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September 2, 2011
Cal opens season against Bulldogs
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BERKELEY -- It's all in the past. All of it. The good and the bad. The All-Pac-10 selection? Rearview mirror. 152 career tackles? Dust. For California's senior linebacker Mychal Kendricks, all the plaudits in the world and a frustrating 5-7 season mean nothing. All that matters is Saturday's tilt against his hometown school: Fresno State.
"I remember the Big Red Wave and Third Down Thunder and little things that they used to do, and it's going to be tight to be playing against that. I'm looking forward to it. I'm excited. I wouldn't say nervous; I'm more anxious than anything," said Kendricks, who matriculated from Hoover High, literally less than a mile from Bulldog Stadium. "I'm looking forward just to the first game. Period. Going out there on defense and starting my senior year, I'm just getting ready for that."
After recording 66 tackles, 15.0 TFLs and 8.5 sacks in 12 games at outside linebacker last year, earning second-team all-conference honors at inside linebacker, Kendricks has moved to the inside, but still expects nothing less from himself than perfection.
"Big plays, big moments, 10 tackles at least a game," he says, simply.
Defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast has equally lofty expectations from his field general, who has had to shift to the inside for a number of reasons, not the least of which being to replace Mike Mohamed, a three-time all-conference selection who was drafted in the sixth round (No. 189 overall) by the Denver Broncos this past spring.
"He's a very explosive, fast player, so I think that him having an opportunity to play the whole field is going to make our defense better," Pendergast said. "I hope he plays better than Mike, that's my expectation."
The college football world would seem to agree. Kendricks is a preseason All-American honorable mention from GoDaddy.com, and is on the watch lists for the Bednarik Award, Bronko Nagurski Trophy, Butkus Award, CFPA Linebacker Trophy and the Rotary Lombardi Award. He's a finalist for the Lambert Trophy. Athlon, Lindy's and Phil Steele named him a first-team preseason All-Pac-12 selection.
But, for Kendricks, none of that matters.
"It's great, it's wonderful and it's a good achievement, but I haven't won anything yet," he said after spring camp. "It's just an honor to be nominated for things like that, but the end goal is to actually win that and I won't be satisfied until I achieve those goals. And if I don't, you best believe that I gave my best at it."
Aside from the need to replace Mohamed, another principle reason for Kendricks' switch was the Laurentian depth at outside linebacker, where Kendricks made his mark in 2010. Apart from starters David Wilkerson and Dan Camporeale, there are plenty eager young bucks waiting in the wings, such as Jason Gibson, Brennan Scarlett, Cecil Whiteside, Chris McCain, Nathan Broussard and Jalen Jefferson, not to mention veterans Ryan Davis and Steven Fanua, who - like Wilkerson, Camporeale and Kendricks --are now in their second year of Pendergast's defense.
"I think it's going to be big. I think it's going to give us more options to run more different types of schemes, different types of plays, different types of blitzes and everything," Wilkerson said. "Especially with the recruiting class that's come in, some of them might be able to help us out and everything, but I think everybody, it should be second nature to everybody, now, so we should be very good. We look good, so we should be very good."
Camporeale was one of the big surprises of camp, beating out McCain and Davis for the starting spot opposite of Wilkerson thanks to knowledge of the system gleaned not only from personal experience, but from Kendricks, as well.
"Honestly, it's my third year here, so we've all been kind of shifting around and moving around," Camporeale said. "That moving around, that's an All-Pac-10 backer moving, so it probably opened up a little bit of an opportunity for me. There's still plenty of competition that I still had to work against," Camporeale said. "When we go into our Oregon package, and everything like that, he played so well that game, knows exactly how to do it, how to do some of the techniques that we've been doing. He actually has helped us out on top of having to learn all of his new inside stuff.
"It's been amazing, because last spring, last camp, your focusing so much on learning the plays, learning how to do all of that stuff, and this camp, you're going in and you pretty much have got most of the plays down, so you can work mostly on your technique stuff, specific pass rush, specific things to do here and there. By the first week of camp, we had almost our entire playbook in, so then, by that time, it's all the little things here and there, all the little technique stuff."
So, instead of throwing the youngsters into the fire immediately, Tedford and Pendergast will go with more veteran hands.
"He's just been consistent, and he knows the defense inside and out, he knows what to do on every single play, he's very sharp, a very smart player, so we're going to play the best, smartest 11 guys that we can put out there," Pendergast said of Camporeale.
The second-year defensive coordinator also isn't shy about rotating a bunch on the defensive front, until the new kids can get used to game situations enough to play more and more as the season progresses.
"Well, it's going to be a wait and see thing," Pendergast said. "I like to leave them in there, let them get lathered up a little bit, and see where we go from there, but there will be a rotation and we haven't visited about it yet as a staff, but as the game gets close, we will.
