Bob Gregory's defenses play a style that in many ways mirrors the offensive system Jeff Tedford has in place. As on offense, it starts with the running game.
Gregory wants to take away the opponent's ability to run the ball and is willing to put eight men in a box and leave his cornerbacks on an island. In obvious passing situations, Gregory prefers not to blitz and minimize big plays with a cover-2 zone.
The idea is to give up yards but not points. Where the Cal defense will take chances is in forcing turnovers and when the opponent is in the red zone, which is where you will see the Bears blitz more often than any other time.
Coming off a year when running on the Bears was easier than scoring with Lindsay Lohan, Cal is moving to a 3-4 alignment designed first and foremost to shore up the porous run defense.
It also allows Cal to leverage its experience and depth at the linebacker position while masking a potential weakness on the defensive line. While this switch is happening, don't be surprised to see the Bears play with a four-man line on 20 percent of their defensive snaps.
The overall talent level of Cal's defense under Jeff Tedford has never been as high as it has been on the offensive side of the ball. That said, this years defense has the highest level of athleticism and more specifically speed than any other in Tedford's tenure.
With the Bears returning nine players who started last year, there is enough experience here to raise expectations considerably. While there's plenty of reasons for optimism, until Cal can find a reliable nose tackle and some semblance of a pass rush, all bets are off.
Despite the returning experience, the bulk of depth is young. As a result, I expect this year's defense to be far better at the end of the year than it is in the beginning.
The single most important player on offense or defense this season may be Rulon Davis. Davis is the most talented defensive player on the team, period.
He is a defensive end in the mold of Reggie White or Bruce Smith. He’s large at 6-foot-5 and 280 pounds and is very quick and explosive. He played well when healthy last season and was nigh unstoppable this spring. He’s big enough to anchor the corner and play the run while also being Cal’s best pass rushing lineman.
Tyson Alualu enters his junior year as a player with all the talent in the world, but he has yet to put it all together. He plays with great leverage, is hard to move around and has a good first step. He’s also 295 pounds.
Up until now, he hasn’t proven himself as a pass rusher and although he’s big and strong, his technique has been shaky. Look for Tyson to start opposite Davis at the other DE spot.
Cameron Jordan was a big surprise last year. He played both at DE and DT but in the 3-4 will definitely play at end. If his technique can catch up to his ability, he should take a big step forward backing up Davis.
Ernest Owusu is a RS Frosh with a body by Adonis and a lightning-quick first step. He played very well in the Spring and should be a future pass rushing star. Look for him to get spot duty as a pass rusher especially when the Bears go to a four-man line.
The challenge is in the middle. The Bears don’t have a returning player whose a pure NT. Mika Kane appeared to be the team’s second most effective DL behind Malele last year but given the dismal performance of this position group, that is faint praise. Kane has a lot of talent but has not played consistently hard. Kane is a senior, so the team will look to his leadership.
Derrick Hill has very quick feet and hands and has a naturally low center of gravity. He improved markedly last season, playing very effectively as the NT in the 3-4 against Air Force in the Armed Forces Bowl. He doesn’t have NT size or strength and prefers to get off blocks rather than occupy opposing lineman which is the job of a NT in a 3-4.
Mike Costanzo, to my eye, was the Bears' quickest and most aggressive DL in Fall Camp back in 2006. After sitting out a year with an injury, he played sparingly last season and still doesn’t seem fully recovered from his knee injury. While he will factor in the rotation at NT given depth issues, it's unclear whether his knee will allow him to fulfill his promise out of high school.
In fact, the third NT on the depth chart by the end of the season may well be true freshman Kendrick Payne. Payne is built like a NT with a lower body reminiscent of former Bear great, Brandon Mebane.
Payne enrolled early and surprised people with his play in the Spring. He needs to add 10-15 pounds and build on his natural strength. He’s the type of immovable object that can force offenses to double team him allowing Cal’s LB crew to clean up.
For all the problems Cal had on the line last year, if this group can stay healthy, the team should be able to rotate eight very talented players, keeping everyone fresh. With only two seniors in the group, this is an area that will continue to get stronger as the group gains experience.
