Cal's defensive backfield, as a whole, is in great shape. Starting rover Brandon Hampton returns as does starting cornerback Syd'Quan Thompson and free safeties Bernard Hicks and Thomas DeCoud, who split the starting duties. However, defensive coordinator Bob Gregory will have to decide whether to move a guy like DeCoud to corner, or hope that sophomore-to-be Robert Peele will be ready for the challenge. Junior college transfers seldom have much of an impact their first year so that route isn't likely. There also is a wild card in the mix. Cal will petition the NCAA for a sixth year for cornerback Tim Mixon, who blew out his knee in training camp and missed the 2006 season. Mixon was injured in the fourth game of a 14-game season in 2003 and missed most of that season as well.
We hope that Mixon gets another year. There have been some rumors that it is not looking so good. Terry Mixon, Tim's younger brother, is coming to campus next year and might be a replacement choice. While I think Hughes is a dominating player, it is not as if Cal had the best pass defense. The loss of Hughes can be mitigated with better play by the unit as a whole. More time together leads to better communication and less missed assignments.
The next issue is tailback. Although Marshawn Lynch hasn't announced his intention to enter the NFL draft, he most likely is gone. Draft experts have been predicting that he will go in the first round and it would be a huge risk to his financial future to return.
In his place next season will be Justin Forsett, who has excelled as a part-time player but has yet to carry the load as a starter for an entire season. At 5-foot-8, 185 pounds, Forsett probably eased the minds of Old Blues with a 124-yard rushing effort in the Holiday Bowl.
One of Cal's top 2006 recruits, James Montgomery, also will be ready to go after redshirting his first season.
Montgomery is touted as the next great Cal tailback. Forsett can have a J.J. like season because he is a straight line runner that can hit holes quickly. Watch for Tracy Slocum, redshirt freshman, and Jahvid Best, an incoming speedster, next year.
Shifting back to defense, Cal continues to search for the Holy Grail, also known as a pass rush force off the edge. Senior defensive end Nu'u Tafisi led the Bears with 5.5 sacks this season. That kind of sack total isn't going to strike fear into the heart of any quarterback.
Both Tafisi, and fellow senior defensive end Abu Ma'afala, will be gone. Defensive end Philip Mbakogu, expected to be Cal's top pass rusher this season, has never recovered from offseason knee surgery and his career might be over.
Rulon Davis, who missed most of this season with a stress fracture in his leg, looks the part at 6-5, 275 pounds. However, he is unproven.
Freshmen talents Cody Jones and Tyson Alualu will have to make some huge strides.
Although defensive tackle Brandon Mebane will be gone, defensive line coach Ken Delgado has stockpiled young talent in players such as Mika Kane, Derrick Hill and Michael Costanzo.
Pass rush was a concern all year. Cal did not have a dominating pass rusher like Andre Carter or Ryan Riddle. Philip Mbakogu was supposed to be the next big thing, but he has had injury problems. Incoming JC recruits can make an impact in pass rushing so many Cal has some help coming in there. Someone has to step up and I don't think we will know who until next year. Riddle really came out of nowhere before leading the nation in sacks.
Linebacker appears to be secure even though the Bears lost Pac-10 defensive player of the year Desmond Bishop along with Mickey Pimentel.
Sophomore Zack Follett is a huge playmaker who should be one of the conference's top defensive players in 2007. He will form a dynamite one-two punch inside along with junior-to-be Worrell Williams.
Anthony Felder had an injury plagued 2006 after earning freshman All American honors in 2005. Pimentel's departure should open up a spot for him.
Bishop was the heart of the defense and will be missed. But Cal is loaded at linebacker. Every year Tedford recruits bigger and faster linebackers and they learn the system with a couple years on the bench. Williams - Follett - Felder will be one of the top LB units in the nation. Also, Moye off the bench and Shea McIntyre, a hard hitting freshman, should lend depth to the unit.
The offense should be dynamic with wide receivers Jackson, Robert Jordan and Lavelle Hawkins all returning. Quarterback Nate Longshore will have a full season under his belt and will be coming off a 19-of-24 passing performance in the Holiday Bowl. Cal has arguably the best returning tight end in the conference in Craig Stevens.
Jackson, Jordan, Hawkins, nuff said. Longshore had a great performance to end the season. He deserves to open the season as the starting QB. The 2nd year under Tedford is usually the break out year. (See Aaron Rodgers). Watch for Cameron Morrah in the TE position. He is Cal's version of Antonio Gates.
No worries on the pass blocking. They do a good job of keeping Longshore upright. Lets hope that the road maulers that showed up at the Holiday Bowl are ready at the beginning of next season.
...and the first-team all-conference center returning in Alex Mack and a second-team tackle in Mike Gibson.
If Mike Tepper, who will be a junior, develops into an impact player as expected, Cal's offensive line should be better.