2001 Cal Football Season Outlook
April 7, 2001
It's real serious, this time around.
For head coach Tom Holmoe and his California Football team, this is no time for excuses. There's no room for a building process. Slogans referencing a bright future down the road aren't part of the equation this year. Go ahead and bring up the memory of George Allen, for the 2001 Golden Bears, the future is now.
Holmoe and his group of 54 returning lettermen, including 17 starters (8-offense, 8-defense, 1-kicker), aren't bashful about stating high expectations for a winning season and a bowl berth this coming season.
'There's a real urgency about this coming season, but all the pieces are in place,' says Holmoe. 'Our personnel is the best since I've been here. We've played some younger guys the past few years, but now they're veterans with experience in big games. Plus, we now have a coaching staff that I wouldn't trade for any staff in college football. Now we just need to go out and win some football games. We expect success.'
Holmoe's young 2000 team showed it could trade punches with the league's heavyweights, but couldn't sustain the effort in the final rounds. The Bears had Rose Bowl champion and 3rd ranked Washington on the ropes in Seattle with an 11-point fourth quarter lead. They also had a fourth quarter lead over eventual No. 7-ranked Oregon in Eugene. And, they had a powerful Oregon State team that ended with a No. 4 national ranking in a two-point game with six minutes left on the clock in Berkeley.
However, Cal lost all three games, plus an overtime decision in the season-finale to Stanford.
That left Cal a disappointed 3-8 and wondering what might have been with just a handful of key plays in crucial situations.
'We've proved we can play with anybody in this league,' says Holmoe. 'Now, it's all about winning.'
The program made a gigantic step forward during the off-season in luring offensive guru Al Borges to the coaching staff as the new coordinator for an offense that has struggled over the last three seasons, finishing last in the Pac-10 in scoring each year.
While Borges may not have any magic up his sleeve, he brings with him a reputation as one of the nation's top offensive coordinators. Over the last six years as a conference offensive coordinator (five at UCLA, one at Oregon), his teams have averaged over 31 points a game. More significantly, after reviewing the Cal films from last year and surveying an ambitious group of Cal returnees, he hasn't hesitated to state his belief that Cal has the talent to put up similar numbers this fall.
The Golden Bears will be fueled by a group of running backs that could be considered the best in the Pac-10, an offensive line that returns four starters and certainly will be one of the elite groups in the league, and a quarterback who hopes to display the form that made him one of the top recruits in America just two years ago.
'With our backs and experience and talent up front, we shouldn't have to ask our quarterback to carry our offense, but Kyle (Boller) has that type of ability, if he continues to develop,' said Holmoe.
While Cal has a host of all-conference candidates at the positions mentioned above, the Bears make up for a lack of star power with superior depth at the wide receiver position. Six of the seven players in last year's rotation return in 2001 and the coaches believe that there will be plenty of production in the passing game this fall.
The strength of the Cal defense this year will be at the linebacker position where seven different players return with strong cases for the starting line-up. Those seven, who split time in the playing rotation last season, will be pushed by a trio of redshirt-freshmen who look ready to make their own mark.
The depth chart of 10 linebackers will present defensive coordinator and linebacker coach Lyle Setencich some difficult, if enviable, problems in carving enough playing time for everybody.
Cal has some uncertainty on the defensive line with the prospect of finding replacements for first team All-America defensive end Andre Carter and second team Pac-10 defensive tackle Jacob Waasdorp. However, line coach Bill Dutton is one of the best in the business and he feels he has the elements of a group that will rival last year's line that helped Cal finish third in the conference in rushing defense, holding four opponents to 76 or fewer yards on the ground.
Cal will build around a pair of all-conference candiates in the secondary as cornerback Jemeel Powell is as good a cover man as there is in the country and Nnamdi Asomugha has the earmarks of emerging as one of the top free safeties in the Pac-10 this season.
The Bears hired a new assistant coach in LeCharls McDaniel to concentrate solely on special teams and that move should pay dividends. Placekicker Marc Jensen hopes to build on an 11-of-16 field goal effort as a sophomore last year and become one of the league's most consistent kickers in 2001. The punting duties are wide open, following the graduation of All-American Nick Harris, and may not be decided until the fall.
Cal's 2001 schedule is a welcome relief after last season when the Bears opened up with three of the first four games on the road and then had to face a trio of national Top 10 teams down the stretch, including two of those games in hostile road environments. Not only does Cal have six games at home, plus the short trip across the Bay at Stanford, but the Bears have a slate that seems primed for success.