"Trevor Guyton and Ernie Owusu are two guys along the defensive line, and of course D.J. Holt is really a student of the game. The whole secondary -- Josh Hill, Sean Cattouse, D.J. Campbell and Marc Anthony and Steve Williams -- they all elevated their game, so to speak, just because I think it is their second year in the system."
The Bears' front seven will have their hands full against the Bulldogs, who will roll into the Bay armed with a returning 1,000-yard rusher in Robbie Rouse.
"Robbie Rouse is our starter. That's clear cut. He's an every-down back," said Fresno State head coach Pat Hill. "A.J. Ellis has had a good camp, Milton [Knox] has had a good camp and Michael Harris is starting to come on. We feel we have four really good backs and any of them can play, but Robbie Rouse is definitely our starter. If one gets a hot hand, we'll roll with them for a while. It's not running back by committee, but we got good running backs and hopefully they'll all get their shots. It's good to have a stable of running backs as we've found out here in the past. We've got a good group."
Cal, on the other hand, will be starting relatively inexperienced Isi Sofele. The 5-foot-8, 190-pounder will be only the second Bears tailback to take over the starting position since 2004 without having gained at least 600 yards or surpassed 70 carries in the year prior. The other? Jahvid Best. In fact, Sofele's career numbers (420 yards on 81 carries) compare far from favorably with the pre-starter single-season totals of predecessors Shane Vereen (952 yards on 183 carries in 2009), Justin Forsett (626 yards on 119 carries in 2006), Marshawn Lynch (628 yards on 71 carries in 2005) and J.J. Arrington (631 yards on 107 carries in 2003).
[To read more in-depth about the Bears' tailback corps, just click HERE]
Even with that inexperience, the Cal defense still has confidence that an offense led by first-year junior transfer Zach Maynard can get the job done.
"Our coach says that the best place for us is on the sidelines," Kendricks said. "The only way we score is if we get a pick or a fumble, and we all know those don't come a lot. It definitely happens, but the best place for us is on the sidelines, letting our offense work, consistently doing its thing."
It may not, though, be a terrible idea to put the team's best foot forward, and that would without a doubt be the defense.
While the Bears as a whole were busy stumbling to a 5-7 season -- the first sub-.500 year in head coach Jeff Tedford's tenure -- the Cal defense stood alone atop the conference in total defense (319.08 ypg, good for 18th in the country).
The Bears were ranked No. 13 in the nation for sacks per game (2.83), No. 21 in pass defense (187.00 ypg), first in the conference in fewest first downs allowed (217) and second in opponents' third-down conversion percentage (34.7). Cal's pass efficiency defense and scoring defense were ranked No. 31 and No. 40 nationally. Eight times in 12 games, the Bears held opponents to 17 points or fewer. The problem with that is two fold. For one, the defense was under enormous pressure from a lackluster offense that saw its third straight year of decreasing passing yards, total offense and points. The second problem was that when the defense wasn't lights-out, it got lit up like the Las Vegas Strip.
In the four games Cal didn't hold opponents to 17 points or fewer, the Bears fell to Nevada 52-31, to Oregon State 35-7 and fell flat against both USC and Stanford to the tune of 48-14 losses.
"Like practice, it's going to be the same attitude. It's one day at a time, one play at a time. That's where our focus is. We're not thinking about the statistics of being No. 1 in the conference in sacks last year or No. 1 in total defense. That's last year. That has absolutely nothing to do with this year," said defensive line coach Tosh Lupoi. "This season is a new season. Our guys know that, and we're going to approach it with that type of hunger with a chip on our shoulder that every day is a new work day, every play is a new opportunity to go all out and execute on that given play. We're not thinking about anything to do with last year."
Lupoi's charges have gotten that message, loud and clear.
"It's definitely something we've been driving home, and it pains us to see that we dropped those games," said starting defensive end Trevor Guyton. "We didn't hold up our end of the bargain in those games, and it's embarrassing, so we come into this season, we have this season under our belt where we know the defense, and we're going to be those places that we weren't last year. That one or two steps behind, where they caught the ball or something like that, we'll be there, and we're not going to let those gaps open on the line. That's just from knowing the defense a little bit better. It hurts to think about that stuff, but at the same time, it's a new season and we're obviously going to do our best to not let it happen again."
The Bears have one year of Pendergast's system in their back pocket, and now, the unit may be as dangerous as ever, even without NFL draftees Chris Conte, Cameron Jordan and Mohamed.
