Spring Fish Wrap – Berkeley Bears Edition

Time for a look at the Berkeley Bears. Coming off a nine-win ’08 season that saw some major ups, including an Emerald Bowl victory over Miami, still something was, oh, I don’t know, missing. Maybe it’s because of the talent that Cal rolls out every week, which rivals only USC and Oregon for tops in the conference? Maybe it’s the super-genius tag applied to Jeff Tedford and his staff’s ability to recruit with the big boys, year after year? It’s hard to figure out.

The reality is that Cal is, quite simply, an upper-echelon program under Tedford. They’ve won at least seven games every year since 2002, including 10 wins in ’02 and ’06. Tedford hasn’t disappointed in bowl games either, now 5-1 in the postseason in his time at Cal. But while bowl games (and wins) are nice, still, you add it all up and there is one major thing left on the to-do list – a BCS bowl in the Tedford regime.

Will that change this year? Can they actually kick down that door to BCS fame-n-fortune? Or will they flirt with greatness, yet settle in once again to ten-nine-eight-win world? Read on for more…

2008: 9-4, 6-3 in the PAC-10. Started out pretty good, but hit some snags in early November, losing back-to-back games at USC and Oregon State. At 6-4, there were worries that Cal might be headed for a bit of a 2007 relapse, where the team folded up the tents after running into some mid-season adversity. But Cal rallied, winning their last three games, including the Emerald Bowl, to post a very respectable nine wins.

FANS ARE: Pretty pleased with where things are. They haven’t yet had a losing season with the current regime, and Tedford has built a top-shelf program. Outside of their 7-6 struggle of ’07, Cal is always rated right there with Oregon as the top threats to USC, yet still looking up with the rest of the world at the Trojans. But the fans are also ready for a BCS bowl. To keep things going in a great direction, a New Years day appearance would go a long way towards shortening the gap even more between themselves and the men of Troy.


OFFENSIVE SYSTEM: Basically a pro-set with a fullback and tight-end, but a lot of different formations and looks. Cal might be a bit hot-n-cold in the passing game on a yearly basis, but their staples are always a strong, deep running game spearheaded by excellent offensive line play. While o-line coach/offensive assistant Jim Michalczik has moved on to UW, and then the NFL’s Oakland Raiders, things should still be business as usual. Let’s face it, the offense is Tedford’s baby, and regardless of coaching titles and such, it will remain his stamp on the program for as long as he resides in Berkeley.

’08 OFFENSIVE RATINGS: 4th in the PAC-10 in scoring (32.6 ppg), 5th in total offense, and 4th in rushing offense. Not as great as many felt they would be early in ’08, but still, pretty impressive. The downside was the passing offense, just 7th in the league with 189.8 yards per game.

’09 RETURNING OFFENSIVE STARTERS: 7, including top backs Jahvid Best and Share Vareen, and QB Kevin Riley.

TOP OFFENSIVE PLAYER: This is a layup. Jahvid Best is the top player on the team, the top running back in the PAC-10, and a sure Heisman candidate. The stats are extremely impressive (1580 rushing yards, 15 TD’s). But the yards per carry were an eye-popping 8.1, a school record! Think about that. That’s just 1.9 yards short of a first down, EVERY TIME HE CARRIED THE FOOTBALL! (Obligatory Youtube highlight in three…two…one….)

He finished the year on fire, including an amazing 311 yards rushing against the hapless Washington rushing defense. But it wasn’t just UW who he skewered down the stretch. Best would total 698 rushing yards in his last three games. A decent receiving threat with 246 yards receiving, Best was number two in the country in total yards per game. Oh yeah, he also had seven runs of at least 60 yards last year, including three that went for 80+. The man just defines explosive.

Now, the bad news – health. I liken Best to Achilles.

You know, just a fabulous specimen capable of pretty much anything you can conceive, yet he has that one soft spot on the heel that can bring him down. And health has not been Best’s buddy, with various ailments over the last couple of years that have somewhat kept him in check. Best missed spring ball with foot and elbow surgeries, but he should be ready to roll in August. A healthy Best could be the difference between the likes of the Emerald Bowl or something much, much bigger in ’09.

DEFENSIVE SCHEME: A tricky defense led by former Coug Bob Gregory, Cal throws tons of different looks at you. Most likely you’ll see a lot of 3-man fronts, with zone blitzing, etc.

