Cal appears to be safe with its safeties.
Thomas DeCoud, Cal’s physically-gifted free safety, simply was mauling opposing players last season. Simply said, he was a beast. Then he got hurt, twisting his knee against Arizona State.
In came Bernard Hicks, and defensive backs coach R. Todd Littlejohn had one of those pleasant problems.
“I told Thomas that he was coming back, but he had a situation. Bernard was playing very well. I told Thomas that he would have to compete. I know that Thomas reduced his time of injury because he saw Hicks doing well.”
Even so, Hicks held on to his spot for quite some time, with DeCoud working his way back into the lineup a little at a time. “We created packages that would allow both to be on the field at the same time,” Littlejohn said. “Those two made each other better.”
Going into the 2007 season, Littlejohn is going to completely open up the competition for the two safety spots. Saying he wants to get his best players on the field, he says that neither job is safe. If that means Hicks will start at rover and DeCoud at free safety, so be it. If Brandon Hampton is the best guy at rover, then either Hicks or DeCoud might have trouble starting. So be it.
Considering that DeCoud and Hampton will be seniors, it will be hard keeping them off the field. “Thomas has such a love for football,” Littlejohn said. “He just enjoys playing the game. You can see that every play. He soaks up every bit of information that you give him. In the Holiday Bowl, he made some big-time plays against Texas A&M. He is the kind of guy who can start in the center of the field and go sideline to sideline. He acts almost silly at times, and kind of makes you think he isn’t serious. But he really is serious. He just loves the game.
“Hampton … he just makes plays. He is a scrappy guy who is pissed off because he doesn’t have all the measurables. But he will defy the odds. He knows himself what he can accomplish. His overall focus needs to improve. He is a good-humored young man and he needs to be serious more often. On the field, he needs to get better at man coverage. He has to be able to cover man-to-man the slot.”
If Hampton fell short of that coverage on occasion last season, he made up for it with some huge hits. “He keeps reminding me of that fact,” Littlejohn said with a laugh. “The kid makes plays. He says to me, ‘You can’t get me off the field.’ He is right.”
Those two will have their hands full with Hicks, who is a tremendous physical talent and a huge hitter. “Bernard is a hard, hard worker,” Littlejohn said. “I told him when Thomas went down, ‘Don’t give the job back. … DON’T GIVE the job back. He is a guy who studies the game, who wants to know what every player on the field is doing. He also likes to knock out everyone. I have to tell him that he doesn’t always need to knock everyone out. At the end of the year, he was making a lot of big tackles. He is very coachable. He wants to be a leader.”
Those three guys are going to dominate a lot of snaps at the two safety positions. A small step behind is sophomore Robert Peele. “He is as talented as all of them,” Littlejohn said. “He played three positions for us against Oregon State. He is extremely intelligent and he understands film. The biggest thing for him might be staying healthy. We might have some guys faster, but he is a tough competitor. He can play in the box because he is physical enough. I think we will see him mature this season.”
Marcus Ezeff saw most of his action of special teams and Littlejohn said he expects him to continue to be a force there this season. He also is pushing for more snaps at safety. “He has a bigger body (6-foot, 195) and he can be physical. He understands what is going on. He has the ability to cover the slot.”
MONDAY — Defensive line