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August 1, 2009
THE SCHEME: The Bears run a hybrid of the West Coast offense with elements of the spread. The Bears have had a running back rush for 1,000 yards in each of the past seven seasons.
STAR POWER: Perhaps the nation's most explosive big-play threat is running back Jahvid Best, who led the Pac-10 with 1,580 rushing yards last season. A shifty speedster, Best had six touchdown runs that covered at least 60 yards. He averaged 8.1 yards per attempt.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Cal's offensive depth chart is rife with experienced players, so there isn't much opportunity for newcomers to make a big splash. WR Markish Jones, a junior college transfer who originally committed to Clemson, could give the receiving corps a boost. That is, if he qualifies.
WATCH FOR HIM TO EMERGE: Junior QB Kevin Riley started nine games last year, but he had just a so-so season with 1,360 passing yards and 14 touchdowns. He dealt with injuries and had Nate Longshore looking over his shoulder. But Longshore is gone, and Riley is healthy and has extensive playing experience, so this sets up as a possible breakout year for Riley. The Bears' championship hopes may hinge on how well he plays this season.
STRONGEST AREA: Best's presence alone ensures the Bears are excellent at running back. But sophomore Shane Vereen is also a productive runner who exceeded 700 rushing yards as a backup. Most teams would settle for one breakaway running back. Cal has at least two.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: The passing game as a whole has to be bolstered after the Bears averaged fewer than 200 yards per game. The problem isn't just a matter of Riley's inconsistency. The Bears' receivers also have to upgrade their performance. Nyan Boateng, the leading receiver a year ago, managed just 29 catches. Cal had just one pass completed to a wide receiver in its victory over Stanford. To make matters worse, talented TE Cameron Morrah left for the NFL. The Bears must get more production from their passing game.
THE SCHEME: California uses a three-man front and four linebackers in its base defense. The Bears posted 35 sacks and ranked among the nation's top 30 in total defense last season.
STAR POWER: Take your pick. Syd'Quan Thompson has established himself as one of the finest cornerbacks in the nation. Last year he earned first-team All-Pac-10 laurels while intercepting four passes, which he returned for 128 yards. He was also third in the conference with 18 passes defended. Thompson is also a threat on punt returns. Meanwhile, DE Tyson Alualu is coming off an outstanding season in which he earned all-conference recognition. He accumulated 62 tackles, which was the most for a Cal lineman in more than a decade.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: This is an either/or answer as the Bears look to a couple of junior college transfers to replace LB Zack Follett, who last season led the team in sacks and ranked second in tackles. Ryan Davis was an effective pass rusher at Cerritos (Calif.) Junior College and hopes to continue that in the Pac-10. Jarred Price, from Blinn (Texas) Junior College, isn't nearly as big as Davis, but he is faster and was a higher-ranked prospect. He was a first-team JC All-American and was defensive MVP in his conference. As a high school senior in Dallas, Price set a school record with 24 sacks.
WATCH FOR HIM TO EMERGE: Sophomore LB Mychal Kendricks posted just 15 tackles in a backup role last season, but he's impressed so much in practice there have been whispers he could develop into Cal's best linebacker - ever. He managed one sack and blocked a kick last season. Obviously, he's expected to produce much more in '09.
STRONGEST AREA: A year ago the Bears recorded 24 interceptions. Only two teams in the nation managed more. Cal's entire secondary returns intact and should rank among the best in the country. Although Thompson is the most heralded member of the defensive backfield, some believe junior Darian Hagan, the other cornerback, has more pro potential. Marcus Ezeff and Brett Johnson are solid starters at safety. The significant backs from last year are still around, too.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: Three starting jobs are open at linebacker, but no one appears too concerned. Mike Mohamed played extensively as a backup and is reliable inside. He posted 87 tackles a year ago. OLB Eddie Young was solid in the eight games he started last season. If nothing else, senior ILB Devin Bishop has good bloodlines. His older brother, Desmond, led Cal in tackles in 2006. The potential of Kendricks and the junior college transfers fosters a lot of optimism on the outside, too. Still, departed starters Follett and Worrell Williams leave a lot of production that must be replaced. Potential won't take up that slack.
Kicking was disappointing a year ago. David Seawright was hampered by a groin injury and Giorgio Tavecchio converted just five of nine field-goal attempts from at least 30 yards. Both are back, but true freshman Vince D'Amato was also brought in to help bolster that area. Other than that, Cal's special teams are excellent. Sophomore P Bryan Anger will challenge for All-America honors. He has a strong leg, gets outstanding hang time and has a knack for killing the ball inside the 20. He needs to be more consistent, though. Thompson is excellent on punt returns. Best has returned kickoffs, but he probably won't this year. Vereen could likely step into that role and be effective. Also, look out for speedy true freshman Isi Sofele, who could make an immediate contribution in that role.
Cal has never experienced a losing record in seven seasons under Tedford. The Bears, however, haven't won a championship, either. He's still trying to prove he can make the next step. He has brought in two new coaches to help get there. Offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig joined the Bears after leaving Utah, which went 13-0 last season. Also, new offensive line coach Steve Marshall, who came from the NFL's Houston Texans, has an impressive résumé that's spans 20 years in college and the NFL. Defensive coordinator Bob Gregory routinely produces units among the Pac-10's best in scoring defense and forcing turnovers.
Although Tedford has been successful at Berkeley, he hasn't managed a victory in Los Angeles. The good news is he won't have to face USC there. The Trojans visit Berkeley on Oct. 3, which also seems advantageous. USC is unbeaten in November with Pete Carroll as coach. Cal also plays at home against Pac-10 contenders Oregon State and Arizona, but it will have to face Oregon on the road. But first the Bears face a challenging non-conference schedule that includes a rematch with Maryland, which beat the Bears in '08, and a trip to Minnesota, which has a new stadium. Oh yeah, midway through they make the treacherous trip to Los Angeles to face UCLA. At least, they have an open week before that game.
More than 50 years have passed since California made a Rose Bowl appearance, but this could be the year for the Bears. Of course, that line has been repeated frequently in recent seasons, and Cal continually has fallen short - if not on its face. But this year the possibility is more realistic than ever. The Bears have tremendous star power with Best and Vereen running behind a solid offensive line. Thompson and Alualu lead a defense that projects to be one of the best in the Pac-10. An already good special teams unit should be even better. The schedule is favorable, and even the top Pac-10 contenders - USC, Oregon and Oregon State - seem more vulnerable with their defenses needing to be rebuilt. The nagging question for Cal is whether Riley can raise his level of performance and the passing game can effectively complement Best's running. If that occurs, the Bears have a great opportunity to end their Rose Bowl drought. If not, they'll fall on their faces again.
Olin Buchanan is a senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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