Linebackers are perceived by many to be an area of strength. While the Bears return three players who have played a lot of football in their careers, none of them have become consistently dominant performers.
The hope is that in their senior years, the game slows down for them and their instincts get honed to the point that they can play quickly without having to think too much.
Zach Follet is a very quick if undersized WLB whose very effective rushing the passer. He has the speed to stop RBs from turning the corner as well.
Follett is the one proven big play defender on the team, but he will need to improve his tackling and coverage skills if he wants to become an All-P10 performer.
Worrell Williams, although he plays inside and weighs 250-plus, may be the team's fastest linebacker. He uses that speed effectively when dropping into pass coverage and chasing down plays sideline to sideline.
Williams is not the most instinctual player and he has to get quicker at reading plays to maximize his talent. Despite his size, he’s also needs to get better getting off blockers which will become more of a challenge for him in the Bears' new 3-4 scheme.
Anthony Felder, in my opinion, was our most consistent linebacker last season and is the team's best open-field tackler. Lanky with good quickness, Felder plays well in space and does a good job using his hands to get off blockers.
He hasn’t shown an ability to attack up field and he will need to get more aggressive this season playing in the middle of the 3-4 alongside Williams.
The battle at the other outside linebacker is between Eddie Young and Devon Bishop. Young is quick but has yet to prove he can be an every-down linebacker. Bishop may be the least athletic of the group, but he is heady and plays with good technique.
Mike Mohammed played a lot last year, moves well and is a good tackler, in many ways reminiscent of Anthony Felder. He will back up Felder and Williams inside as well as Bishop/Young on the outside.
DJ Holt is a redshirt freshman who was the MVP of the scout team defense last year. At 255 pounds, he will back up both Williams and Felder and should get considerable playing time.
Mychal Kendricks is a true freshman with All American type athleticism. Look for him and Holt to be special teams stars this year.
In the secondary, it all starts with Syd Quan Thompson. SQT had high expectations going into last season and although he didn’t come up with many interceptions, he was clearly the Bears best cover man and to my eye, one of the best cover men in the P10.
Blessed with great quickness and very fluid hips, SQT is also a sure tackler who loves to come up and play the run. He's a future NFL player. If the Bears can muster a decent pass rush, SQT should vie for All-Pac 10 honors this season.
Opposite SQT at CB is Chris Conte. At 6-foot-3and with very good hips, Conte can match up well with the P10's taller receivers.
He is a good tackler and plays with solid technique but was often burned by quicker receivers using double moves. It’s not clear that Conte is a better CB than safety but his versatility makes him a valuable player.
Darian Hagen will give Conte a good run for his starting CB position and should end up no worse than the nickel back. Hagan has similar athletic ability to SQT but has struggled with his confidence and consistency. Charles Amadi is also in the mix at corner.
Bernard Hicks will move to the FS position, and I believe this is a great move. Hicks played well as a FS his sophomore season, showing off very good ball skills when passes were in the air.
Hicks is not a great cover safety and needs to improve his tackling skills, but playing centerfield suits him. Brett Johnson will be his backup.
At the rover position, Marcus Ezeff comes back after a superb sophomore year. Ezeff has a nose for the ball and is a sure tackler.
A guy who plays the game at full speed all the time and isn’t afraid to attack up the field, Ezeff has AP10 potential. The key is for Marcus to stay healthy as the backups at this position are young and unproven.
On paper, this defense should be good, and the move to a 3-4 seemingly will mitigate the risks around our run defense and allow Cal to leverage its depth and experience. I see the key being leadership.
Rulon Davis and SQT are the obvious candidates, as both are superb players who go all out in practice and back down from no one on the field. Despite those two, the psyche of the rest of this group is very much in question after last year's dismal performance.
It would seem obvious that one or more of the senior linebackers would step up and build the group's confidence and trust, and certainly Williams and Follett are on record as saying they will do just that.
While I hope that is the case, neither has been natural leaders their first three years and while the light bulb can go off at any time, until we see it on the field under adversity, I'll remain a skeptic.