RETURNING STARTERS: Mike Mohamed, D.J. Holt
WHO TO WATCH OUT FOR: Ryan Davis
POSSIBLE SURPRISE: Steve Fanua
THE BREAKDOWN: Spring practice will be like a primary election for Cal’s group of linebackers. The returners will elect the best possible candidates to start next season, then will run against the newcomers in the general election.
In the fall, the Bears will welcome a group of linebackers ranked as the second-best in the country by rivals.com. Coach Jeff Tedford has said each of them — Chris Martin, Dave Wilkerson, Nick Forbes and Cecil Whiteside — will get the chance to compete for playing time immediately (a fifth linebacker, Chris McCain, is expected to grayshirt). That means nothing really will be resolved in the spring, although the current guys can surely position themselves favorably for fall camp.
There really appears to be only one of the four linebacker spots that is safe — Mike Mohamed will start at one inside spot and be the cornerstone of the defense. Mohamed led the Pac-10 in tackles last season and figures to be one of the conference’s top returning players.
With the departure of defensive end Tyson Alualu and cornerback Syd’Quan Thompson, this is Mohamed’s defense now, and he knows it.
“I feel like a lot of these guys are looking up to me now,” Mohamed said. “I’m going to have to step up a little bit more and be a little bit more of a voice. I realize that I have to be more vocal and lead these guys. If I don’t, I feel like it will be kind of in disarray. When spring ball comes around, it will really give me a chance to step into that leadership role.”
This will be a big spring for D.J. Holt, who started eight games last season and ended up as Cal’s rush linebacker near the end of the season. That ‘s a spot where the Bears clearly need more production, and Martin is expected to be a strong candidate to come in and play there right away.
Holt, like most of Cal’s linebackers last season, played multiple positions. He may be more suited to play inside, where he played earlier in the year. He is the Bears’ second-most experienced linebacker behind Mohamed, and could team up with Mohamed to give Cal a solid inside duo if he moves back there.
It’s significant that Mychal Kendricks is missing the spring. Kendricks started off last season strongly but his inconsistency made his playing time spotty during the second half of the year. But he played a lot in the Poinsettia Bowl and was arguably the Bears’ best defensive player in that game.
Kendricks is loaded with potential and perhaps can build off the Poinsettia Bowl performance. But that will have to wait after he underwent a shoulder operation. He will miss all of spring practice but is expected back for summer workouts.
There are a handful of players who saw playing time as reserves last season who can use the spring to make a push. Keith Browner is an interesting study at outside linebacker because he is built like a defensive lineman but can run like a linebacker. He saw more playing time as last season went on and will be facing a big spring.
Other players like J.P. Hurrell, Chris Little and Jerome Meadows were getting second team looks last season and have a chance to make some headway on the depth chart, although Meadows has been hampered by a hamstring injury recently.
Tedford said he is especially excited to see Ryan Davis at linebacker. Davis, a defensive lineman in junior college, redshirted last season to lose weight and get into linebacker shape. Davis could be a possibility as a rush linebacker as well. “I feel good about him,” Tedford said. “I can’t wait to watch him play.”
Steve Fanua, a redshirt freshman, is talented and reportedly has a fiery personality, something the Bears could use a little more of on the field. And Cal still has third-down specialist Jarred Price in the mix.
Tedford said he can’t think about the incoming linebackers as he evaluates spring practice.
“You have to look at it like those guys aren’t even here,” he said. “You have to go into spring saying these are the guys we have, that we know for sure. When those other guys come, they’ll be guys who are going to compete right away from Day One.”