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fullback powering into spring

Today I’ll take a look at fullback, but first a few notes.

One, I had typo the other day in the cornerbacks story that some of you have brought to me attention (thanks). It should have said that Syd-Quan Thompson does NOT shy away from guarding the top wide receivers. Of course, he doesn’t.

Second, Jeff Tedford met with the media on Wednesday to talk spring football. Some of you wondered why I didn’t mention Keith Browner the other day. I thought he was hurt, but I wasn’t sure. Indeed, he has had surgery on both shoulders. So he will be on the shelf for some time.

Tedford also said they are still waiting to see if Steve Kelly has been granted a sixth year.

Coach Tedford also said that while he is disappointed the stadium construction has not begin, he is confident they will be moving forward in the not too distant future. He doesn’t seem to be wigging out about the entire thing. He said his contract should be approved in a couple of weeks.

He also said that a delay in construction doesn’t mean the project still can’t be completed near the previous end date.

Now, about those fullbacks,

Will Ta’ufo’ou was forced into action in the bowl game due to Byron Storer’s injury. “He actually did a real good job,” said Cal running backs coach Ron Gould. “He saw significant action and he perfomed at a level we thought he would. There is a lot of snap to him when he hits somebody.”

The biggest thing with him is to show us that day in and day out he will play consistently, have that work ethic in practice.

Gould was asked if Ta’ufo’ou could handle the pass receiving duties that have been very important for Cal fullbacks. “He has soft hands,” Gould said. “Soft hands.”

Gould also said that Ta’ufo’ou’s makeup is perfect for a thankless position. He loves to hit and isn’t worried about the glory. “The first thing we ask our fullbacks to do is block,” Gould said. “The second thing we ask our fullbacks to do is block. The third thing is to catch and then we might just turn around and hand it to them. It is a thankless position. Rarely do you see a guy get glory for opening a hole.”

“Will has to learn the responsibility of being a starter and he has to keep his weight down. I would like to see him about 240-245.”

Walk on Brian Holley, a sophomore, is fighting for backup duties. “He’s a very smart guy and a hard worker,” Gould said. “He’s got to get stronger and he has to be able to catch the ball better. I’ve got to make sure our backups are ready to go this spring.”

Red-shirt freshman R.J. Garrett will get a long look in the spring. “He is in great shape and he has a physical presence,” Gould said. “He has to learn the system and learn to catch the ball better.”

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Running into spring

It’s tailback day.

When you lose an incredible runner like Marshawn Lynch, the intial reaction is YIKES.

That might be tempered just a bit at Cal because Justin Forsett is on hand. He has rushed for 1,674 yards his first three seasons. Now he will be the No. 1 guy and that’s the major question. Will be offer enough of a threat to keep the emphasis off Cal’s wonderful trio of wide receivers.

“He’s been a proven guy who has taken advantage of every opportunity,” said Cal running backs coach Ron Gould. “I’m excited to see him play down in and down out. He has to get stronger and bigger. He is about 190 and he needs to be 195-198 to withstand the pounding.”

At 5-foot-8, Forsett hasn’t had to withstand pounding as the starter for a six, seven game run. So far, though, he has been very durable.

“He has a tremendous work ethic,” Gould said. “He is second to none. He also plays with a lot of passion, a lot of heart. He came off the field after a drive stalled against Stanford (Forsett didn’t hit the right hole), he said, ‘I stopped that drive coach.’ He was mad at himself. I told him not to worry about it and that he would learn from these situations. He said, “Yeah, but I stopped the drive.”

Gould loves the attitude. He also likes Forsett’s quickness and his strength. He said he benches 350 pounds.

The biggest question for Cal and Gould is, “Who is No. 2?”

“Part of my job (this spring) is to develop the No. 2 guy. I’ve told them all that I am looking for a second guy. Right now we don’t have one. We have to figure out which guy wants to step up to the plate. It’s a coin toss.”

James Montgomery is a very talented red-shirt freshman who showed his talent during drills. “He is a very talented young man,” Gould said. “We thought we might have to play him last season. But I thought that red-shirting was the best thing for him. He has picked up the system well and he is getting stronger. He’s a good sized kid and he knows how to get into the open field. He is extremely fast. Now he is learning how to be patient. That’s a transition that all these guys go through.

