Editor’s note: Welcome to our first “chat” with Jonathan Okanes, the author of our “Bear Talk” blog. Today, Jonathan answers some of the questions readers have about Cal’s football team.
Ron: What do you think about the criticism Jeff Tedford has received this year, given the team’s disappointing season? I think he’s one of the nation’s best coaches and Cal is lucky to have him.
Jonathan Okanes: Ron, I believe some of it is fair, but some talk about him being fired was kind of ridiculous. Many of Cal’s shortcomings this year were things like penalties, turnovers, other kinds of mistakes, and ultimately miscues like that are a reflection of coaching. So I do believe that Tedford and the coaching staff does deserve some of the blame. However, I believe you have to evaluate the entire body of work, and obviously what Tedford has done at Cal speaks for itself. Tedford never had dealt with something like this before, and he has even admitted he maybe could have done some things differently. I think he deserves credit for shaking up his coaching staff, especially removing himself from playcalling duties so he can focus more on overseeing the entire program.
Raymond Dinelli: Hey, Jonathan. We saw a lot of Brandon Hampton replacing Desean Jackson on punt returns this year. With both of them gone, is Jahvid Best the obvious choice, or will someone else turn up as a lead guy for punt returns next season?
Jonathan Okanes: Raymond, first of all, Best has to get healthy. I think all bets are off right now as far as his role next season. I think Cal is going to be very careful with him as he responds from his hip injury. I think James Montgomery could be an option, depending on his workload at tailback. And I’d keep an eye on defensive back Brandon Jones, who reportedly had the fastest 40-time on the team last summer. Shane Vereen could be in the mix as well.
William Lee, Honolulu: Since we don’t see the scout team and redshirts play on a day-to-day basis, can you tell us some of the scout players that you are high on, e.g. guys like D.J. Holt, Devin Bishop, Hagen and Sam DeMartinis? Also, I’m looking for a surge in the d-line _ has Scott Smith looked like a force in practice? Mahalo.
Jonathan Okanes: William, first off, Darian Hagan wasn’t on the scout team. He was a backup DB, but obviously didn’t play much. On defense, I’d say the guys who stood out the most were linebacker D.J. Holt and safety D.J. Campbell and defensive linemen Scott Smith, Ernest Owusu and Solomona Aigamaua. Offensviely, you had wide receiver Michael Calvin definitely made a name for himself. Others include running back Shane Vereen, offensive lineman Sam DeMartinis and quarterback Brock Mansion.
Volleyball Jim: I’m amazed that with all the changes in the coaching staff, how did the special teams coach make it through the purge? The kick coverage was terrible last year, unless you like the other team starting each drive from midfield.
Jonathan Okanes: Hey Jim, it’s true that kick coverage was lacking. I’m not sure where Pete Alamar stands. I’m guessing he deserves some credit for developing Jahvid Best into arguably the Pac-10′s best special teams player in his freshman year.
Dave Cullen: Last year, the Bears brought in those 5 highly rated linemen. How did they look this year in practice, and do you see any of them with a serious shot at starting next year?
Jonathan Okanes: Hi Dave. Assuming the three returning starters remain in the starting lineup (Alex Mack, Mike Tepper and Noris Malele), there would be two spots open next season. I think Chris Guarnero is Cal’s next-best offensive lineman, but he’s a center and the Bears have Mack there already. There has been some talk of moving Mack to left tackle, but Mack has said he doesn’t think that’s going to happen. Perhaps Guarnero could change positions instead, but I’m not sure. Redshirt freshman Mark Boskovich also is in the mix. He started sharing first team reps with Malele at right guard at the end of the season. He is a possible replacement for Brian De La Puente at left guard. I would say out of the group of freshmen offensive linemen brought in this season, Sam DeMartinis has the best shot at playing time.
Stan: Jonathan, which quarterback will wind up starting for Cal next season, Nate Longshore or Kevin Riley, and why?
Jonathan Okanes: Stan, it’s impossible to answer that question right now. But it will be much easier to answer after spring practice, which by the way is only two months away. Riley certainly seems to have momentum after his Armed Forces Bowl performance. It will be a much different situation than last year for Longshore, who was the undisputed starter when the season started. Longshore is now in for a fight.
Simon Gutman: I am a big fan of the blog, Cal sports and a proud student at the greatest
university in the world, Cal. My questions relate to two particular
recruits. First, what happened to Robert Mullin, the LB from LA and 3-star recruit? Did he never enroll for academic reasons or due to the hip injury? Second, Sekeli Faaeteete was rated by Scout.com as higher than Marshawn
Lynch, but similarly never made it. What happened?
Jonathan Okanes: Simon, I believe Mullin was out because of the injury and is expected to enroll in the spring. I don’t think Faaeteete failed to qualify academically.
Ricky Sanchez: What’s going on with Nyan Boateng? Is he at Cal presently? What’s his legal status? Did he actually stand trial for a crime? Is he welcomed back to the team if he wants to try to come back? Are there any academic issues?