None of Cal's three non-conference opponents were bowl teams last season, plus Cal gets league favorites Oregon and Washington in Berkeley this fall.
One wouldn't expect a unit that has occupied the cellar of the Pac-10 scoring charts the last three years to be brimming with confidence entering the 2001 season, but there's a clear sense of purpose and belief among Cal's returning 27 lettermen on offense that a breakthrough is imminent.
After struggling early last season, the Bears showed encouraging signs while averaging 29.5 points over the final six games.
The addition of offensive coordinator Al Borges shouldn't be underestimated. The offense will need to learn a new system with new terminology, but nobody expects the transition to be overly difficult. Over the last six seasons, Borges offenses have created major problems for Pac-10 defenses and Holmoe believes he'll have a significant impact at Cal this season. 'We have the talent and experience in place and I think the last piece of the puzzle was getting somebody to put it all together,' said Holmoe. 'Al's the guy to help us get over the hump. He's as good as there is in the business and his addition will jump start our offense.'
Nobody has suffered more growing pains the last two seasons than Cal quarterback Kyle Boller (6-4, 210). Now, he hopes to parlay the experience of 19 starting assignments, the arrival of a coach who has a reputation as one of the top passing technicians in the game and an improved arsenal around him into a season in which he emerges as one of the top quarterbacks in the country.
One of the nation's most acclaimed recruits, Boller arrived at Cal two years ago and was immediately given the keys to operate the offense. The fairy tale looked promising when he led Cal to a come-from-behind victory in his first collegiate start, but soon the reality of little playing experience and an inconsistent supporting cast on offense took its toll.
However, Boller has persevered, raising his completion percentage over 8 percent from his freshman year to 46.7 percent last season. He expects a similar jump this season and also hopes to improve on the 2,121 passing yards he managed last fall.
Boller will carry the load, but there's some experience in reserve as both senior Eric Holtfreter (6-2, 230) and redshirt-freshman Reggie Robertson (6-2, 185) now have a year in the program after arriving last season. Holtfreter is a powerful force with good poise in the pocket, while Robertson offers a different dimension as his athletic skills may allow the Bears to toy with some option plays to provide a change of pace when the situation dictates.
Cal hasn't finished in the top half of the league's rushing charts since 1992, but that should change this season. The Bears have a wealth of weapons at running back, starting with junior Joe Igber (5-8, 200), who finished fifth in the Pac-10 in rushing last season while averaging 81.9 yards per game. His elusive style of running will be amended by greatly increased strength and speed this year. A rigorous off-season program has added 10 pounds of muscle and dropped his 40 time to the 4.4 range.
He'll need to be at the top of his game if he expects to hold off the challenge of senior Saleem Muhammad (6-0, 210) or junior Joseph Echema (5-11, 215). Muhammad is a slasher who really came on at the tail end of last season. He earned a start in the in the final game of the year and responded with a big day, rushing for 99 yards, including a career long 45-yarder, against Stanford. Echema has excellent power to go along with fine speed. He was Cal's leading ground-gainer with 72 yards at Fresno State and certainly could contend for starting duties, if he continues to develop.
That trio offers as good a one-two-three punch as one can find in the Pac-10, but there's more. Senior Marcus Fields (6-2, 220) returns after a shoulder injury put him on the shelf last season. He is a proven Pac-10 back with over 1,900 career rushing yards and five 100-yard games under his belt. He'll be asked to play at different spots in the backfield, including the fullback spot, as the coaches will move him around in different formations to create mismatch situations with opponent defenses.
Cal has a pair of traditional fullbacks with size and power in junior Ryan Stanger (6-2, 245) and redshirt-freshman Pana Faumuina (6-0, 235). Stanger is a punishing blocker who provides a threat in short-yardage situations. Faumuina has excellent running instincts and should press for increased playing time as he continues to develop.
If Cal stays healthy, the Bears have a chance to establish themselves as possibly the top offensive line unit in the conference.Included in the nucleus are four returning starters who have started a combined 75 games during their careers. That's the type of experience that every team likes to have along the forward wall.
However, there's more to the equation than just playing experience. There's also proven talent. Senior guard Brandon Ludwig (6-4, 285) earned second team all-conference honors last year. He has superior athletic ability and should establish himself as a dominant performer, if he can avoid the type of nagging injuries that have caused him to miss small parts of each of the last three seasons.