The defensive line, in particular, is absolutely stocked. Rouse will be in for a rude awakening when he tries to crash into a wall that is three deep at each position with potential playmakers. Behind Guyton, end Ernest Owusu and tackle Kendrick Payne, there is a veritable mountain of young talent, including freshmen Gabe King, Mustafa Jalil and Viliami Moala, sophomores Keni Kaufusi, DeAndre Coleman and junior Aaron Tipoti.
"It really, to me, there's a lot of questions to be answered," Lupoi said. "Every single day is a new day for us. It's an extremely competitive environment where no one has anything made within our group. Every day, there are going to be guys that are pushing each other, trying to steal playing time from each other in a very healthy, competitive environment and it doesn't make anything easier or anything harder, because no matter what day it is, we're going to approach it the same, going out there with the same attitude of trying to get better. That's the best part about this game -- playing or coaching -- every single day, we wake up and we can all get better."
Lupoi has been a fiend on the recruiting trail, but to watch him coach is to watch someone in good enough shape to threaten to come in and do the drills himself at the drop of an assignment.
"It's a big motivating factor, just because sometimes you have those days where it's like, 'Dang, I've got to be out here again,' and you do have those days, so you can't have that feeling for long when he's up there, with all his intensity and emotions and stuff like that," said Guyton. "It gets you into it, and he's just a great coach. I would put money on saying he's the best D-line coach in the country, and it shows, because we have people coming in, making plays. We have the tradition that we're building, and he's the real deal. It's not just a recruiting thing or his energy thing. It's his skill as a coach, too. He's not just a hype guy; he's a real good coach."
Even the 6-foot-4, 267-pound Owusu gets a bit frightened of Lupoi once he gets in there, pounding the ground on all fours as he tries to get a point across.
"It's contagious. It's contagious. We kind of joke about it sometimes, but I would not doubt if he actually would get in there," Owusu said. "I love it, a coach that brings that much energy every single day, it inspires us. It makes us work that much harder, so it's awesome. It's contagious for other groups, too. When they see coach Lupoi yelling and screaming and jumping around and stuff, everyone's like, 'OK, yeah, let's go.' It's great having a coach like that. I'm truly blessed to have coach Lupoi as my coach."
Lupoi's unit may wind up being the biggest difference-maker in the opener, particularly against Carr, who has as much mobility as he does arm strength, reportedly clocking a 4.6-second 40-yard dash time. Like Maynard, Carr can make plays with his feet and extend plays until he can utilize his very strong arm.
"He's a good player and I know he can run," Tedford said. "He's mobile. He can make things happen, so you can't go to sleep on that, by any means."
The biggest downside for the younger brother of the former NFL Draft pick? Experience. As in, he only has 14 Division I pass attempts to his credit, and even those were in 2009, before he redshirted in 2010.
Expect to see some of the staples of Tedford's early offenses on full display as his mentor Hill tries to give the young signal-caller confidence, setting up short, safe passes to establish rhythm, then turning to the run to keep the defense honest, opening up the play-action and more downfield shots.
There will be a ton of youth on the outside for the Bulldogs, who saw five receivers go down due to injuries in fall camp. Injuries to Jalen Saunders, Isaiah Burse, Rashad Evans and Victor Dean allowed redshirt freshman and one-time Cal commit Josh Harper to step up, and he has become one of Carr's favorite targets.
If Saunders and Burse are ready to go by Sept. 3, they could well provide an early test to the Cal secondary.
As a true freshman, Saunders led Fresno State receivers in yards per catch with 15.4. In 13 games, Saunders hauled in 30 passes for 462 yards and three touchdowns.
Burse played in all 13 games as a freshman, but finished with just 13 catches for 190 yards and two scores. He also saw 16 carries out of the backfield for 85 yards and one touchdown.
"That's one thing that you know you're going to get. You're going to get speed and athleticism with them, always," Tedford said. "They have excellent speed on the outside, they have a good running back corps. Robbie is a little scat back, kind of like Isi, and he can make a lot of things happen. He has experience in playing. I have confidence in our defense. Our defense will play hard, but it's a matter of tackling and all the things that you need to do on defense, trying to eliminate the big plays and not letting them get behind you with the deep ball, because they do have a lot of speed, and tackling in the open field. If they can make you miss, they can go a long way. They are very athletic and have a lot of speed."
Speed, though, will mean nothing if Carr is flat on his back, or hurried into making a youthful mistake. In that respect, Carr will be living just as dangerously as Maynard, who will be plying his trade behind a line with five solid starters -- senior left tackle Mitchell Schwartz, experienced junior left guard Brian Schwenke, brawling center Dominic Galas, senior right guard Justin Cheadle and junior right tackle Matt Summers-Gavin -- but not much depth beyond that. Of the back-ups on the Bears' offensive line, redshirt sophomore Mark Brazinski has played in two games, senior Justin Gates has played in three games and junior tackle Tyler Rigsbee has four games under his belt.
