with Echemandu. O’Keith is joined by workhorse Junior College transfer #30 JJ Arrington. Arrington is described as a bigger, faster Joe Igber, and in addition to inheriting little Joe’s jersey number, excelled at both rushing and receiving out of the backfield for College of the Canyons last year. Sophomore #9 Terrell Williams is likely to blueshirt while recovering from a back injury suffered at the end of last year. Finally, bruising walk-on blueshirt Sophomore #23 Michael Porter has looked solid whenever given playing time, including Cal’s victory against Arizona State last year when injuries promoted him to second string behind Igber.
In short, Cal has talent and depth at running back, but very little experience. This position could be a great strength or a bad liability for the offense, depending on the type of season that the above players have.
At fullback, two former walk-ons have risen through the ranks to put a lock on the 2-deep. Last year’s starter, Sophomore #27 Chris Manderino will compete for playing time with a camp standout blueshirt Freshman, #38 Byron Storer. Blocking and receiving are likely to be the most important duties for these two in Tedford’s offense.
Projected Starters: Echemandu and Manderino, though Storer and O’Keith or Arrington are very likely to see extended playing time.
Senior wide-outs #5 Jonathan Makonnen and blueshirt Junior #6 Geoff McArthur bring great experience to a receiving corps that enjoyed somewhat of a renaissance catching passes from Kyle Boller last year. Makonnen is a strong all-round receiver who caught 7 touchdowns last year despite starting the year with a broken finger, and McArthur is a tough, tackle-breaking inside receiver. What the Bears may lack is the deep threat provided last year by the sometimes dazzling, sometimes inconsistent Lashaun Ward (9 touchdowns). To replace Ward, Cal recruited several promising blue-chip Freshman speedsters for this year, and one of them may emerge to get immediate playing time – #13 Devin Stearns, #86 Sam Desa, #28 Sean Young, and #1 Noah Smith - though they are more likely to contribute to the Bears’ efforts in future years than this year. Rumor is that the least-highly recruited of these Freshmen, Sean Young out of Berkeley High, is actually doing the best in camp and is already in the 3-deep.
Senior #85 Vincent Strang also has very good speed, as evidenced by his long touchdown catch at Washington last year, as does blueshirt Freshman #89 Randy Bundy. Cal is also loaded with promising receivers that have great size including blueshirt Freshman #4 David Gray (currently injured) who caught a long touchdown on Cal’s first play from scrimmage against Baylor last year, blueshirt Sophomore #19 Junior Brignac, blueshirt Junior #15 Chase Lyman, and Senior walk-on #10 Burl Toler.
Obviously, not all of the receivers above can spend a lot of time on the field this year, barring injury, so Cal fans hope that fierce competition among them produces great results. Currently, Toler and Strang are listed as the backups to Makonnen and McArthur for the Kansas State game, but that could change game to game.
At tight end, last year Tom Swoboda emerged from anonymity to have a break-out year with 451 yards and 7 touchdowns, single-season accomplishments at that position unheard of at Cal since the days of Tony Gonzales. Tedford and his staff hope that last year’s backup, Senior #11 Brandon Hall and/or Junior College transfer #88 Garrett Cross, who was a prolific target for new Cal QB Aaron Rodgers last year at Butte JC, can emerge in the same way. Cal is also deep at TE, with blueshirt Junior #46 Jordon Hunter, Sophomore #83 Eric Beegun, and highly-touted incoming Freshman #82 Craig Stevens, who is currently listed as second-string for the Kansas State game.
Projected Starters: At Receiver, Makonnen and McArthur, with a battle between everyone else for the remaining two or three spots in the rotation, and Hall at Tight End, at least to start the season, backed up by Stevens and Cross
An experienced, cohesive offensive line remains the most often ignored determinant of football success at any level above high school, usually playing the best when they are not noticed. It may seem strange for many Cal fans to swallow after years of watching quarterbacks Kyle Boller and Justin Vedder be buried by onrushing defenders and Bear runners getting stopped cold, but Cal’s offensive line has quietly become the strength of the team. Since Cal is not yet blessed with All-American talent at most of the skill positions, the “big uglies up front”, as Keith Jackson calls them, must shoulder the burden of sparking the Bear attack as they did last year when Boller finally had time to throw with balance and Igber was able to find seams in which to run.
Unlike the rest of the Bear squad, the Cal offensive line corps is both deep and experienced. Ironically, there are so many seniors in the 2-deep rotation that offensive line recruiting has become a major area of need for 2004. For 2003, however, blueshirt Senior #63 Mark Wilson (All Pac-10 honorable mention last season), who has started the last three years at left tackle, leads an extensive group of solid contributors, described below.
While NFL scouts already know about Wilson, others on the line may eventually play on Sundays as well. At right tackle opposite Wilson is Senior #78 Chris Murphy who won the starting position in fall camp last year and did not relinquish it for all twelve games. Right behind Wilson and Murphy in the depth chart is promising blueshirt Freshman #71 Andrew Cameron.
Replacing St. Louis Ram draftee Scott Tercero at left guard will be former defensive lineman Junior #55 Jonathan Giesel, who started all but one game at right guard in 2002, while blueshirt Senior #70 David Hays, who started the other game at right guard last year, now inherits opening day starting duties at that spot. Perhaps the most intriguing battle for an offensive line spot during camp has been at center between blueshirt Senior #74 Nolan Bluntzer, a second-stringer last year who saw some playing time and is listed as a starter for the Kansas State game, and Sophomore #54 Marvin Philip who started as a Freshman for Cal a few years back and looks to be in football shape again after returning from his Mormon mission in the spring.
Depth at the rest of the line is provided by blueshirt Junior #53 Derek Joyce, 325+ lb Behemoths blueshirt Sophomore #65 Aaron Merz, blueshirt Sophomore #61 Ryan O’Callaghan, and possibly highly-touted incoming Freshman Leon Drummer, who may also blueshirt or play on defense.
In summary, however, the most significant aspect of this collection of linemen is not necessarily the talent of any individual, but rather the fact that several of these players have now played with each other for successive seasons and understand how to execute blocking patterns together. And on such teamwork may ride the hopes of a successful Cal season.
Projected Starters: From left tackle to right tackle, Wilson, Giesel, Bluntzer, Hays, and Murphy
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