Like Montgomery, Tracy Slocum red-shirted his freshman season. “He is a very physical player,” Gould said. “He just throws guys off him. He is a slasher who has good feet. He is learning the game and the intensity in which we have to practice.”

Intensity is something that Gould has stressed to all his running backs. He wants them all to pick up the intensity this spring.

Bryan Schutte is a tailback who made a big impression during workouts last season, but was buried behind Lynch and Forsett. “People take him for granted because he is tall, kind of a Brad Muster. But he probably is one of the fastest runners on the team. He is deceptively fast. And the guys nicknamed him “The President” because he is so smart. He sees the whole thing. He has to learn that without the ball, he has to be just as physical.

And all of our tailbacks have to improve in their ability to catch the ball.

Although that neither guy is here yet, Gould knows that incoming freshmen Shane Vareen and Jahvid Best will be joining the team for summer camp. “Best is a very skilled kid who can score from anywhere on the field. He is raw.

“Vareen is such a great athlete and one of the fastest kids in the country. He also has the ability to catch the ball.

Tomorrow: FULLBACKS

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spring defensive line

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

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spring into safety

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

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Mack and company

So I asked Jim Michalczik, still offensive line coach but now also the offensive coordinator, if he was going to make big changes with his new role, such as scrapping this Tedford offense. “We’re going to run the wishbone,” Coach M. said with a laugh.

No, Michalczik isn’t planning any sweeping changes, except for maybe his own unit. Talking about spring ball, Michalczik said he will take a look at center Alex Mack at tackle.

Taking a guy who projects to be one of the top centers in the country and switching positions is pretty bold stuff. But the thought of such a move has more to do with Cal’s overall situation on the offensive line.

Mike Gibson, who became of the top right tackles in the Pac-10 in only a half season of play, is going to miss spring ball following shoulder surgery. It was a pre-existing condition he had in junior college, so imagine what he will be like completely healthy

Mack and Gibson are kind of the sure things on a line that has experienced guys, but also guys who have a lot to prove. Are Brian De La Puente and Noris Malele ready to take that step forward to be difference makers instead of just guys? Is Mike Tepper ready to play up to his tremendous physical potential? Is Chris Guarnero ready to handle Pac-10 competition at center? Is Kevin Bemoll ready to put his tremendous strength to good use?

Michalczik will have to examine all those issues and then piece together a lineup. He also emphasizes that just getting Mack ready to play tackle, even if he ends up at center, is great insurance in case of injuries down the road. You don’t want a guy learning on the job in the middle of a Pac-10 season.

No matter where Mack ends up, he will make a difference. “He’s a pretty darned good player,” Michalczik said. “Of course, he needs to work on being a better player. He really is just a one-year player and he can improve on his pass blocking. He also goes too far at times with those first steps when he tries to get a linebacker.”

Mack quickly has developed into a team leader. “He is a little quiet,” Coach M. said. “But he has done a great job in the off-season on conditioning. He is an amazing worker. Playing in high school, he played harder snap to whistle than any kid I’d ever seen. He is a grinder. He’s the guy who you want to have shoveling dirt in your back yard, because you know the work is going to get done.”

Michalczik said Gibson is still raw and he feels bad that he won’t have the spring to season him. However, health is more important. “We plan on flipping him to the left side to take a look,” Michalczik said. “He has such great feet. You see him move and think, ‘geez.”

Malele will miss the spring following ankle surgery. His ankle bothered him all last season and Michalczik thinks that might have been what held him back from being an impact player. “I would like to see him get more powerful,” Coach M. said. “He gets the job done, but I want to see more snap.”

De La Puente was in somewhat the same boat, hindered by injuries. He has been hindered by a broken foot but he is healthy now. “I am looking forward to him showing he can be the guy,” Michalczik said. “He’s got good power and he can knock guys out of there.”

Tepper showed well in his few opportunities but Michalczik said he needs to think about dominating instead of not messing up. “There is room for improvement, but he is moving great,” Michalczik said. “He still is in the growing process.”