Jonathan Okanes: Ricky, Boateng took classes in the fall and is enrolled for the spring. I’m not sure what his legal status is, and all Tedford has said is that he is going to re-evaluate the situation in the offseason. Tedford said this week that he is planning on talking to Boateng next week when classes begin.
CalAlum97: In past seasons, Tedford has always primed backup running backs for the following season by heavily involving them in games and in the rotation. Why is it that we rarely saw Best and Montgomery and none of Slocum this season? Do you think this lack of game experience will negatively impact our running game next season? From your experience watching Montgomery and Slocum, what can you tell us about their skills and potential?
Jonathan Okanes: Hi Cal, I asked Tedford about it and he said exactly that. He was concerned that the other guys didn’t have any experience, where in the case of Marshawn and Forsett, they did. Also, Montgomery and Best had a couple of crucial fumbles, and it seemed their playing time got even less after that. As far as its effects for next season, I think if Best is healthy, the Bears will be in good shape, despite the lack of experience. Best still got on the field a lot in different ways and I don’t think he will be fazed by anything. I think Montgomery may have more to prove, while Slocum and Shane Vereen are behind the two of them in the pecking order. I think Slocum is more explosive than Montgomery, while Montgomery might be a shiftier back.
BearBacker: What has to happen for the defense to become a positive factor for us again? Also, are you surprised that Gregory has kept his job?
Jonathan Okanes: Bear, I think a couple of things have to happen. First, the Bears need better defensive line play. In conjunction with that, Cal may be better off switching to a 3-4 defense. They are loaded at linebacker and should be able to find three pretty good defensive linemen to throw out there when you factor in that this year’s redshirts are now in the mix. As for Gregory, I’m not surprised because his body of work is still pretty good. Yes, Cal’s defense has allowed a lot of yards in recent years, but up until this year, the Bears still were consistently among the Pac-10 leaders in scoring defense. Now, if there is a repeat performance next season, it could change things.
Andrea: What ever happened to Mike Costanzo? He was a pretty touted recruit, but I haven’t heard anything about him recently. Do you know if he’s in the mix for next year’s line? Same goes for Keith Browner of the same recruiting class. Thanks for your insight.
Jonathan Okanes: Andrea, I haven’t asked the coaches directly about Costanzo, but it doesn’t appear he’s in the mix for any quality playing time anytime soon. Costanzo didn’t get reps with the first or second team at times this season. It looks like he’ll have to improve substantially to be competitive for playing time. Browner also was a fringe second team guy, so he has an uphill climb as well.
Dominic: Last year’s class was widely hailed in the local press as Cal’s best ever. Searching through websites such as Rivals and Scout, it seems like we have even more “4 star” recruits than last year. Does that mean we have even more to look forward to with the ’08 class?
Jonathan Okanes: Dominic, I don’t know about that. If you look at the web sites’ recruiting rankings, Cal’s current class is its worst in a few years. But the story hasn’t been told yet. Cal still is in the mix for a few kids so the class could still improve.
Ben: Nyan Boateng is supposed to be a top notch wide receiver talent that was to fill the hole left by the departure of DeSean Jackson. What is his status? Is he still with the team and ready to compete for the spot in spring practice? If so, have you seen him practice or play before? What’s your opinion of his talent compared with other WR candidates on the squad?
Jonathan Okanes: Ben, Boateng’s status is up in the air. Tedford said he is going to talk to Boateng next week when classes begin. He was suspended from all team activiities for the fall but was enrolled in classes. I saw him during spring practice and he looked like a potential superstar. In terms of talent, I think he and Michael Calvin would be the team’s top two receivers.
Mark N., New York, N.Y.: QB controversy aside, how much of Riley’s game-readiness is attributable to the mentorship of Longshore, if any?
Jonathan Okanes: Mark, I’m sure Nate has helped some, just quarterbacks talking during practice. But my feeling is most of his game-readiness can be attributed to him. He’s a coach’s son and seems to just have a good feel for the game.
Stay Golden: The 2008 season is going to be the first year where Jeff Tedford has some big question marks with his skill positions. Gone are all three of the starting wide receivers, along with Forsett, there is no doubt that next season is going to be kind of a rebuilding year. Who do you see stepping into the starting WR positions next year? Do any of them have “star” potential?
Jonathan Okanes: Stay, I think Michael Calvin is a potential star and should start next season. Jeremy Ross also is probably ready to replace one of the other starters. After that, you have LaReylle Cunningham, the only receiver on the roster who actually has game experience (albeit not much). If Nyan Boateng returns to the team and is the same player he was in the spring, it’s hard to imagine Cal could keep him off the field.
Ernie Furtado: What’s going on with the Cal football stadium? I thought the judge was supposed to give her ruling several months ago.
Jonathan Okanes: Ernie, I believe the ruling is supposed to come down sometime in February.