The same is not true of Fresno State's second-string line. None of the back-ups for the Bulldogs have played so much as a single varsity snap, and instead of 2010 seniors Kenny Wiggins (RT), Devan Cunningham (OG), Andrew Jackson (OG) and center Joe Bernardi, Fresno State will start two juniors and a sophomore, along with senior right guard Leslie Cooper and stud senior left tackle Bryce Harris.
"I feel a lot better [about the line] than I did going into the start of fall camp," said Hill. "The great thing is they have been together for the whole camp. That five have been together every practice, which has really solidified that group. It is a good group. It is a physical group and they are starting to work really well together. If we can keep that group intact throughout the entire season, they will really grow."
Harris is the class of the bunch, earning second-team All-WAC in 2010 after starting all 12 games at left tackle. In fact, Harris has started every game each of the last two years after switching over from defensive tackle his redshirt freshman season.
"They're a good unit. They're a strong unit. I believe they have a left tackle that's projected pretty high in next year's draft, so it's exciting for us," Lupoi said. "It's going to be a challenge. We're going to go in there, whether it's Fresno State or whoever we play, with the same mindset. It's a work day. We're going to go in there with an attacking attitude, and see how we fare up. It's exciting. They show a lot of good film, and do a lot of different things and we're going to have our hands full, but we're excited for the challenge."
The first order of business for the defensive line before they can get into the backfield and disrupt the passing and running games is to blow up that inexperienced front. Emblazoned on the back of Lupoi's practice shirt almost every day -- a long-sleeved, black number with golden claw slash marks on the front -- is the phrase, "Knock 'Em Back."
"It just means that we always want to establish a new line of scrimmage, so we want to always knock the blockers back and create a new line of scrimmage in the backfield," Lupoi explains. "We're all really excited to be coaching with coach Pendergast and playing with Clancy Pendergast, and now that we've had a full year with this system, we've got a better understanding of where we need to be and why, as opposed to just executing our job. I think this group, overall, has a better understanding of the reasons why they're executing certain jobs or movements, and just like anything, having the experience behind going through a year full of seeing where the holes are on defense and where we need to be at certain times. I think that's the largest benefit, or the difference between the veterans in comparison to last year."
As if the sheer joy of hitting a quarterback isn't enough motivation for the defense, the latest figures released by the Cal Athletic Ticket Office indicate that Candlestick Park may be more of an away game than a neutral site contest. So far, the Bulldogs have outsold the Bears by roughly 5,000 tickets. Though Kendricks admits some of that may be due to him.
"There are people that have their own tickets that are coming, so for all I know, they may just be showing up. I'm pretty sure they are, because a couple of my boys posted their tickets on facebook in their hands. Maybe that's why [Fresno State] sold more tickets," he smiles. "When they play big games, I know they show up. We've got to show up with our fans. We'll be there."
-- Fresno State starting safety Phillip Thomas will miss Saturday's opener against Cal according to the Fresno Bee. The junior broke his leg in practice Wednesday and is expected to miss 8-12 weeks. Thomas will be replaced by walk-on Cris Wilson.
-- Even without Thomas, however, there are some big stars on defense, starting with linebacker Travis Brown.
The 6-foot-2, 235-pound junior out of nearby Fresno Clovis West earned second-team All-WAC honors in his first season as a starter in 2010, starting all 12 games and finishing third on the team with 73 tackles. He notched nine tackles for a loss for a total of 47 yards, and tallied two sacks and a pick, which he returned 30 yards for a touchdown against Idaho.
"Their backers are excellent," Tedford said. "Their Sam (Brown)and their Will (Kyle Knox) are both returners, both those guys play real hard and have a lot of experience. Their Mike will be new this year, but those outside guys are good."
Senior defensive tackle Logan Harrell is another dream-haunter. At 6-foot-2, 275 pounds, Harrell was a first-team All-WAC selection in 2010, opening the year with 3.5 sacks, five tackles and a forced fumble against Cincinnati. One of the top junior defensive tackles in the country, last year, Harrell posted 41 tackles and four batted passes.
"He's a good inside player," Tedford said. "You have to really pay attention to him. He's a good player, plays really hard, and I think he was all-conference there. He does a good job, plays hard."
Want to find out more about this year's edition of the Cal football team? Check out Bears Face Identity Crisis in 2011. Find out how the Bears got in such good shape by reading up on new strength and conditioning coach Mike Blasquez. What does offensive line coach Jim Michalczik think of the offensive line? Find out straight from the man himself. How does Tedford feel about facing his alma mater? Find out HERE and HERE.
Remember to check back tomorrow for BearTerritory.net's exclusive pregame podcast, coming to you from The Republic in San Francisco.