(Note that I’ve reworded a few things to be more “blog friendly” from the version that was on BearTerritory.net just over a week ago)
As I said in my Signing Day Wrap-Up post, Cal secured another solid recruiting class. It wasn’t incredible, but solid. Tedford has been quoted as saying he’s really happy because it meets the teams needs.
So the question is, what are the team needs?
There’s really two parts of that. The most obvious is to look at where the team fell short in 2008. For a pro-team, that would suffice. In college however there is the complication that the team loses about a fifth of the team each year. In this post I’ll look at those losses so that in future posts I have that background for what the team needs to improve next year.
The Bears are losing 18 players this off-season in 17 seniors and Cameron Morrah who opted to head to the NFL early. 9 of these players were starters on the post-season depth chart, 4 on offense, 4 on defense and Nick Sundberg as the long-snapper on special teams.
What follows is an ordered list of each player and how difficult it will be to replace them:
#18 Alex Stroud – Wide Receiver
A 2-star recruit who transferred from Illinois to come back home, Stroud never saw much of the field. His first catch was in his 2nd to last game versus Washington this year.
#17 Drew Glover – Wide Receiver
A walk-on in 2004, Glover finally saw significant playing time in 2008 on special teams. Nevertheless, as a receiver he only played in 2 games and had just one catch.
#16 Jordan Kay – Kicker
If it were not for Tavecchio’s rise to prominence in 2008, Kay may have been Cal’s starting field-goal kicker in 2008. However, with both Tavecchio and Seawright ahead of him on the depth chart, Kay’s impact was limited to 1 field goal and two extra points.
#15 Sean Young – Wide Receiver
There were big hopes for 6th year senior Sean Young this year. In many ways he delivered in his first couple games, providing the experienced hand as the younger receivers came up to speed. However, as time went on Young saw less and less playing time, catching only a handful of balls after the mid-season Arizona game.
#14 Zack Smith – Fullback
Zack’s spot on this list is secured not so much because of his own contributions in 2008 but because he backed up #3 on this list, Will Ta’ufo’ou. The experience of Ta’ufo’ou will be sorely missed in 2009 and the fact that his most experienced backup will be missing as well will make the Fullback position a challenging one for 2009.
#13 Bernard Hicks – Safety
Hicks was another player who saw less playing time toward the end of his Cal career as the younger Marcus Ezeff and Brett Johnson came into their own. However, unlike Young and Kay, there are aspects of Hicks skills that Ezeff and Johnson have been yet to duplicate, making him a situational player who will be missed.
#12 Mika Kane – Nose Tackle
Kane struggled with the injury bug throughout his days at Cal but was generally the starter over Derrick Hill when he was at 100%. Hill’s progress over the year would likely have had him as the starter in 2009 even if Kane had another year of eligibility, however when Hill needs a rest, Kane’s presence will be missed
#11 Nick Sundberg – Long Snapper
It’s difficult to quantify the value of a long snapper and his highly specialized skill. However, one need only try to think of the last time a bad snap was the cause of Cal’s occasional woes on special team to know just how important Sundberg’s consistent play was to the Bears.
#10 LaReylle Cunningham – Wide Receiver
Cunningham was the Wide Receiver with the most on the field experience when 2008 started and yet he found himself in a similar role to Young, seeing less time as the season wore on. However, he still had more time as a backup than Young and his leadership off the field seemed to be more instrumental than Young’s.
#9 Nate Longshore – Quarterback
Probably the most difficult player to place on this list and a controversial one as always, there is no doubt that Longshore will be missed. This much is for sure: whatever criticisms there were of Longshore, he kept at it all season long and was a competent backup and starter when his number was called. Said another way, had Mansion been pressed into action when Riley was injured, Cal would have likely lost the Oregon game and likely not has been as competitive against USC.
#8 Noris Melele – Offensive Guard
In the long tradition of strong offensive line play, Melele is yet another who will be remembered fondly by Bear fans. With a mostly injury free season he was 2nd in command on the offensive line and one of two needed voices of experience on a line that was otherwise a patchwork of relatively inexperienced young players. The young guys will have to step up in 2009 if they hope to replace Melele.
#7 Anthony Felder – Linebacker
The most under-appreciated of the “big-3” linebackers, most forget that he was involved in more tackles than any other player on the team. He also played in all 13 games. Nevertheless, while his presence will be sorely missed, his more quiet role on the defense will make him less missed than the other two.
#6 Cameron Morrah – Tight End
Most did not expect that Morrah would have to be replaced when the season ended. However, being the leading TD receiver on the Bears and tied for 2nd in receptions, it too was hard for him to pass up the opportunity to declare for the NFL draft. With Tad Smith the likely replacement for Morrah there is hope that the Tight End position may not be a weak spot in 2009, however, Smith will have big shoes to fill in the passing game.
#5 Worrell Williams – Linebacker
Third on the team in solo tackles, Williams was a terrifying force for offensive lines to contend with. Plugging running lanes and sniffing out middle screens was his strength. It will be difficult to find someone to replace his physical over-sized presence in the middle of the field.
#4 Rulon Davis – Defensive Line
For a player who missed 4 games, Rulon takes the cake as player who made the most of his playing time. While his overall statistics were not stellar, there was something different about the Cal defense when he was on the field. It was more powerful, more disruptive, more tenacious. While his play will be missed, just as much his no nonsense, take no prisoners attitude will be just as missed.
#3 Will Ta’ufo’ou – Fullback
Probably the most underappreciated player in recent Cal memory, he was a big part of the success of the Cal running game in 2007 and even more so in 2008. Even back in the 2006 Holiday Bowl he made his mark, starting for the first time and paving the way for a dominating rushing performance by the Bears. Even more troubling is that the candidates to replace him, Brian Holley and Peter Geurts, are sorely lacking for experience and will need to come up to speed quickly for the Bear running game to keep on track.
#2 Alex Mack – Center
Alex Mack may just go down as the Bear’s best center if not in its history at least in the Tedford era. Just as important was his leadership that helped hold together a rag-tag offensive line that sorely needed his guidance. Probably the only two things keeping Mack from the top of the list was his leadership was mostly confined to the offensive line and there look to be one or two candidates to replace him who, while clearly will fall short of Mack’s dominance, look to be capable replacements.
#1 Zack Follett – Linebacker
The pain-train himself tops the list of losses for the Bears going into 2009. For Follett, it was not just his speed off the edge nor his ability to force the big defensive play at the most important time, as witnessed by the forced fumble that won the Bears the Emerald Bowl. Follett was just as important as a leader. Coming on to the field during the Oregon game to pump up the offense and encouraging them to seal the deal on an important redzone possession may just be his defining leadership moment. However, it was just one of many moments where the pain-train ensured that every Cal player on the field was bringing the pain.
Overall, it is clear that Cal will be losing a surprisingly large group of impact players for 2009. The top 11 players all made a significant impact in most games. On defense, while the defensive secondary and defensive line remain mostly intact, it is clear that the Bears will be missing the spark of a number of key leaders from 2008 that will be critical to replace in 2009. On offense, it is mostly the blockers who will be most difficult to replace, with 3 of the top 8 losses being Cal’s key blockers in 2008.
The question that remains is who is going to step in to replace them. Look for that in an upcoming post.