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Football: Training camp storylines — Rebuilding the secondary

Almost every preseason publication last season ranked Cal’s secondary among the best in the nation. With Syd’Quan Thompson and Darian Hagan returning, the Bears were believed to have one of the top cornerback tandems around. Throw in solid if not spectacular safety Marcus Ezeff, and Cal looked to be in pretty good shape.

It obviously didn’t pan out. Hagan, after a breakout year in 2008, was hampered by knee tendinitis in training camp, had a miserable performance in Week 3 against Minnesota and really never recovered. He lost his starting job for most of the rest of the season and was buried down the depth chart by the time the Bears reached the Poinsettia Bowl to close out the year.

Meanwhile, Ezeff became a non-factor. Committed to a class he needed to graduate that conflicted with practice, Ezeff was only able to attend the final portion of practice two days a week. He ended up losing his starting role to Sean Cattouse.

Thompson had another All-Pac-10 season, but he is now off playing with the Denver Broncos. Nobody knows which Hagan will show up and Cal has to find somebody to play effectively along Cattouse, who showed flashes of potential last season but still is a work in progress.

Cal finished the 2009 season ranked 111th in pass defense, and although a lack of pass pressure contributed to it, the play of the secondary played a major role in the ineffectiveness. The Bears will need vast improvement from this unit this season, especially because Cal intends to drop fewer players into coverage in an effort to get to the quarterback.

Hagan is listed as one starting cornerback on the training camp depth chart. Despite the fact that he was held out of most of spring practice to focus on academics, coach Jeff Tedford is encouraged by Hagan’s attitude and commitment. Hagan looked like a legitimate NFL prospect two years ago. Cal needs him to look like that again.

On the other side, Bryant Nnabufie, who started four games last year, enters camp as the other No. 1 corner. But both spots really are completely up in the air. Hagan obviously has more experience than anyone, but last year’s inconsistency can’t be ignored. Assuming he is healthy and regains his 2008 form, he should earn a starting spot.

But Nnabufie is far from a sure thing at the other position. Josh Hill started five games last year and also has to be considered a strong candidate, and Marc Anthony came on near the end of last season. But the player to watch the most may be redshirt freshman Steve Williams, who is as talented as any cornerback that Tedford has brought to Cal and impressed during the spring. It wouldn’t be a shock to see Williams earn a starting role.

Cattouse will provide stability in the defensive backfield, not only by his promising play but with his on-field leadership. Cattouse is a terrific teammate who can inspire those around him, and Cal needs personalities like that on the field.

Senior Chris Conte, who has played primarily corner during his three years at Cal, worked exclusively at safety in the spring and is the frontrunner to play the other spot. But he could get pushed by D.J. Campbell, Alex Logan or possibly even freshman Michael Coley.

Jonathan Okanes

Jonathan Okanes is in his fourth year covering Cal's football team. Previously, he covered Cal's men's basketball team for four years. He can also be followed on Twitter at twitter.com/OkanesonCal.

  • uh oh.

    I like the way you put that. Ezeff was so committed to a class for graduation that his football suffered. We ought to see that more out of our student-athletes.

    Good luck, Marcus.

  • North Bay Bear

    I my self didn’t know why Marcus wasn’t getting playing time, till the season was almost over. It’s good to hear a student-athlete put school over his sport. If we had more kids like Marcus we wouldn’t be reading about all the trouble kids are getting into today.

    Go BEARS!

  • CalBearEnthu

    I was at the spring game and I’d love to see Cattouse and Conte as the safties with Steve Williams (who really is impressive) and Nnabufie as the corners…Lots of depth there however with Hill, Hagan, Samuals and Anthony.

  • noduck

    hill and hagan better have really improved from last year to be considered for starting positions.

  • milo

    Well lads, given Tedford changed practice to the morning, class conflicts should be less of any issue.

    Props to Ezeff for taking care of the real business at hand. Any sane Cal alum would come to the same conclusion.

  • Bill D

    I remember seeing Marcus had a tryout with the Jets – anyone know if he signed?

  • jk

    Sure, its great that Ezeff made the responsible decision. But honestly, isn’t this why big NCAA schools have academic advisers, so that kids don’t run into these problems? Plan your schedule sophomore year and there shouldn’t be any last second roadblocks.

    Even in a last second bind, there had to be another way, right? Petition to use another class for your major requirement, declare an independently designed major, stick around for another semester, something. Oh well, sounds like he wasn’t that amazing anyways.

  • GoBears58

    Hagan with williams, cattouse and Conte/Logan.
    No nabufie/hill please

  • n8Bear

    Jo
    I appreciate the updates, but dood, read some literature–some Shakes, some poetry, some Tolstoy. I think it’ll elevate your game beyond the sports page. Vin Scully was an English major, that’s why he rocks–and even “the hated ones” can appreciate Vin. Don’t make it news, make it engaging; make it entertaining. Make it historic.

  • Boaltblue

    Marcus Ezeff made some of the biggest hits on Cal’s opponents to win games for us, including at Oregon against Colvin in 2007 to win the game which moved us temporarily to No. 2 in the polls. He followed that up with a big play in 2008 to again seal the game for us against Oregon during the rain game at Memorial Lake.

    Best of luck and a big THANK YOU to No. 29.

    Go Bears.

  • Dan

    JK-

    I tend to agree with you re: your Ezeff comments rather than the others heaping praise on him for missing practice the entire season to attend class. How do we know the reason he was in that situation wasn’t because of a screw up on his part earlier in his tenure at Cal?

    Short of all the facts, it is presumptuous to be praising Ezeff, especially in light of the fact that he has a responsibility and commitment to the team and program that allowed him to get a Cal degree. Especially as a returning senior starter and team leader, he has a huge responsibility to his teammates and coaches that he clearly was unable to fulfill and that hurt the team on the field. I would like all the facts, which we won’t get, before heaping praise on Ezeff.