Chet Teofilo remains a guy who needs to get lots of snaps in practice to speed his transition from being a defensive lineman. “His growth in some ways has been slow,” Michalczik said. “But he has the physical tools. He just can’t get frustrated.”

Matt Laird dealt with a shoulder injury last season and Michalczik just would like to see him add weight to his 6-foot-7, 290-pound frame. “He had better be eating right now,” Coach M. said.

Justin Pruitt is a red-shirt freshman who has got a lot to learn but is moving forward.

The development of Guarnero and Mark Gray at center has Michalczik thinking about moving Mack. Michalczik said that it took Gray last season to get over some of the habits he picked up in JC ball. He calls Gray an overachiever.

Guarnero is starting to come into his own. “I think he has a great future in front of him,” said Michalczik, who seldom speaks in grand terms. “He is a bright, hard-working kid. He has got a toughness to him.”

Bemoll made significant strides last season in terms of technique. “Power wise, he has natural strength equal to Ryan O’Callaghan. He is capable of that kind of thing. But he has to pay attention to detail. He has to turn that corner.”

Mark Boskovich is a walk-on sophomore who has a chance at earning some time according to Michalczik.

Tomorrow: SAFETIES

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spring corners

It’s obvious that R. Todd Littlejohn has his work cut out for him during spring. Cornerback is a scary position for a Cal team that seems suited to compete for a Pac-10 championship in just about every other area. Sure, the defensive line is somewhat of a question mark, but there seems to be an abundance of young talent there.

Cornerback, on the other hand, it somewhat of a mystery. Daymeion Hughes was such a lockdown corner and so durable that we never got to see what kind of depth Cal has at the position. Syd’Quan Thompson, who has all the tools to be a pro, is only in his second season. He played very well after the first game nightmare last season, but he still was the guy that opponents tried to pick on. Now, he is the man as a sophomore.

“He is now the leader,” said Littlejohn, who goes into his second season as defensive backs coach. “I knew he was special the day after the Tennessee game. He was extremely disappointed and he blamed himself. I didn’t really do anything magical at that point. I just said, ‘You are my starter next week.’ He got a vote of confidence and I think that was all he needed.”

As a side note, as a writer, I gained a lot of respect for the kid. He had been very difficult in terms of interviews and twice hung up on me after commiting to Cal. I kind of wondered if he was Cal material. But after getting burned by two huge touchdowns that cost Cal the game, he came out and did interviews. He never hid or tried to blame somebody else. You’ve got to love it. He worked his butt off all year so his previous mistakes wouldn’t happen again.

“They went after him a lot,” Littlejohn said. “But he worked even harder. His confidence started to take off. He is a young guy, and the sky is the limit for him. It’s hard to say exactly how fast he is if he lines up and runs straight ahead, but I know how fast he plays. When we played USC, nobody could run away from him. He does shy away from guarding the Dwayne Jarretts or the Patrick Turners.”

The other corner should be a free-for-all competition. Jesse Brooks is a three-year player who has seen only spot duty. Littlejohn said he understands the system well, and that gives him a slight edge over some of the newcomers who might have superior overall athletic talent. “He is a good sized corner and I have been telling him that now is his time to show what he can do. He’s not a real, real quick guy, but he has a sturdy body and he is a solid player. Nothing flashy.”

Hughes departure might have opened the door for redshirt freshman Darian Hagan, a highly recruited kid with talent on a par with Thompson. “You look at Darian change direction and you just go, whoooooaaa,” Littlejohn said. He has a cockiness that he brings to the position. He feels that you can’t beat him. I like that. He moves so well, changes direction, can jump.”

Charles Amadi red-shirted like Hagan. “He is one of the sleepers,” Littlejohn said. “His work ethic is outstanding. He has great feet, and chance of direction. He has exceptional quickness. He just needs to understand the defense. He needs to know that he can’t be afraid to make a mistake. He tends to hesitate on things.”

Another redshirt, Brandon Jones, is the strongest of all the corners, according to Littlejohn. “From a physical standpoint, he is not very tall or big, but he is very physical. He has good vision and quickness.”

