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Archive for February, 2009

What was lost to graduation – full text

(Note that I’ve reworded a few things to be more “blog friendly” from the version that was on 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.

What was lost to graduation

I got around to writing my thoughts on who the biggest losses were to graduation but it was long enough and good enough to submit as an article to I finished it over a week ago but the guys over there were waiting for a headline break to put it in. It’s finally published:

The article is a subscription article. In about a week, after it’s been published for a while, I’ll put the content here on the blog.

Bay Area TV Coverage

We’ve been over how the Bay Area doesn’t get Comcast SportsNet California (sometimes called “West” or sometimes “Sacramento” and not to be confused with Comcast SportsNet Bay Area) but that’s where the bottom end Cal football games end up. To get the came you’ve got to buy a sports package through your cable provider.

I don’t have this problem up in Sacramento as I get both Comcast SportsNet California and Bay Area on DirecTV as part of my base package in the Sacramento region.

In any case, according to Jonathan Okanes, Comcast cable viewers in the Bay Area are getting a reprieve and will now get both Comcast SportsNet Bay Area AND California in their base package.

One can hope that it’ll free up DirecTV to follow suit in the Bay Area.

Signing Day wrap-up

I’m not a big recruiting guy, but I recognize its importance. All year long when I get questions about recruiting I repeat the same answer: Nothing matters until signing day. Well, seeing how yesterday was signing day, I guess I’d better live up to my word and talk about the one day that matters.

First some fundamentals on recruiting:

Remember that a school gets 85 scholarships. Assuming everyone redshirts and nobody leaves the school, that means you only get 17 scholarships a year. In practice between the handful who don’t redshirt and who leave the University, that means you get around 20 each year on average. Recruiting junior college kids increases that number as well and at times the number can be as high as 25.

In any case, that means you get around 20 scholarship for about 22 positions on offense and defense plus a few special positions (punter, kicker and long-snaper) that you don’t have to recruit every year. What this means is that, special needs aside, you only get one recruit for each position each year and even then, you’ve got to exclude a couple positions. So, the “ideal” 20 looks something like for a 3-4 defense and a pro-set offense:

1 QB, 1-2 RB/FBs, 1 TE, 2-3 WRs, 4-5 OLs, 2-3 DLs, 3-4 LBs, 3-4 DBs

Sure, you can move the numbers by one or even two for the groups and still be OK, but if you get massively out of whack, particularly over multiple years, it’s a near certainty that at some point sports commentators are going to be wondering why the team is so weak in one area or another. Even if over the long haul the numbers are balanced, not being balanced year to year means there will be years down the road after a big group graduates that there may be a big experience/talent dirth behind them, even if there’s a lot of young guys waiting in the wings.

So let’s look at the Bears distribution:

QB: 1 (1 ideal)
RB/FB: 2 (1-2)
TE: 0 (1)
WR: 1 (2-3)
OL: 4 (4-5)
DL: 3 (2-3)
LB: 3 (3-4)
DB: 3 (3-4)

That’s a reasonably good distribution, particularly when one takes into account the current set of players on the roster. The Bears had 8 TE’s on the roster, most of who were young so they really didn’t need any. The one weak spot would be at WR’s where the Bears have 12 overall and 6 underclassmen, I think they could have used the full compliment of 2-3. Nevertheless, it’s a pretty balanced set. Compare this to a school like Stanford, who has been praised for their class with lots of talented/high star players but also has 4 TE’s, only 2 OL’s, 5 DE’s (6 DL’s overall) and only 3 other defenders. I’ve never seen such an out of whack roster, with my limited experience.

The next big factor is immediate needs. While the above balance is very important, and a good mature program will make sure they’ve got balanced classes every year (these are the programs that seem to “reload” not “rebuild”), there are times when things get out of whack for whatever reason and recruiting someone who can come in and play next year is part of the equation. While ocassionally, particularly at some positions, teams can find a polished high school recruit who can come in and play right away, that’s not the norm. Usually what you’re looking for in a high school recruit is talent and potential, even if it is a bit raw.

So generally speaking, it’s hard to find high school recruits who can come in and contribute right away. The alternative is junior college recruits, some of whom are both physically and technically developed enough to contribute right away. At the same time, there is a downside as they’ve only got a couple years to contribute, so it’s pretty important they be ready to contribute now. Cal has had both success and failure with this. Everyone from Ayoob to Bishop.

This year the Bears have 4 junior college recruits:

Ryan Davis, DE
Marksih Jones, WR
Jerome Meadows, LB
Jarred Price, LB

If you think about where the Bears are going to need help in 2009, this is the right group. There is no doubt that LB is where Cal needs the most replacements right away having lost the “big 3” of Follett, Williams and Felder. It’s going to be just as important, if not more important as replacing the “big 3” WR’s from 2007, a position that despite the best efforts of Tedford and Co., was a siginificant weakness in 2008. So 2 LB’s from junior college has the potential to help fill a difficult shortage. Add in that the Bears could use another good WR and that a developed DE wouldn’t hurt either, and it’s hard to argue with these 4 junior college recruits, even if the number is a bit high (I’d put the target at 2 a year).

