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.