There's also a pair of former Freshman All-Americans in guard Scott Tercero (6-5, 295) and tackle Mark Wilson (6-6, 295). Tercero seems fully healthy after battling nagging knee pains last season and that portends a big year, as he has all the tools to emerge as one of the league's best players in 2001. Wilson earned third team Freshman All-America honors after starting all 11 games last season as a redshirt-freshman. With his size and athletic ability, he is a player who could contend for All-America recognition before his Cal career is over.
Back for his fourth season in the starting line-up is left tackle Langston Walker (6-8, 335). The massive senior went down with a broken ankle midway through last season, but his recovery will be complete by this fall and he has a lot of pro scouts watching him very closely. He has a tremendous combination of size and agility and hopes to put everything together for his senior campaign.
The lone question mark on the offensive line resides at the center position. With the absence of Marvin Philip, who is on a two-year Mormon mission, the Bears will look to sophomore Nolan Bluntzer (6-4, 265) to carry the load. A very intelligent player with a competitive attitude, Bluntzer has added 10 pounds of muscle to his frame and hopes to play at the 275-pound range in the fall.
He'll be pushed by junior Ryan Jones (6-4, 270), a competitive lineman who enters his third year in the progrram. Sophomore Derek Deutsch (6-3, 280), who moves over to the offense, after two years as a defensive tackle, could also challenge for playing time at center or another spot on the line.
Other players who are in the hunt for playing time are senior Nofoaalii Tuitama (6-7, 285), a massive offensive tackle who should be much more comfortable after one year of transition from junior college, redshirt-freshman Eric O'Brien (6-8, 295), a young player with a wealth of potential, sophomore guard Chris Murphy (6-6, 300) and sophomore Nick Shaeffer (6-5, 285).
The Cal wide receiving corps may not have a marquee name, but the Bears do return six of their top seven pass-catchers from last year. That's a major improvement from a year ago when the Bears entered the season with very little in the area of proven talent. The six returnees combined for 88 catches for 1257 yards and 10 touchdowns last year.
After missing the early season with a back sprain, junior Derek Swafford (5-10, 175) emerged as Cal's most dangerous receiver down the stretch. He had all of his team-leading 25 receptions in the final six games and seems poised to make a run for all-conference honors this fall.
On the other end of the spectrum, senior Charon Arnold (5-11, 175) looked like he was on his way to a big year with 12 catches and a pair of TDs in the first four games, before a stress fracture in his lower leg put him on the sidelines for the rest of the season. He's fully recovered and off-season workouts indicate he could be a 'big play' performer for the Bears this year.
Cal had two of the best true-freshman receivers in the country last year in Geoff McArthur (6-1, 200) and Chase Lyman (6-4, 200). McArthur played most of last year with a painful thumb injury, but still managed to end the year with more receiving yards (336) than any other player on the Cal team. He had a major impact with several big plays, including a 56-yard reception at Fresno State, a 24-yard TD catch at Washington, a 31-yard reception vs. Stanford and a 63-yard TD grab at Oregon.
Lyman also had an impact in his debut season, finishing with 19 catches for 313 yards and a pair of touchdowns. He provides a big target and has the type of ability to develop into a clutch third-down receiver.
Cal has quality depth in seniors Sean Currin (6-1, 190) and Chad Heydorff (6-1, 185). Currin is a steady possession receiver who has been part of the playing rotation the last three seasons. Heydorff had a hamstring injury that hampered his development last season, but did manage to increase his playing time in the second half of the season and managed a 10-yard TD reception among his 7 catches on the year.
New coordinator Al Borges likes to utilize the tight end in the passing game and so this position will be watched closely once the action starts in September. The favorite for starting duties is junior Terrance Dotsy (6-4, 280), who got his feet wet last season after transfering from Ventura CC. Dotsy has great size and appears to have greatly improved his fitness with a rigorous off-season program that has seen him drop 15 pounds and improve his speed.
Cal will also look to Tom Swoboda (6-4, 235) and Matt Schafer (6-4, 245) to provide depth. However, a pair of incoming freshmen, Jordan Hunter (6-6, 235) and Brett Bischofberger (6-3, 235), have the type of skills which will give them a chance to immediately contribute.
You don't lose a trio like Andre Carter, Jacob Waasdorp and Chidi Iwuoma without feeling an effect on defense. However, there are eight starters back in the fold, among 25 returning lettermen, and coordinator Lyle Setencich believes he has the personnel to improve on last year's group that gave up 365.4 yards a game.
Sentencich's defensive system places a premium on the linebacker positions and will be the strength of the Cal defense in 2001. However, the Bears also have superior depth along the defensive line and in the secondary. The competition for playing time will be fierce and should ultimately translate into improved performance on the field.