No matter who wins the job, it’s a give that Cal is going to be very young and inexperienced at the corners. “I have told the guys, I don’t care what you look like or where you come from, if you show me what you can do, you have a chance to play.”

TOMORROW: Offensive line. The reason I am skipping away from the safeties tomorrow is that Coach Jim Michalczik said he is going to take a look at Alex Mack at tackle and I wanted to address that situation.

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spring backers

Today’s look is at the outside linebacker, or Sam and Will positions.

Sam

Justin Moye started as the Sam position starter last season and eventually gave way to Mickey Pimentel, who has graduated. It was interesting that Moye held off Pimentel so long because of Pimentel’s tremendous athletic talents. However, former linebackers coach Bob Foster was a huge fan of Moye’s savvy. New linebackers coach Kenwick Thompson understands Foster’s trust in Moye.
“Justin is very smart and solid,” Thompson said. “He is great with his execution.”
However, the Sam position is one that requires great explosion and quickness off the snap. The ability to change directions on a dime is of tremendous importance. Moye’s task in the spring will be to show he can match any of his competitors’ explosiveness.
“Not all the fastest athletes are the fastest football players,” Thompson said. “You have to make a decision and then go. There can be a lot of maturity involved with making those decisions.”
Moye, who will be a senior, certainly has the maturity. He will have his hands full, however, with junior Anthony Felder, who was nagged by injuries last season that limited his time. Felder will be working at both the Sam and the Will positions. The Sam linebacker lines up as the outside linebacker on the strong (or tight end) side of the field. The Will lines up at the other outside linebacker position. Of course, the Mike is the inside linebacker.
The Sam tends to be an edge rusher or blitzer. Felder appears to be well suited to that role. He is very quick and long. “We are real excited about his athletic ability,” Thompson said. “His change of direction is excellent and he has that explosiveness. He brings a lot athletically to the position.”
Of course, he has to be healthy to win a spot. “Up to this point, he is recovering well,” Thompson said. “Of course, all injuries worry you.”
Felder had shoulder and neck injuries last season and those are the kind of injuries that often plague players throughout their careers. “At this point, he feels healthy,” Thompson said. “But some questions can’t be answered until you have contact. He feels he is going to be able to compete.”
Whether or not he is completely healthy, Felder will have his hands full with the challenge coming from both Moye and sophomore Eddie Young. “Eddie is a tall, rangy guy,” Thompson said. “The biggest thing for him is to grow into his body. He is going to be a big player. Last year, he flashed some things to us.”
Thompson said Young isn’t just fighting for a backup spot, he is pushing to be the starter.

WILL

The Will linebacker position appears to be in the capable hands of returning starter Worrell Williams, who is one of the most athletically gifted players on the team. At 255 pounds, he is a huge linebacker and yet he has the speed to cover backs on a passing route. “He is a great athlete,” Thompson said. “He’s just needs to work on his consistency. He has very explosive speed and great size.
“He’s been around the block now. Athletically, he has the tools so it’s a matter of execution. It’s a matter of reacting to what you see. With experience, he will be seeing things better. I’m excited about working with him, trying to maximize his talent. He has been working extremely hard.”
After Williams, it appears to be wide open. Felder might play the Will at times and sophomore Shea McIntyre has performed well on special teams and might get some snaps. “Shea is an extraordinary hard worker,” Thompson said. “You should see him work in the weight room. He is smart and has a solid change of direction.”
Developing red-shirt freshman Michael Mohamed still needs more time, but he has been impressive. Thompson said he will continue to grow into his 6-foot-3 frame. “He is looking to mature physically,” Thompson said. “He is a smart football player.”
Desmond Bishop’s brother, Devin Bishop, transferred to Cal from San Francisco City College and eventually he will add depth to the Will spot. Thompson describes him as being very aggressive and athletic.
Junior college All American Alex Cook also joins the program after registering 27 sacks in 25 junior college games. Obviously, the Bears could use a pass rushing force off the edge. Freshmen D.J. Holt and Robert Mullins will join the program in the summer.

TOMORROW: Cornerbacks