Ever since Jeff Tedford took over as coach of the Golden Bears in 2002, he turned a program with a long history of being the laughingstock of the conference into winners.
Between 2002 and 2009, Cal had eight straight winning seasons and won five bowl games. And for the vast majority of the decade, they were the biggest threat to break USC’s streak of consecutive conference titles.
So needless to say, the Bears' 5-7 finish last year that left them home for the bowl season was very disappointing for Cal fans.
The biggest thing that plagued the Bears last season was poor quarterback play after starter Kevin Riley tore his MCL. Riley’s backup, Brock Mansion, was awful, throwing for just 646 yards, two touchdowns and five interceptions in five games.
With the graduation of Riley, it looked as if Cal was in for another rough season under center. That is, until Buffalo transfer Zach Maynard stole the show during spring practice.
Maynard, who played two years at Buffalo before sitting out last season due to NCAA transfer rules, was very impressive this spring, beating out five other quarterbacks for the starting job.
Being a dual-threat quarterback, the left-handed Maynard is certainly not the typical pocket-passer that people are accustomed to seeing under center on a Tedford-coached Cal team. But he should fit into the offense just fine, as Cal has been gradually transitioning to more of a spread offense over the past few years.
Surrounding Maynard is a talented pair of wide receivers, led by Maynard’s half-brother, Keenan Allen. Allen, a true sophomore, is an absolute playmaker and has the potential to be the best receiver in the conference. Complementing Allen is senior Marvin Jones, who last year had 50 receptions for a total of 765 yards.
However, despite producing a phenomenal six NFL running backs during Tedford’s tenure at Cal, the Golden Bears will have only mediocre talent at running back this year. Maynard’s running ability should somewhat make up for their lacking in this area, but still, a dual-threat quarterback is no substitute for a solid running back.
On the other side of the ball, the Bears’ defense should be at least a slight strength. Last year they were pretty solid overall, as they allowed the second fewest yards per game in the conference.
However, their performance fluctuated dramatically. They fell apart against Nevada, USC and Stanford, allowing 52, 48 and 48 points, respectively. Yet in Cal’s other nine games, they allowed an average of only 13.7 points per game.
And one of those nine games was against Oregon, when the Golden Bears held the highest scoring team in the country (49.3 points per game) to a mere 15 points, only seven of which came from the Ducks’ high-octane offense. To sum it up, the 2010 Cal defense was pretty bad in a few games, solid in the vast majority of their games, and excellent in one game, making the overall net result a decent unit.
However, the Bears lost three players from last year’s defense to the NFL: defensive end Cameron Jordan, linebacker Mike Mohamed and safety Chris Conte. For most teams, losing three players of such caliber would be an absolute disaster for a defense, but that’s not the case here.
Senior Mychal Kendricks and D.J. Holt head a solid linebacking corps, while veteran defensive linemen Trevor Guyton, Ernest Owusu and Kendrick Payne lead a line that was very good last year and should be strong again this season, even without Jordan. Also, Steve Williams and Marc Anthony lead what should be a decent secondary.
Meanwhile, two consecutive years of phenomenal recruiting classes have left Cal loaded with talented youth on defense. Headlining just some of the many talented youngsters on the Golden Bears' defense are defensive tackles Viliami Moala, Mustafa Jalil and Gabe King, linebackers Chris McCain and Jason Gibson, and defensive backs Stefan McClure and Avery Walls.
All seven of the players listed above were among the top recruits nationally for their respective positions. Most, if not all, of this talent is probably too young to really make much of a positive impact this year, but then again, you never know. All in all, Cal’s defense should remain at least a slight strength, even after losing Jordan, Mohamed and Conte.
With quarterback struggles being the primary culprit behind the Bears’ recent issues, it goes without saying that how Maynard fares will have a major impact on Cal in 2011. I believe Maynard will indeed have a successful year and that he will lead the Bears back to a bowl game.