A few days ago, we looked at which major Bay Area College offense should have the better season, and gave the slight edge to the Stanford Cardinal. This week, the defense and special teams are examined, and we see if the California Golden Bears are up to the task.
Defensive Linemen: Cameron Jordan seems to be ready for a breakout senior campaign, Derrick Hill and Kendrick Payne will be rotating to clog up the middle of the offensive line, Ernest Owusu, Trevor Guyton should show their worth after notching a year of experience under their belts, and Deandre Coleman is looming as the next big Cal star up front. Still, the loss of Tyson Alualu cannot be overstated--even with so much experience returning, it's hard not to think the linemen will drop off from last year's stellar run-stuffing performance.
The Cardinal, just like the Golden Bears, have also moved over to the 3-4. Sione Fua will anchor the middle and could be just as good as Hill and Payne in opening lanes for the linebackers to push through. The defensive ends are a bigger question. Both Chase Thomas and Thomas Keiser have moved to the linebacking unit, and have been replaced by the often-injured Matt Masifilo and Brian Bulcke. Masifilo can be a powerful force if he gets himself going and stays healthy, but the injury issues and the downgrade from Thomas and Keiser also knock the front three down a notch.
Edge: Golden Bears.
Linebackers: While Cal's middle was far from its strength in 2009, they should be much improved with three returning starters in D.J. Holt, Michael Mohamed and Mychal Kendricks. Mohamed is one of the best pass coverage linebackers in the country and has become the senior leader of the defense; although he struggles to get off blocks and isn't a physical tackler, his ability to read the offense and call in the defensive plays far outweighs those problems. The physicality comes from Holt, who is more of a run stuffer and should see his visibility increase this season. Kendricks looked particularly good near the end of last season in getting to the quarterback; he'll have to share those duties with converted defensive end Keith Browner. The only question is depth, with true freshmen Nick Forbes and David Wilkerson likely to see the playing field on the second unit--they might be good, but they're young.
Depth is one of only many questions the Cardinal suffer from this season. Only inside linebacker Shayne Skov should be quite settled in his position on the inside. They converted both Thomas and Keiser into outside linebackers, and their ability to drop back and cover pass patterns is completely up in the air. Owen Marecic starts his epic two-way experiment as an inside linebacker, and although it's a feel-good story for those yearning for the old days, no one knows how he'll handle being the one getting blocked. And while the Golden Bears are rather thin behind their starting four, no one knows any of the guys the Cardinal have lined up behind their top unit.
Edge: Golden Bears
Secondary: Uncertainty surrounds both units. Both had calamitous 2009s and are looking for any improvement they can find. Although Syd'Quan Thompson's presence didn't seem to make Cal's pass defense any better last season as the other 75% of the field, improvement from all areas could go a long way. Darian Hagan will try to rebound from a tough junior season (both on and off the field) and sophomore Marc Anthony (who played a little at the end of last season) takes over at the other corner spot. Safety Josh Hill will be quarterbacking the defensive backs (as a sophomore, impressively enough), and Chris Conte has three years of playing experience under his belt. Although there's plenty of talent in the second unit (Bryant Nnabuife and Steve WIlliams at the corners, Sean Cattouse and D.J. Campbell at the safeties), Thompson's absence weighs heavily on any determination of this unit's potential.
You can find no such confidence with the Cardinal defensive unit, as their secondary only returns one sure star in safety Delano Howell. Richard Sherman should deal better from his second year conversion as a corner, but no one knows what to expect on the other side of the field. Jonathan Bademosi became the other starting corner near the end of last season and the Bears and Irish still shredded their units. The biggest question is whether Michael Thomas can step into Bo McNally's shoes.
The Cardinal's secondary continues to be a work in progress--just like the secondary of the Golden Bears.
Special Teams: Bryan Anger is clearly one of the top punters in the country and shows potential to boom one everytime he hits the field, but David Green is no slouch himself. Cal averaged 41.56 yards per punt, Stanford 40.37. And Green's not even starting--Daniel Zychlinski has taken his spot. It's punt return coverage where the dropoff shows. The Cardinal allowed less than 7 yards per punt return, Cal nearly 10.
In terms of kicking, Nate Whitaker has gotten better as time has gone by in terms of field goal kicking (16 of 22 last season); it's hard to say how much trust Cal fans have in Giorgio Tavecchio, as the Bears had one of the worst placekicking units in the country. As for kickoffs? Whitaker is simply more consistent.
Finally, the return units. While no one will deny that Jeremy Ross is a dynamic athlete and Isi Sofele can be tough to take down in open space, neither of them compare to the returning Pac-10 Returner of the Year Chris Owusu, who took three kickoffs to the house. Owusu's status for opening day is uncertain, but when healthy, he'll be unbelievably dangerous for kickers to boot one towards. His current backup is Doug Baldwin, who is also the desginated punt returner. While they lose a step with Richard Sherman graduating (Sherman was second in punt returns last year behind Damian Williams of USC), the Cardinal special teams unit excelled in 2009, and there's no reason to expect a huge dropoff in 2010.
Keep in mind a few special teams mistakes (a blocked punt and a big kick return) led to a couple of touchdowns that closed the margin of last year's Big Game. Although Pete Alamar is gone and Jeff Genyk should have a better unit in place for Cal, you'd have to give the edge to the team that's already been doing it right.
Big Edge: Cardinal.
Conclusions: Usually the team with the best front seven ends up winning in close Saturday games, and in this case you have to go with Cal. So much experience is returning and plenty of key players can come off the bench and contribute meaningful minutes both up front and in the back. Obviously the big wild card is special teams (the small wild card is how well the Cardinal can play in that new 3-4), but if the Golden Bears can make all that returning experience coalesce, could things will happen for them when the other team has the ball.