’08 DEFENSIVE RATINGS: #2 in the PAC-10 in scoring defense, 4th in total defense, 3rd in rushing defense, and 5th in passing yards per game allowed. They were #3 in sacks with 35, and led the conference with an impressive 24 interceptions. An aggressive, upper-division defense.

’09 RETURNING DEFENSIVE STARTERS: An impressive 8 starters return from last year’s defense.

TOP DEFENSIVE PLAYER: There is a lot of talent here, however there are some big shoes to fill. Top linebackers and leading tacklers Zack Follett, Worrell Williams and Anthony Felder have all moved on from Berkeley. Follett’s loss could be enormous, as he totaled 87 tackles, an amazing 23.5 for loss with 10.5 sacks last year. He won’t be easy to replace. But all that said, corner Syd’Quan Thompson is back, and one heck of a talent. Not just a reputation as one of the top two or three defensive backs in the PAC-10 returning this season, but he’s a pretty good special teams guy as well:

Thompson had a big year in ’08, with 70 tackles, 7.5 for loss, and a team-high four interceptions. But the best part is that Thompson will have plenty of help next season. The entire starting secondary is back, so you have to believe they’ll continue their ball-hawking ways in ’09.

1) Can the defense overcome the loss of the big-time linebackers in Follett, Williams and Felder? Normally this would be a big concern, but maybe not so much for Cal. Why? Well, for one, they are super-deep at defensive line. Literally everyone is back up front, and that will be a huge boost to keeping the linebackers free to flow to the ball and make plays. As many people know, the linebackers on any defense are often only as good as the talent in front of them. If you have push-over defensive linemen, then the opposing offensive linemen can get out and put their hats on the linebackers. But if you have strength up front, the linebackers can do what they do best – run and hit. And while they will have three new faces at linebacker, they might not be in a better situation to break in as starters than what they have up front coming into ’09.

2) Is Kevin Riley going to take a big step forward this year? Or is he the true “Achilles heel” for Cal’s ’09 season? Riley was, to be fair, inconsistent in ’08. He averaged just 123.6 yards passing per game last year, which is not exactly top-notch. He took care of the ball, throwing 14 TD’s with six int’s. But even with that strong running game and an outstanding offensive line, he still completed barely more than 50% of his passes. Needless to say, but that isn’t getting the job done.

Riley also shared the job with Nate Longshore, but Longshore has now graduated. Besides, it can be hard to get a strong feel on how a QB will do when he isn’t looking over his shoulder every time he throws an incomplete pass? But even with Longshore out of the way, there is some uncertainty surrounding the QB spot coming into the season. There wasn’t a ton of ringing endorsements for Riley coming out of spring. And there are some younger QB’s who will push him, with the huge sophomore Brock Mansion and talented redshirt frosh Beau Sweenety. So like it or not, it is sink-or-swim time for Riley.

3) What is with the schedule? They open with Maryland at home, which is a game they will probably be favored to win, revenge-style from last year’s thrashing in the Terps’ backyard. After hosting Eastern WA in a likely “stat game”, they face a tough stretch, where they’ll go to Minnesota and at Oregon, in a game that could go a long way towards the PAC-10 title. And that game at Minnesota might be tricky. You know, changing a few time zones and facing an opponent they might not take too seriously with Oregon looming the following week? You think about what happened to Cal at Maryland last year (35-27 loss) and you have to wonder a little bit. But after Oregon, they open up October with the biggie, a home showdown with USC. All told, Cal has five PAC-10 road games, so it could be a tough road to the top.

WSU FOOTBALL BLOG SEZ: Earlier this spring I wasn’t so sure about Cal. Maybe it was the loss of the top linebackers, or the fact that Riley at QB wasn’t a sure thing. But after looking at them deeper, they look good. REALLY good.

While they lost some really good offensive linemen, and their top play-making linebackers, they still have a ton coming back on both sides of the ball. In fact, it could be said that of the likely top three in USC, Cal and Oregon, Cal has the most coming back for next year. That stretch of at Oregon and then hosting USC in back-to-back games is rough, but will be a huge two-week stretch in deciding who takes the PAC-10. After that October 3rd game with USC, if things go according to plan, Cal should be favored in every game the rest of the season (yes, I’m including the 10/24 game where they host WSU!).

I’m not exactly picking Cal to win this thing….at least not today. But if there IS going to be a year where USC fails to win the title for the first time since ’02, this could be the team that does it.

That’s it for today. ENJOY YOUR MONDAY, and GO COUGS!

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