Bowlbasaur: A main thing that the Bears have been lacking the past few years is a consistent pass rush. I’m wondering if Tedford has commented on the pass rush since the end of the season, and what you think about: a) Possibly switching to a 3-4 next season; b) Will Alex Cook ever play for the Bears? c) Derrick Hill’s delevopment and will he be in shape next season, and d) Will Tosh Lupoi’s promotion make a difference (is it the coaching or players?)
Jonathan Okanes: Bowl, Tedford hasn’t talked too much about it, other than to acknowledge that the team needs to get more pressure on opposing quarterbacks. I think switching to a 3-4 defense is a real possibility. Maybe not full time, but I think you’ll see more of it. Cook was supposed to enroll for the spring but I haven’t heard if that definitely has happened yet. I think Derrick Hill is developing well and definitely will be a starter next season. If Cal plays a 3-4, he likely would be the guy in the middle (as he was in the Armed Forces Bowl). Lupoi’s enthusiasm, energy and youth should help the defensive line as well.
Dan: What more can you tell us about the release of Ferrigno and
Littlejohn? I’ve heard rumors that both assistant coaches were not
taking enough responsibility for managing their players on and off the
field (route running, not attending team meetings, etc.). Also, internet chatter casts DeSean as a negative influence on the team. Can you comment on how he is regarded
by his teammates?
Jonathan Okanes: Dan, I don’t have any additional information on the situation with Ferrigno and Littlejohn. As for Jackson, no players have ever publicly criticized him as a teammate.
Matt, San Mateo: Wide receiver and running back positions seem to be wide open. Who do you see stepping up and filling in?
Jonathan Okanes: Matt, Michael Calvin was one of the scout team’s MVPs this season and is a potential star. I think you can pencil him as a starter right now. LaReylle Cunningham is the only returning player with any experience, so he’s certainly in the mix. Redshirt freshman Jeremy Ross also is a strong candidate to become a starter. If Nyan Boateng returns, he has the talent to become the team’s best receiver. As far as running back, Jahvid Best would be the leading candidate to replace Justin Forsett, but there are questions about his health because of a hip injury. James Montgomery would be the next obvious candidate, since he was Forsett’s backup this year.
Locamotion, Richmond: I know Tedford’s track record with producing 1,000 yard backs but
truthfully are we in trouble?
Jonathan Okanes: Locamotion, I don’t think so. With Cal’s impressive stable of backs, the cream should rise to the top and run behind which once again should be a very good offensive line.
Cal Fan: I think the lack of leadership was the main undoing of this past year’s team. The big issue was QB, I think Kevin Riley will solve that but he needs help and support from his teammates. Who do you see emerging as the team leaders?
Jonathan Okanes: Cal fan, I agree that leadership was a problem. Alex Mack is not very outspoken but will be a well-respected senior and could fill that role. Same with fullback Will Ta’ufo’ou. On defense, Derrick Hill said after the season that he wants to take it upon himself to become a leader. Linebacker Zack Follett also should be a leader.
CalAlum97: Regarding the new offensive coordinator, do you think Tedford isreally ready to relinquish control to Cignetti? If so, how do you suppose this will change Tedford’s involvement in the defense and special teams?
Jonathan Okanes: Cal, Cignetti will call the plays, but it’s not like Tedford is going to completely give up his influence on the offense. I’m sure he still be very involved in the game plan and on the headset during games. But it will be a positive development in terms of Tedford’s involvement with the defense and special teams, as well as just his overall governing of the program.
Kevin: Which new coaching hire(s) are you most optimistic about? Which coaches are you most concerned about? Also, do you expect Conte to fill in for Brandon Hampton, or someone else?
Jonathan Okanes: Kevin, I have heard a lot of good things about Al Simmons, the new defensive backs coach. Tosh Lupoi obviously is young, but he’s been around the program a long time so I’m not sure it’s much cause for concern. Also, sometimes the inexperience of youth can sometimes be counteracted by enthusiasm and respect from players, who realize it wasn’t too long ago you were doing the exact same thing. As far as Hampton’s replacement, obviously Conte would seem to be the guy. But I get the feeling the coaches still would love to see the light bulb finally go on for Darian Hagan, who still possesses a lot of talent.
Jan K Oski: Who do you see as the starters at WR in ’08? Could Best be used at the slot position? Could Bishop and/or Mullins supplant Williams at the MLB position?
Jonathan Okanes: Jan, right now you’d have to go with Michael Calvin, Jeremy Ross and LaReylle Cunningham. Best could be a candidate to be used in different ways, so it wouldn’t be surprising to have him line up in the slot at times. I think Bishop could be in the mix, but Cal also might want two middle linebackers if it switches to a 3-4.
Mike: Based on what you have seen and heard, who do you think will start at wide receiver and who will return punts/kickoffs?
Jonathan Okanes: Mike, Michael Calvin, Jeremy Ross and LaReylle Cunningham would be the frontrunners right now. As far as returns go, some possibilities are Jahvid Best, James Montgomery, Brandon Jones and Shane Vereen.