Should veteran coach Bill Dutton be able to work his magic in developing young players into productive Pac-10 performers, Cal will once again rate as one of the top defensive lines in the conference and contend for the league sack title for the third consecutive season. Dutton will have his hands full in finding replacements for Andre Carter and Jacob Waasdorp from a line that led the Pac-10 with 44 sacks last season, but he'll have plenty of depth to choose from.
The development of defensive end Tully Banta-Cain (6-4, 250) last season was one of Dutton's most adept coaching jobs. Banta-Cain proved to be a major contributor, finishing eighth in the league with six sacks, among his 13 tackles for loss. He came on strong towards the end of the year, ending the season on a high note with five tackles behind the line of scrimmage for minus 41 yards and a forced fumble against Stanford.
He's back in the starting line-up, but he could be pushed hard by junior Jamaal Cherry (6-4, 260), a mega-talent who is making the transition from linebacker to the rush end spot. Cherry has unlimited physical skills and seems motivated to making a name for himself after sitting out last season at a junior college while concentrating on his academics.
At the other end position, Cal will have an unproven commodity. Redshirt-freshman Tosh Lupoi (6-3, 255) was talented enough to play last season, but Andre Carter never left the field, so the Bears were afforded the luxury of redshirting Lupoi. He has excellent quickness and the same attention to technique that made Carter a great one in his college career.
Two other candidates for the starting spot are Tom Canada (6-3, 265) and Louis-Philippe Ladouceur (6-5, 260). Canada is a rugged JC transfer who can play either end or tackle and certainly will get his share of playing time this season. Ladouceur has good athletic skills and has improved his strength significantly since arriving last year as a freshman from Quebec.
The Bears have a trio of interior players with significant playing experience. Daniel Nwangwu (6-4, 290) and Josh Beckham (6-2, 280) shared starting duties last year and again figure to rotate a good amount in 2001, while Jonathan Giesel (6-2, 285) was pushing for a starting spot as a true-freshman last fall until a tendon injury in his arm forced him to redshirt.
Nwangwu is in the best physical condition of his career and could be a major boost to Cal's line play as he's like a rock against the run. Beckham was very effective as a redshirt-freshman last season, moving into the starting line-up early in the year and holding down that spot the rest of the way. He finished with five tackles for loss among his 26 stops on the season. Giesel caught the coaches' attention last season with his ability to make plays. His quickness off the ball gives him the inside track to nail down a starting spot this fall.
While players like Tom Sverchek (6-3, 290) and Chris Linderman (6-3, 245) will get a chance to move into the playing rotation during the spring, a trio of players who arrive this fall could have major impacts.
Senior Tim Pompa (6-3, 275), JC Transfer Josh Gustaveson (6-3, 255) and freshman Lorenzo Alexander (6-3, 280) are all players who could immediately push for starting duties. Pompa is back with the program after sitting out last season and will give the Bears such much needed maturity on the interior line. After battling a series of injuries, he seems ready to contend hard for starting duties as he's in excellent physical condition. Gustaveson is a polished pass-rushing specialist who accounted for 18.5 sacks at Snow JC last year while Alexander was a prep All-American at St. Mary's HS in Berkeley, where he accounted for 17 sacks last season.
Cal returns all three starters, but there is so much evenly distributed talent that any of a half-dozen or more players could end up in the starting line-up by the Labor Day opener.
On the outside, senior Scott Fujita (6-5, 250) had a very solid junior campaign with 41 tackles, including 13 tackles behind the line of scrimmage. However, he's added 10 pounds of muscle and significantly improved his speed, which could make him an impact player his final season.
He'll need to be at his best to hold off a very athletic Calvin Hosey (6-4, 235), who now has the experience to go along with his natural talents. His speed from sideline to sideline can be a big addition to Cal's defensive plans.
On the inside, neither John Klotsche (6-0, 240) or Matt Nixon (6-1, 220) inspire much fear in opponents because of their physical stature. However, once they strap on a helmet, they seem to become much bigger. The two combined for 93 tackles last year and always seemed to be around the ball. Nixon had 15 tackles behind the line of scrimmage while Klotsche recovered three fumbles last season, one that he returned 34 yards for a touchdown at Washington.
Two players who will make significant pushes for starting duties are senior Chris Ball (6-3, 220) and junior Marcus Daniels (6-1, 230). Ball has added 15 pounds of muscle with a dedicated off-season regime after playing last year at just over 200 pounds. He has the type of leg speed and aggressive style of play that may make him hard to keep off the field. Daniels, who arrived at Cal last fall from West L.A. JC, is built like a rock and looks ready to assert himself after absorbing the Cal defensive system for a year.
