Jeff Tedford looked like a content and confident man when he met with media members this summer — and who could blame him?
The Cal football coach is already a beloved figure around Strawberry Canyon and enters his sixth season at the school with perhaps his most athletic and talented roster to date. For the 12th-ranked Bears, this could be the year they advance beyond very good and break into a BCS bowl.
“When I look around at them, I can’t think of another team we’ve had with the overall team speed this group has,” Tedford said. “And they’re all excited to get going.”
Both the speed and optimism start with electrifying wide receiver-return man DeSean Jackson, a junior who was first-team All-Pac-10 Conference last season and has already been named a preseason All-American by numerous outlets. He will be joined out wide by seniors Lavelle Hawkins and Robert Jordan, giving the Bears one of the most potent receiving trios in the Pac-10, if not the nation.
Quarterback Nate Longshore will again be charged with distributing the ball after throwing for 3,021 yards and 24 touchdowns last year. And Tedford said the redshirt junior is looking even more comfortable under center as he enters his second season as the starter.
At running back, senior Justin Forsett has to fill the big shoes of the departed Marshawn Lynch. The 5-foot-8, 196-pounder is averaging 6.4 yards per carry over his career and will look for lanes behind an offensive line led by junior center Alex Mack.
Defensively, new players will be called upon to replace leaders Desmond Bishop, Daymeion Hughes and Mickey Pimentel. But the talent is there to keep Pac-10 offenses in check, beginning with middle linebacker Zack Follett and cornerback Syd’Quan Thompson.
In addition, the schedule is also working in Cal’s favor. Several big games are at home, including a potentially huge showdown against preseason No. 1 Southern Cal on Nov. 10 that could be for first place in the Pac-10.
FIVE KEYS TO THE SEASON
1 There are plenty of playmakers on both sides of the ball. But if Cal is to have the type of success it wants, it will be up to Nate Longshore to pull the trigger. On the surface, Longshore’s numbers from last year look pretty good: 60.2 completion percentage, 3,021 yards passing, 24 touchdowns against 12 interceptions. But half of his TDs came in three games, meaning he spread the other 12 over nine games. Longshore has shown the ability to come through in the clutch, as evidenced by his play in the comeback win over Washington.
2 If Longshore is putting up bigger, more consistent numbers, that can only mean one thing — DeSean Jackson is causing havoc. The versatile speedster is one of the most dangerous players in the country when he has a sliver of space and the ball in his hands. Jackson, who had 59 catches for 1,060 yards, tied for second in the Pac-10 Conference with 13 touchdowns. Four of those scores came on punt returns, a category in which he led the nation with an 18.2-yard average.
3 Losing four key players — including Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year Daymeion Hughes — on defense might be cause for concern most years. But the Bears are loaded on that side of the ball this season. The hard-hitting secondary will be giving plenty of time to the front seven, with three returning linemen and a very spirited linebacking corps.
4 Cal gets its big games — well, not that Big Game — at home this year. Beginning with the revenge game against Tennessee and including the Nov. 10 showdown with Southern Cal, the Bears have the outside forces on their side this time around. Road games against Oregon, Arizona State and Washington are potential stumbling blocks before squaring off with ancient rival Stanford.
5 After a short-lived experiment with altering coach Jeff Tedford’s offense by sprinkling in the Northwestern spread formation influence, the Bears should be back to their power-formation selves.Offensive line coach Jim Michalczik was promoted to offensive coordinator, which can only make the big road graters upfront very happy. — Staff report
FIVE IMPACT PLAYERS
The explosive junior is Cal’s poster boy this season. He has graced national magazine covers and been named to virtually every preseason All-America list. In what could be his final season in Berkeley, can he live up to the hype?
POSITION: Defensive tackle
The stocky senior returns as the leader of an experienced defensive line after Brandon Mebane’s departure for the NFL. The third-year starter dropped 20 pounds in the offseason and is a key component to the Bears stopping the run.
After a standout first year as a starter and earning first-team All-Pac-10 Conference honors, the athletic junior has joined his skill-position teammates as a player to watch nationally. His versatility is such that coaches toyed with him at tackle in the spring.
Learning from Daymeion Hughes last year can only mean better things this year for Thompson. The dynamic sophomore started every game his freshman season. He is the corner with the most experience. All other candidates are freshmen and sophomores.
Not many outside of Berkeley knew about Follett before last season, when he became the only nonstarter in the nation to earn first-team all-conference honors. With Desmond Bishop and Mickey Pimentel gone, Follett will be counted upon for leadership.
ON THE HOT SEAT: JUSTIN FORSETT
How do you replace a star running back who was a first-round NFL draft pick (Pac-10 Conference Offensive Player of the Year Marshawn Lynch)? Hopefully you have a reliable backup. Calling Forset a backup is a bit of a misnomer since he has rushed for 1,625 yards over the last two seasons, including 999 as a sophomore. But this year, the senior will be the one carrying the load on a regular basis and be asked to pick up the tough yards. Forsett has six 100-yard rushing performances to his credit and averaged a healthy 6.39 yards per carry last season. Anything close to that latter number and Cal should be just fine.
There haven’t been expectations this sky-high for Cal since, well, last year. Things disintegrated quickly with the blowout at Tennessee, but the Bears bounced back behind quarterback Nate Longshore. Coach Jeff Tedford has title aspirations — national title, that is. A trip to the Rose Bowl probably means one thing: Southern Cal is playing for the championship.
Sept. 1: vs. Tennessee- 5 p.m.
Sept. 8: at Colorado State- 11 a.m.
Sept. 15: vs. Louisiana Tech- TBA
Sept. 22: vs. Arizona- TBA
Sept. 29: at Oregon- TBA
Oct. 6: Bye
Oct. 13: vs. Oregon State- TBA
Oct. 20: at UCLA- TBA
Oct. 27: at Arizona State- 7 p.m.
Nov. 3: vs. Washington State- 7 p.m.
Nov. 10: vs. Southern Cal- 5 p.m.
Nov. 17: at Washington- TBA
Nov. 24: Bye
Dec. 1: at Stanford (Big Game)- 4 p.m.
HOW IT WILL END
12-1 This may be the most balanced of Jeff Tedford’s teams. With athleticism and game-breakers everywhere, this should be the year the Bears finally beat Southern Cal and go to a BCS game.
Does Cal have what it takes to win the Pac-10?
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