Five keys to Cal's season:
1. Find game-changers
Gone to the NFL are running back Justin Forsett, receivers DeSean Jackson, Robert Jordan and Lavelle Hawkins and tight end Craig Stevens. Those five players combined to score 35 of Cal’s 46 touchdowns last season. Who fills those big shoes is one of the biggest questions facing the Bears, and they need an answer in a hurry. Expect dynamic tailback Jahvid Best, who showed his big-play capability as a true freshman last season, to have no problem carrying the load in the backfield. Junior Cameron Morrah brings experience to the tight end spot, but the big mystery remains at wide receiver. Florida transfer Nyan Boateng, seniors LaReyelle Cunnigham and Sean Young and freshman Marvin Jones need to develop into reliable receiving options.
2. Finish, finish, finish
Cal soared to as high as No. 2 in the rankings last season after a 5-0 start before plummeting back to earth by losing six of its final eight games. In 2006, the Bears lost two late-season games that derailed their BCS dreams. This year’s team needs to find a way to finish out the season. It may be tough with the bevy of new faces Cal will trot out this year, but the seniors have to find a way. With mediocre opponents in Oregon State, Stanford and Washington to close out the season, two of which are at home, anything less than 3-0 in the final three games would be a disappointment and a missed opportunity. Should coach Jeff Tedford’s team have any aspirations of playing in a BCS game, it needs to close out the year with same intensity it started with.
3. Adjusting to the 3-4
The linebackers were the strength of Cal’s defense last season and the coaching staff has adjusted accordingly this year, switching from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4 alignment. The switch should benefit Cal as it will put a better athlete on the field and allow its speedy linebackers to blitz opposing teams from different spots. That should allow Cal to improve on the paltry 22 sacks it recorded last season and to step up its shoddy run defense. The Bears allowed the second-most rushing yards in the Pac-10 last season as injuries decimated the defensive line. The return of Rulon Davis should provide a boost up front, while senior linebackers Zack Follett and Worrell Williams will be the emotional leaders of a unit that could be the backbone of this team.
4. Quarterback production
A two-quarterback system can divide a locker room and there were rumors of that taking place at Cal at the end of last season. Now that Tedford has named Kevin Riley his starter, the team needs to put its full support behind him. Tedford’s policy has generally been to avoid rotating QBs at all costs. He has left the door open to playing both signal-callers this year, however. The fact that he waited so long to name a starter shows how close the battle between Riley and Nate Longshore was. This young team can’t afford a fractured locker room again and needs consistent play from its signal-caller. Both quarterbacks must learn to manage the offense, limit turnovers and get the ball in the hands of playmakers.
5. Special teams
While losing Jackson at receiver hurts, it may be on special teams where his impact is felt the most. The speedster had the ability to take a punt to the house at any time. Some of the return responsibilities may fall to redshirt freshman running back Shane Vereen, who has impressed Tedford during summer practices. Cal also loses punter and kickoff specialist Andrew Larson, who was fifth in the conference last season, averaging 41.1 yards per punt. Redshirt freshman Bryan Anger appears to be the likely candidate to taking over punting duties. Senior kicker Jordan Kay is back, but hit on just 13 of 20 field-goal attempts last season and needs to improve his accuracy.
The senior center has NFL first-round talent and enters this season as a Rimington Trophy contender, given to the nation’s best offensive lineman. The leader of an offensive line that returns three starters and surrendered the fewest amount of sacks in the Pac-10 Conference last season, Mack should be leaned upon even more this year. He is a big reason the Bears averaged 4.9 yards per carry last year.
The senior safety should be the rock in the Bears’ secondary this season. Often overlooked because of other playmakers, Hicks is rock-solid against the run and can hold his own against the pass. The 5-foot-11, 210-pounder started nine games last season and recorded 40 tackles. As the only senior in the defensive backfield this year, he will be leaned on even more and the Bears need Hicks to respond.
The redshirt freshman wide receiver out of San Lorenzo High has impressed during spring and summer practices. Calvin offers Cal something its talented receiving core didn’t posses last season — size. The 6-foot-2, 202-pounder should provide Cal quarterbacks a nice target to find this season going across the middle of rugged Pac-10 defenses. Calvin earned the scout team Player of the Year honor on offense while he redshirted.
The 5-foot-9 junior cornerback has started every game of his career. Thompson has shown gradual improvement along the way and is quickly developing into a shutdown corner. His 10 pass breakups last season were good for 11th-most in a single season at Cal. Thompson will generally draw the opposing team’s top target when Cal plays man defense and he has proven he can hold his own.
The former Fresno State and North Carolina offensive coordinator will take over the play-calling duties. Tedford tried to give up the responsibilities to Mike Dunbar previously, but it didn’t last long. It will be interesting to see how much rope Tedford gives Cignetti, who will have plenty of weapons to work with. If Cignetti can introduce his own wrinkles into the system, the offense should be even more explosive.
GAME TO WATCH
Pete Carroll’s Southern Cal squad has dominated the Pac-10 scene for years and if Cal wants to break through and earn a conference championship, all roads lead through Trojan land. The Nov. 8 showdown at 5 p.m. in Los Angeles is a chance for Cal to prove it belongs among the elite teams in the country.
A lot of question marks surround the Bears with so many key players having departed. How quickly this new core meshes together will determine if the Bears will play in a sixth straight bowl game. We think the Bears, led by the immensely talented Jahvid Best, will surprise some people and turn a “rebuilding” year into a retooling year. Look for Cal to finish 8-4.