Both J.P. Segura (6-0, 235) and Jason Smith (6-0, 230) have starting experience and the savvy to contribute. Junior Paul Ugenti (6-0, 210) will concentrate mostly on special teams duties, but gives the Cal added depth at the inside linebacker position.
Cal has excellent depth in the secondary with three starters returning and good competition at all four spots. The person who has the most impressive credentials is junior cornerback Jemeel Powell (6-1, 185), who ranked among the national leaders with 16 pass deflections, despite missing almost three entire games with a hip flexor injury. He also registered four interceptions, including three critical ones that played major roles in wins over USC, Utah and UCLA.
On the other side, junior LaShaun Ward (6-1, 195) is equally talented and will be given the opportunity to nail down a starting spot. Ward has excellent quickness and speed and needs only a dose of consistency to also be considered an honors candidate. He was beginning to make an impact last season, until he suffered a season-ending chest injury in the win over UCLA.
Sophomores Atari Callen (5-9, 190) and James Bethea (5-11, 190) are both excellent coverage corners who will be on the field in nickel and dime alignments and could contend for starting assignments. Callen redshirted last season while Bethea received a good amount of playing time as a true-freshman.
Cal returns starters Nnamdi Asomugha (6-2, 205) and Bert Watts (6-1, 210) at the safety positions. Asomugha is a budding star as he has an enviable combination of size and speed. After breaking his leg as a freshman, Asomugha started all 11 games last season. Now fully recovered from the injury, he'll have the benefit of a full year of training plus the experience he gained last season. That should all add up to him being a contender for All-Pac-10 honors this fall.
Watts is a steady performer who split starting duties with Dewey Hale (6-0, 205) at the strong safety position.Watts contributed 36 tackles a year ago, while Hale was a very active player who had 50 tackles and six pass deflections. Hale now has the maturity and dedication which could mean he'll become a bigger force in the Cal secondary.
Watts and Hale will be pushed for playing time by redshirt-freshman Perron Wiley (6-0, 210) and sophomore James Smith (6-1, 190). Wiley has the makings of a devastating hitter and will be hard to keep off the field once he learns the Cal defense. Smith was one of Cal's most physical offensive players and he makes the move from wide receiver this spring to see if he can take that style of play as a strong safety.
JC transfer Ray Carmel (5-11, 185) is a polished covererage corner and will get a long look when he arrives in the fall.
Cal was solid in the special teams area last year, but when an opportunity arose by a vacancy on the Cal coaching staff in the off-season, Tom Holmoe jumped at the chance to hire LaCharls MCDainiel from the NFL and give him autonomy over Cal's special teams efforts.
The Bears have some big shoes to fill with the departure of All-America punter Nick Harris, but there's a sense that McDaniels' hiring and the return of virtually the remainder of Cal's special team units intact will mean improvement across the board in 2001.
Nick Harris NCAA record 13,621 career punting yards will be nothing more than a memory this year and Cal will be forced to find a new punter for the first time in five years.
Sophomore Tyler Fredrickson (6-3, 205) has the inside track as he served as the primary back-up last season and even filled in during the Utah game with three punts.
However, the spring competition will come from soph Jeremy Hershey (6-0, 205) and redshirt-freshman Anthony Fassero (6-1, 200). In the fall, some highly regarded walk-ons will also join in the mix to see if they can nail down a starting job.
Mark Jensen (6-2, 185) showed fine progress last year and was awarded a scholarship during the off-season. He hit 11-of-16 field goals, including five of his final six and 10 of his final 12 attempts during the season. He was particularly solid from close range as he connected on 11-of-13 attempts from 40 yards or shorter.There are three other placekickers available if needed: junior Jeremy Hershey, soph Tyler Fredrickson and frosh Anthony Fassero.
Cal has one of the top punt return specialists in the country in junior Jemeel Powell. He led the country in that category late in the 2000 season, eventually finishing fifth nationally with a 18.2 ypr average, a new school record. Powell had several long returns, including an 83-yarder for a TD that broke open a close USC game and a 38-yarder vs. Oregon State.
In the fall, the arrival of JC transfer Ray Carmel will present some options as Carmel is regarded as a versatile and adept return specialist who can handle either punts or kickoffs.
TOMORROW | 7:00pm PTLive
Thu 9/27 | 12:00pm PTLive