Promising new players and young former second-stringers will need to carry the squad for the Bears to stop high-octane Pac-10 offenses this year. And while Gregory would love to continue the turnover-hungry nature of last year's defense (turnover margin of +1.5 per game, third best in Division I), he needs to establish the athleticism and consistency that was sometimes lacking in 2002.
"You either kick ass or you lick ass"
-- Former Cal defensive end Andy Jacobs
The Bears' defensive front-line is a study in contrast, featuring not only the biggest question marks but also the one player to whom the entire defense will look as a stabilizing force. Junior #76 Lorenzo Alexander was Cal's highest-rated defensive recruit since Andre Carter, (and possibly until blue-chipper #52 Brandon Mebane this year). Alexander has been in the rotation at defensive tackle since his Freshman year and began to establish himself in the second half of last season, consistently commanding double-teams. This year, Alexander hopes to have the type of breakthrough season that Carter did his Junior year. Alexander will partner with Junior #72 Tom Sverchek, a consistent standout at camp and second-stringer last year, at the other tackle spot. Cal is also deep enough at defensive tackle that none of the extremely promising new recruits at this position, including Mebane, may crack the 2-deep. Currently, last year's starter, Senior #57 Josh Beckham backs up Alexander, and up and coming blueshirt Sophomore #74 Brandon Povio spells Sverchek.
By contrast, on the edges, the Bears lost their entire 2-deep defensive end rotation from 2002. Now New England Patriot Tully Banta-Cain, Tom Canada, Jamaal Cherry, and Josh Gustaveson collectively may have been the most effective defensive end unit the Pac-10, all seeing extensive and productive playing time and allowing the others to come in with fresh legs. All four players graduated last year, leaving Cal with its biggest hole, along with quarterback on offense. Last seasons' third-stringers, Senior #91 Monte Parson and blueshirt Junior #94 Tosh Lupoi have apparently worked hard in the off-season and are set to assume starting duties. Backing up Parson and Lupoi will be incoming JC transfer #90 Ryan Riddle and walk-on Junior #62 J.D. Cafaro, with additional depth possibly being provided by incoming JC transfer #92 Ray Tago who is waiting to be academically cleared to play and blueshirt Sophomore Josh Pukini who is currently injured. None of these players have much playing time at the Division I college level, but at least two of them need to make an immediate impact and provide a pass rush and outside run-stopping capability so that the efforts of the rest of the defense are not undermined.
Projected Starters: Alexander and Sverchek at defensive tackle, Parson and Lupoi at defensive end
Cal is also fairly inexperienced at linebacker for 2003, though unlike the defensive end position, this was not an area of strength for the Bears in 2002, so it is harder to worry about a drop-off in production and possible that there will actually be an improvement in athleticism and impact. Junior #40 Wendell Hunter is the only member of last year's 2-deep rotation that returns, slated to start at the strong-side outside linebacker spot, to be backed up by energetic JC transfer #9 Joe Maningo, who tore up camp in the spring but may be nursing a recent injury.
At the weak-side outside linebacker spot, the current starting nod goes to a newcomer who has been one of the revelations at fall camp this season, JC transfer #19 Francis Blay-Miezah. This is a position that was originally projected to belong to speedy blueshirt Sophomore #42 Ryan Estes, but Estes suffered a herniated disk recently and is most likely out for the season. Listed as backing up Blay-Miezah for the Kansas State game is former backup safety blueshirt Sophomore #26 Ryan Foltz.
Blueshirt Junior #58 Brian Tremblay rounds out the unit at middle linebacker. Tremblay, though not in the original 2-deep rotation last year, became second string and got considerable playing time in 2002 once starter John Klotsche was injured and Marcus Daniels was promoted to starter (both of these players have since graduated). Backing up Tremblay as defensive anchor will be a good performer at the camps who has not seen much game time, walk-on Junior #59 Sid Slater.
In summary, despite the loss of Estes and the overall lack of experience, linebacker athleticism and speed may actually be improved for this year, and it may be more difficult for opponents to string together long runs against the Bears as some opponents did successfully in 2002 (Air Force, USC, Oregon State). In addition to JC transfers Blay-Miezah and Maningo, Cal also recruited several standout incoming Freshman linebackers in #41 Garrett Tremblay, #44 Chris Purtz, and #55 Greg Van Hoesen, but these players will most likely blueshirt this year.
Projected Starters: Tremblay at middle linebacker and Hunter and Blay-Miezah at outside linebacker
Despite losing veterans Jemeel Powell and Nnamdi Asomugha to graduation, with Asomugha going to the Oakland Raiders in the first round of the NFL draft and Powell in camp for the Detroit Lions, Cal actually does return two starting defensive backs, though both must fight to retain their jobs. The last two recruiting classes have been so loaded with athleticism at this position that the future may be brighter than the past.
The most solidified spot in the secondary is at Cal's rover position that, akin to strong safety, must focus on both run and pass. Last year, unheralded Freshman (now Sophomore) #21 Donnie McCleskey came out of nowhere to nail down the starting job at rover starting with the victory over Washington, allowing Asomugha to slide over to cornerback to defend tall, athletic receivers such as the Huskies' Reggie Williams. Backing up McCleskey will be either incoming Freshman #28 Kenneth Frank, who may or may not blueshirt, or special teams standout Junior #25 Mike McGrath who earned All-Pac-10 honors last year for his work on kick coverage teams. At the free safety spot, there is a very close battle between blueshirt Junior #23 Ryan Gutierrez (currently injured) and JC transfer #20 Matt Giordano for the starting spot, and both are likely to see playing time at the position vacated by Bert Watts who graduated last year.
Senior #3 James Bethea started at cornerback last year but was moved to nickel-back, i.e. a third corner who plays in passing situations, once Asomugha moved to corner in the switch described above involving McCleskey. Bethea may now start the season still at the nickel spot because several new youngsters are competing for playing time at cornerback. Most notable of these is blueshirt Freshman #22 Tim Mixon, who by most accounts, has been one of the sensations of spring and fall camp. Mixon makes up for his short stature with superior quickness, agility, and determination, and his performance in his first season of college football will be a key to Cal's success, particularly against the tough schedule of great passing offenses. Blueshirt Sophomore #11 Harrison Smith has the height that Mixon does not and appears to own the other starting spot for the Kansas State game, though he will be pushed by both Bethea and at least one of several incoming Freshmen: #13 Daymeion Hughes, #8 Brandon Sanders, and #7 Thomas Decoud. It is very likely that at least one of these Freshman will see significant playing time, with the nod currently going to Hughes, who is listed as second-string behind Mixon currently. Sophomores #6 Wale Forrester and #30 Obi Amajoyi provide the remaining depth at corner, which looks to be loaded at Cal for the foreseeable future.
Projected Starters: McCleskey and either Giordano or Gutierrez at safety, Mixon and either Smith, Bethea, or Hughes at corner.
Coming soon: Special Teams
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