All of that is said while recognizing the fact that it is a stop-gap mechanism and not the “ideal” way to recruit. But as we all know, football is one by teams that recognize the balance between the theoretical ideals and actual implementation.

While all of this is good, it’s not all great. The Bears lost a recruit at the last minute, that hurt the class (4-star OL Stanley Hasiak from Hawaii who went to UCLA). More importantly (because the Bears also picked up a last minute recruit) the Bears were unable to secure a handful of recruits that would have made the class stellar. Of particular note was Randal Carroll, a 4-star wide receiver who was lost to UCLA, and Devon Kennard, a 5-star DE (would be used as OLB at Cal) who was lost to USC. There were others too, but these were the biggies that were considering Cal late in the game that Cal couldn’t secure.

Of course it is always going to be the case that recruits will chose other schools. Even USC doesn’t get everyone they want. At the same time, it is clear that there are a couple of reasons, facilities being the most glaring and inability to get to BCS bowl games probably being 2nd, that are preventing Cal from getting as many of the recruits as they would like. In the end, this is what is most troubling about this class to me. There’s seems to be a limitation to who Cal can get, at least until the Performance Center is built and the Bears finally get that Rose Bowl.

Overall what this means is that the Cal staff is doing a pretty good job of ensuring that it gets the best, most balanced, solid classes year after year, within the limitations of what the program can get. It’s also worth noting that Cal’s recruits are generally considered under appreciated as opposed to over appreciated, again unlike Stanford who seems to be more in the “star grabbing” mode. There’s no doubt that of 18 recruits there is every reason to believe that all 18 of them have the potential to contribute to the program.

And so “solid” is the word of the day. It’s a solid class, not a great one. It’s more solid that 2007, which was more solid than 2006 or 2005. But it also lacks the “star power” of those earlier classes that gave us a 5-star player in DeSean Jackson in 2005 and 9 4-stars in 2006.

But it is still solid.

Where will Ken be on signing day?

Well, I’ll be in my cubicle watching things develop on while pretending to do my normal work, designing computer servers.

So, if you want the moment by moment breakdown on what’s happening with the recruits and who’s signed their letter of intent, you should be over at too. It’s really the best site for recruiting news for the Bears, bar none.

Final season wrapup

(Sorry for the lateness of these end of season posts. I was sick as the season ended and then I need a couple weeks just to get into my off-season routines)

Well, the Bears finished the season 9-4, one loss more than my pre-season prediction. Other than getting which of the Oregon schools the Bears would lose to wrong, I nailed the Pac-10 schedule perfectly including the loss to Arizona. So the way I see it, the only disappointment this season was the loss to Maryland. And having made the trek back east myself, I much better understand how it can be hard to play a good game so far away from home.

At the same time, it wasn’t exactly the best season ever, particularly on the offensive side of the ball. Here’s my analysis on what went right and wrong:

What went right:

  1. The 3-4: There’s no way anyone could have anticipated just how awesomely the 3-4 was going to work out. The defense looked like a completely different team this year. Somehow the positive characteristics of the ‘Bend But Don’t Break’ defense remained intact, with the Bears giving up very few big plays, but they mananged to do it while being an attacking/game changing defense. Opposing offenses were stymied, confused, frustrated and overwhelmed by this defense. The only game where the defense can even be remotely argued to be in part the cause of the loss was the Arizona game, particularly the 3rd quarter. But even then they were playing in a game with the deck stacked against them having to come on the field time and time again after ineffective offensive series. Add in the fact that the Bears had a wonderful turnover margin due to the heads up play of the defense, a lot of which can be attributed to the 3-4 zone schemes that both had the defense watching for the ball and confusing the quarterback, and there’s no other way around the block than to praise the 3-4.
  2. Syd’Quan Thompson: The only problem with Syd was that he was so good you never got to see it. There were often accusations that defenses picked on Hagan and Conte because they were weak, particularly Conte, but the reality was that it was more because Syd was SO good. He may not be the ball hawk that Hughes was, but I think Syd is the Bear’s best cover corner at Cal as long as I’ve been a season ticket holder. He’s NEVER out of position and always has a chance to make a play on the ball. Some of our most beloved corners played the role in a bit more risky fashion and at times found themselves burned, not Syd. Add in that his tackling on the perimeter almost made him the 5th linebacker at times (particulary when Cal went into a nickle package) and there’s very little not to like, check that, there’s nothing not to love, about this guy’s play in 2008.
  3. Jahvid Best: Jahvid came a LONG way in 2008. He was really fast in 2007, but didn’t have the right sense of timing. Early in 2008 he looked “slow” sometimes because he was on the other side of trying to find the right timing. By mid-season he had found the right rythym. He saved the offense when the passing game struggled even when defenses were doing everything in their power to limit the Cal running game.
  4. Creative play-calling: There was a lot more creative play-calling this year with Cignetti in the box. It felt like 2003 and 2004 again. While the offense didn’t rely on the trick play, they used them just enough to keep the defense honest and on their toes, and just as importantly most of the trick plays worked, many going for scores. But it wasn’t even just the trick play, there was a lot of diversity in the play calling and trying new and creative ways to make the most of the personnel on the field. You get the feeling that Tedford and Cignetti are on the same page. Cignetti gets what Tedford is trying to accomplish and agrees and Tedford trusts Cignetti to deliver on thier shared goals.
  5. Alex Mack: I wish I could say the offensive line as a whole was a plus, but injuries hurt this unit a lot this year. But through it all, you could count on one defensive player being on his back just about every play due to Alex Mack being on the field. His leadership for the rest of the line was key too in keeping this unit effective in the running game and just better than mediocre in the pass rush. With all the young players getting playing time, particularly when Melele was out, that leadership was critical.
  6. The rest of the Cal running game: Whether it be Will To’ufo’ou’s consistently strong play or Shane Vereen’s ability to excel in the backup roll, the Cal running game was the part of the Cal offense that kept the Bears on the field and was directly responsible for Cal’s good redzone effectiveness. Don’t forget the importance of the offensive line in the running game.
  7. Zack Follett: I hate to single out one linebacker from a unit that was so strong, but Follett was something special this year. He had a knack for making the big play at the right time evidenced by his sack/forced fumble that won the Emerald Bowl for the Bears. While there was aspects of his play that was not perfect, his ability to rush the passer and create chaos at all times were remarkable. Add in that he was an important team leader, particularly in those moments when the team needed someone to pump them up, and Zack needs a specific mention amongst this very good unit.
  8. Brian Anger/Punting Unit: Rounding out the list is Brian Anger and his supporting cast. Anger had a few inconsistency problems that ensured he ended up on the bottom of the “what went well” list instead of mid to high on the list, but his booming punts, particularly in the Big Game, were incredible to watch. This unit never gave up a big punt return and ensured the Bears were winning the field-position game pretty much all the time. Never underestimate the importance of this and thus that’s why it belongs on the list.

What went wrong:

  1. Quarterback position: In Berkeley we have overly lofty expectations for our QB and this year was a big disappointment. I really thought the QB competition would be good for the team. In the end, I think it was bad. Some of it was it was uncontrollable with the concussion to Riley, but going back and forth prevented either QB from finding a rythym. What was most distressing to me was the lack of passing accuracy. The decision making skills of both Riley and Longshore were better than I expected, particularly Riley as a young guy (others would instead pick Longshore who didn’t throw many of his characteristic interceptions this year), but neither of them shined as far as getting the ball consistently to the intended receiver on target. I’m still pretty optimistic that Riley can turn the corner in 2009, but we’ll need better QB play moving forward if the Bears are going to make the step up to the next level.
  2. Kickoffs: A lot of this has to do with still not having a kicker who can get the ball into the endzone. It’s just so frustrating that it has been two years where we don’t have a kicker who can get the ball inside the 5 yardline. To make matters worse, Tavecchio often tried a bit too hard to extend his distance and the result was too many shanks that gave the opposition the ball at the 40. The short kicks seemed to give the opponent 5-10 yards of field position they didn’t deserve and with the defense playing as well as it did, it didn’t hurt too much, but there was that important return for a TD against Oregon State that really hurt, and probably cost the Bears the game, when the momentum swing is included.
  3. Pass protection: Even though I put quarterback play as the number one problem, let’s not forget that the deck was all too often stacked against them by weak pass protection. There were far too many times where a play would colapse before it could develop. Similarly it was clear from the coverage downfield that had the protection held, there would have been opportunities downfield. This is the 2nd year in a row that pass protection has been far weaker than run blocking. Hopefully this turns around soon.
  4. Losing on the road: Yeah, Cal played 4 of its 6 toughest games (Michigan St. (home), Maryland, Arizona, Oregon (home), USC and Oregon St.) on the road. However, it beat the two it had at home and lost all four on the road. Even if the Bears had only won one of those tough road games to finish 2-3 on the road (remember that the 5th road game was lowly WSU), I think I could have left it off the “what went wrong” list, but 1-4 on the road when you go 7-0 at home including wins over Oregon and Michigan State?… just can’t make excuses for that. Personally, I think the Bears are a better team than Maryland, OSU and Arizona and should beat those teams on a neutral field and should have beat at least one, if not two, traveling to their turf. Tedford and company need to figure out why the team is just a little bit out of sync on the road. It’s probably not my natural grass pet theory, but it’s got to be something.

Overall, it was a successful season. Overwhelming? No. But they met their expectations and excelled in enough new areas to give one hope for the future.

Next post up: What we lost to graduation
Two posts out: What we need for a successful 2009

(although there will probably be a signing-day post before those two)