The media apparently has erased the Cal football team from its collective memory. ESPN’s Mark Schlabach does not list the Bears in his Top 25 and College Football News places Cal fifth in the Pac 10 and playing Utah in the Las Vegas Bowl. Schlabach’s rankings even put Michigan State at 23 despite admittedly losing its top two receivers and much of each line.
Now, I understand the skepticism. The way Cal spiraled downward certainly gave doubters enough ammunition to revert back to the pre-Tedford treatment. Questionable chemistry, a quarterback controversy, an inability to stop the run or apply pass pressure, and a departing superstar wide receiver are all difficult hurdles to overcome.
But, if the national media did their homework, they would see a Cal football team that made significant changes in the offseason. And, remember, Cal still returns 17 starters from a team that began the season 5-0 and was almost ranked first in the country.
First, the departure of Cal’s trio of talented wideouts is actually addition by subtraction. While Hawkins was an emotional leader, his dropped passes against Stanford and throughout the season forced NFL scouts to devalue his stock substantially. Robert Jordan remember was suspended one quarter for the Armed Forces Bowl for a team infraction. Moreover, Jordan is actually smaller than Desean Jackson. At the NFL combine, Jackson’s measurements illustrated much of Tedford’s frustration with the trio. They were unquestionably one of the fastest groups in the country but they were also the smallest, in both height and weight. After signing day, Tedford admitted that Cal focused heavily in not only providing depth at wide receiver but upgrading the roster in terms of size. Tedford also mentioned how much more flexibility bigger receivers provide, whether it is with run blocking or running routes over the middle.
In their place, Mike Calvin, Nyan Boateng and either Jeremy Ross or one of the incoming recruits will attempt to replace the production of Hawkins-Jordan-Jackson. None of these guys have caught a single pass from Kevin Rile or Nate Longshore. However, USC faced a similar predicament in 2006 and it didn’t prevent them from playing in the Rose Bowl. (Well, Cal losing to Arizona certainly helped.) Also, every single receiver on the Cal Roster is bigger than last year’s starters by at least 3-4 inches and 20-30 pounds.
Second, Cal hired Frank Cignetti, quarterbacks coach of the San Francisco 49’ers. Cignetti comes to Cal with an impressive pedigree of creating explosive pro-style offenses at Fresno State and North Carolina. Most importantly, Cignetti will takeover the playcalling duties from Tedford. In the wake of the Dunbar experiment, Tedford called all the plays for the 2007 season. In hindsight, Tedford believes this wore him out and prevented him from seeing the big picture.
Third, is the move from a base 4-3 defense to a 3-4. Cal had an extraordinaily difficult time last year stopping the run and getting pass pressure. To utilize the team’s strength at linebacker, Bob Gregory has made the 3-4 the team’s primary defensive formation. The results, at least from watching spring ball, have been striking. Throughout spring, the defense got consistent pressure on the quarterback, at times dominating a very good Cal offensive line. If those results hold up, it can only help Cal as it breaks in a new starting running back and wide recieiver core.
Fourth, and most importantly, Tedford claims this team has the best chemistry Cal has had in quite some time. Perhaps it is becuase there is no star on the team. Maybe it is because certain players departed. Whatever the reason, players like Rulon Davis and Zack Follett have taken vocal leadership roles that were entirely vacant last season.
Even with these changes, those four causes for concern are not entirely alleviated until Cal plays a down of football. And, maybe, last year’s teams was too young overall to play the role of front-runner. This year there are literally no expectations and thus, little to no pressure.