No I ain’t tryin’ ta be a busta and be hatin’. I simply figured it was a legitimate question worth asking. Don’t get me wrong, I think our linebackers will be among the nation’s best this year. And everyone knows our starting linebackers are supposed to be the strength not only of our defense, but our team as a whole. With three returning senior starters, and a plethora of young talent who will get their fair share of playing time, our linebacking crew this year appears to be the only sure unit for a young Cal squad filled with questions going into the fall.
However, one has to wonder how much of the hype surrounding our linebacking corp this year has been generated from years of outstanding linebacker play, and how much of it is the result of a deep longing for solidity on the defensive side of the ball. More simply put, are we excited about this years’ linebackers because of what we’ve seen them do, or because of what we hope they will do?
To help illustrate my points, BearswithFangs is hyphied out to show off some Cal Linebacker highlights from none other than Danzig himself, who has made a name for himself among Cal fans the past year as THE source for Cal video highlights.
Reasons to be scared:
As talented as the linebacking corp. has been thus far, all three starters have shown moments of inconsistency the past few years. In fact, starters Worrell Williams and Anthony Felder performances were so inconsistent last year that they actually lost their starting spots in two games towards the backend of Cal’s slide last season to seniors Greg Van Hoesen and Justin Moye.
And to clarify, by “inconsistent,” I simply mean a varying propensity to be out of position or to miss tackles. It’s not a matter of nitpicking, it’s a matter of the lasting impression I have from a few previous games, namely allowing Washington to rush for 334 yards, after having allowed USC to rush for 239 yards the week prior. Cal ranked an 76th in the nation in sacks per game and an abysmal 110th in tackles for a loss per game, last in the Pac-10 in both categories. Much can be said about the Cal team as a whole playing poorly during the “Callapse,” but the fact still remains that the linebacking crew were at times unimpressive.
We’ve seen enough big plays from the squad that I don’t believe that any issues were the result of a lack of talent, or athleticism. Nor do I profess to know exactly why the unit didn’t play “lights out” every game as we knew they had the ability to do. Whether it was a lack of focus or leadership, there were a few moments that left Cal fans wondering where to look to for defensive inspiration last year.
While Worrell Williams has remained relatively healthy the past few seasons, the other two starters have not been as fortunate. Zack Follett has been victim to a neck stinger that put him out of action for two and a half games last year. The length of time that Follett was sidelined was not so much of a concern as the type of injury he incurred, involving nerves and discs in the neck. It’s the type of injury that one is unsure one can fully recover from, especially for a player that plays with the motor and impact that Follett does.
Anthony Felder had battled injuries for most of his first two years at Cal before having a healthy and productive season his Junior Year. Time will tell whether Felder will be able to keep his healthy streak going.
With the increased play that all three linebackers will see this year, it will be absolutely critical that they are able to remain healthy and mainly injury free if Cal is to be as productive on offense as they are expected to be.
Reasons to be excited:
The new scheme will allow the best players more opportunities to make big plays. Don’t believe me? Consider this: Zack Follett recorded more than half as many sacks as the entire Cal defensive line last year, despite missing nearly 3 full games. Even more shocking, Follett had more tackles for losses than Cal’s top four leading defensive linemen in the tackles for loss category. The top three tacklers on the team were none other than Cal’s starting linebackers.
This is not intended to be a knock on last year’s defensive line (although most will be quick to point out the drastic improvement in play Cal needs from that unit—more on that for another day). I am merely pointing out the level of production the linebacking unit achieved last year in the 4-3 scheme.
Now imagine a 3-4 scheme in which more of these playmakers can be on the field at once. Will the defense as a whole be better that last year’s. That remains to be seen (although God, I hope so). But expect to see even more linebackers planted in even more piles and highlights this year.
One of the most striking differences between the NFL and NCAA football is the difference a few years make in the quality of play from a player. Whereas in the NFL a player’s performance may plateau for a few years once they’ve hit their stride, collegiate player’s performance on the field is often so remarkably improved between one’s freshman year and their junior or senior year, that it’s at times it can be nearly impossible to compare the two.
Cal’s returning three starters have played solidly for the past three years, steadily improving each year with more of a pronounced role in each year’s team. However, Cal fans should be excited at the luxury of three veteran, senior linebackers, all of whom have shown themselves to be reliable, if not at times spectacular. The starters share 53 starts among the three of them, and should be ready to lead the rest of the linebacking crew all season.
Fall Camp will ultimately reveal who will be taking the other starting OLB spot opposite Zack Follett. While most expect Mike Mohammed to lock up the spot in the fall, an injury kept Mohammed out of most of Spring Ball, opening the doors to show what Eddie Young could do. In fact, Young played so well that Worrell Williams even predicted that Young would be the starter.
Mike Mohammed played in all 13 games last year and got the start in one of them, tallying 46 tackles and 3 pass breakups as a redshirt freshman. Mohammed finished the season strong, recording 24 tackles in his last 5 games.
Eddie Young on the other hand, had less playing time last year (recording only 12 tackles), but has an extra year of experience under his belt. His limited game time however has shown bursts of big playmaking ability however, as Young has already netted a sack, a forced fumble, and an interception in his few game appearances. Either way, one can expect that whoever will fill in will have necessary game time experience to contribute right away.
In addition to the starters, Cal has a number of linebackers who will provide perhaps the most depth of any unit on the team. DJ Holt, a redshirt freshman, was last year’s defensive scout player of the year. He was reported to have been talented enough to play right away, had it not been for the five other juniors and senior linebackers who rotated starts last year.
Devin Bishop (yes, Desmond Bishop’s younger brother) also redshirted last year despite coming to Cal as a four star prospect by Rivals and one of the best JC linebackers in the nation. If Devin can play anything like his brother, Cal fans have little to worry about.
Solomona Aigamaua, Charles Johnson, and Shea McIntyre should also be ready to contribute as well. Depth should not be an issue this year.
I believe that psychology plays such an essential role in a team’s overall performance, that it’s almost funny how little it is regarded as a serious issue. However, the lack of leadership on last year’s Cal squad during their illustrious slide has been brought up countless times over the last few months, and much has been made recently about how this year will be different. From the words of Coach Jeff Tedford, to players’ vows, and seminars on fans and media have heard an enduring message throughout the offseason, leadership will not be an issue this year.
And which players specifically have stepped up? Namely Alex Mack on offense, and none other than Zack Follett and Worrell Williams on defense. Follett in particular, has made a personal mission of being a visible leader on and off the field. It is my firm belief that Follett and the other linebackers will play with more direction on the field this year, with a newly embraced sense of confidence, focus and leadership.
So should we be excited or not?
Yes. Yes you should. Call me a believer. I think we have much to look forward to in this year’s linebacking corp. Don’t believe me? Watch the highlights again. T he talent and athleticism is there. The instincts, the camaraderie are all there. And based on what we’ve heard so far from the players in camp, the leadership, trust, and drive will be there in full force.
Expect big things from our linebackers this year. One, because we have to if we hope to have more success on defense this year. But more importantly, because there’s good reason to.