Cal defensive line coach Ken Delgado was direct. “This will be the most inexperienced group we ever have taken into a season. We have a lot of talent, but it is unproven.”
In a season where Cal hopes to challenge for the Pac-10 title, that’s a scary thought.
The good news for Cal fans is that Delgado has a lot of raw talent. His ability to transform that talent into Pac-10 quality linemen might go a long ways toward determining Cal’s fate.
A lot of responsibility will fall on the rather large shoulders of defensive tackle Matt Malele, a 335-pounder who will be a senior. “It’s going to be a big spring for Matt,” Delgado said. “He has to establish leadership. It is very critical that he is a solid player for us.”
Malele combined with Brandon Mebane last season to make is very tough for opponents to try to run up the gut. “I hate to term anyone as a run stopper,” Delgado said. “It puts a limitation on them. But Matt has to anchor us.”
He also has to direct traffic. “Matt is very smart, one of the most intelligent players I’ve ever been around,” Delgado said. “He is going to have to be very verbal. It’s very important that he handles all the communication and that he stay healthy.”
Delgado said that Malele needs to work to become a better pass rusher, but he adds, “The laws of gravity work against him as a pass rusher.”
Next to Malele most likely will be Mika Kane, a 300-pounder who was headed toward a starting job on opening day last season when he broken his hand. Kane had a hard time working his way into the lineup most of the season after he returned. “He didn’t play as strong a role last season,” Delgado said. “But now he needs to be imposing with his presence. He has to make plays. He has power close to Mebane’s, but he doesn’t show it at times. He has to have that sense of urgency. It is time for him to cut it loose.”
Derrick Hill and Mike Costanzo were highly regarded recruits last season who both had knee injuries that kept them off the field. Delgado said Costanzo is about 95 percent now and Hill appears to be totally healthy. Since Costanzo’s knee injury was more severe, Delgado said he has a better feel for what Hill can do, seeing him on the field more. But he said both are fit enough to go through all the drills in the spring. “They are both defnitely talented enough,” Delgado said. “It’s just a matter of logging the hours.”
If either Hill or Costanzo gives Delgado to guy he can rotate into the lineup, it appears that Tyson Alualu will line up at defensive end. “Tyson is very powerful and athletic,” Delgado said. “He also is very mature (despite being a sophomore). I was watching film of the Tennessee game last season. He wasn’t the least bit intimidated. He wasn’t overwhelmed. He has tremendous power. I think he can be our next playmaker. He is not going to be a speed rush guy, but he will be a power end.”
Defensive end should be a wide open competition in spring camp. Cody Jones showed he could be dependable last season as a freshman. “Cody was a surprise,” Delgado said. “He sort of got pushed into duty, and he was steady.He has to continue to get stronger and he has to take that next step, make more plays, be more dynamic.”
Rulon Davis, who missed time toward the end of last season with a stress fracture in his shin, is a 6-foot-5, 275-pounder with outstanding athletic skills. “I’m very excited about Rulon,” Delgado said. “People have to realize, he played only one season of junior college ball and he was off a long time. He was playing last year in a technical environment, something that junior college is not. He has tremendous physical ability. He can really run. He is poised to make a move. But this spring, he has to show that he can be consistent with his assignments. He has to do the right things within schemes.
“No one in the Pac-10 will have a defensive end who looks like him. It’s just a question of whether we can get it going.”
Tad Smith is a sophomore who is coming off knee surgery. “This time last year, I really was pleased with Tad,” Delgado said. “Then he got put on the shelf. He is a playmaker. He drilled with us during bowl week and it was , Wow. He is going to be a factor.
Senior John Allen is a walk on who is a steady, solid player according to Delgado. “He is one of our more sound technical players. He could be a Steve Kelly kind of guy.”
Delgado can’t wait to get incoming freshman Scott Smith into camp. “He could establish himself right now,” Delgado said. “He is every bit a Mebane.” Delgado also said that incoming defensive end Cameron Jordan might develop into a guy who can go inside.
Delgado said that senior defensive end Phillip Mbakogu is trying to get back into playing shape, having undergone another knee surgery. However, it is an extreme longshot that he will be able to continue his career.
Tomorrow: RUNNING BACKS