Wednesday, January 21, 2009

2008 Review: Linebackers

Carpenter "getting the business." Farewell, Pain Train. You will be missed.

As great of a year as certain individual players like Best or Thompson had this season, the linebackers were the heart and soul of this team. The defense kept this team in many a game this year, and really set the tone all season. And the linebackers were the backbone of that defense. As optimistic as I am about the talent and potential of this team next year (and there is a lot to look forward to next year), do not underestimate what a big hole Follett, Felder and Williams will leave, both in terms of play and leadership.


This unit, more than any other, really found its groove in the 3-4. In 2007, the entire unit seemed to struggle against the run, in particular power runs up the middle. While this group had been good for 3 years against speed and finesse offenses, largely because of their quickness, they seemed to get swallowed up against power teams. All that changed this season. I attribute this to two major changes: (1) dividing the gaps differently among the front 7, and (2) more aggressive stunts and complicated schemes for offenses to deal with.

Gap Control

Regarding gap control, the 3-4 just seemed to suit this group better against the run, particularly Felder and Williams inside. To begin with, though both guys are quick, the 4-3 required them to cover more ground (and different areas), which I actually think slowed them down. The more ground you have to cover, the bigger the mistake if you are wrong or out of position, which can cause players to get tentative about committing, which leads to linemen getting into your body and blocking you out of the play. For Williams in particular, I think this was a big problem last year.

Also, the three seniors just frankly looked more sure about what they were supposed to be doing and where they were going. Some of that is experience, the same way Bishop looked his senior season - like a heat seeking missile. Some of that was Coach Thompson being in the booth and getting a better appreciation of what the defense was trying to do, which likely rubbed off on the players.

Shifting Fronts, Zone Blitz, and Aggressiveness

But the biggest change was the aggressiveness. This was the first time under Gregory that the defense, in particular the linebackers, looked like it was trying to influence, even control, how the opposing offense was playing, essentially trying to affect the game. This is the philosophy underlying the LeBeau 3-4 defense: attack, confuse, disrupt. In the past, Gregory largely took the contain/read and react approach. The contrasting results speak for themselves.

The aggressiveness showed itself particularly in the use of different formations, fronts, and blitz schemes. Gregory had guys moving all over the place, and threw a lot of formations at QBs and o-lines, and then followed it up with guys criss-crossing, slanting and shooting gaps. He also did quite a bit of zone blitzing where he would show blitz by the linebackers and then drop a d-lineman into coverage to fill the void. This made things very difficult for QBs and o-lines.

For example, zone blitz is hard to read as a QB because you are usually taught in college to throw to the space where the blitzing linebacker is coming from, figuring the man or area he would normally cover in pass will be open since he is blitzing. But if you see Zack Follett bearing down over you just before the snap, and then turn to throw to his zone, only to find that Tyson Alualu has dropped back to cover that area, you can imagine it might throw you off a bit. When you only have 2-3 seconds to throw, and your safety valve is now gone, it usually leads to a sack, throw away or turnover.

This shifting also befuddled a lot of power rushing attacks by frustrating blocking schemes and o-line reads. But the result was not simply stuffing a single play. The net result was teams abandoning the power run schemes in favor of the screens, draws, passing and finesse plays, which of course played to this linebacking crew's strength: speed against spread and finesse schemes. It also led to third and long, and more predictable passing, which has every defense licking its chops.

This is not to say it worked like a charm. As we know, the defense had its hiccups, most notably versus Maryland and in the second half against Arizona. But whereas before when Tedford's teams have had to win with offense, this season, the defense was the team's strong suit.

Onto grading the unit. In terms of rating the unit as a whole, I look at four main things: (1) shedding and filling, (2) play recognition, (3) stunting, and (4) pass coverage, both man and zone.

Shedding and Filling

This unit was frankly crappy at this last season, and a whole lot better at this in 2008. Again, I attribute some of this to being more sure about what they were doing, and where they wanted to go, because there is no question all of them have the strength and athleticism to fight off blocks and make plays. Once they got more sure of themselves, it improved this area.

However, there were still a few instances of all of the linebackers getting caught with their arms collapsed and linemen up in their pads. And there were still cases of Williams and Felder getting trying to blow up a fullback and not being able to get free to tackle the runningback as he blew right by them. This happened versus Arizona and Maryland for example.

But that is going to happen from time to time. They could have been better at this, but overall though, this was not a weakness the way it was last year.

Grade: B

Play Recognition

This was another area where I thought the unit went from crappy to pretty good. In fairness, this group was very good last year against deceptive plays, misdirection, and play action. Their problem was gap recognition in power run. They seemed to be tentative or just choose wrong when teams came right at them. This was greatly improved this season. There were countless images of Felder, Follett and Williams leaping across the line of scrimmage to blow up a runningback, something we rarely saw last year.

And this season definitely continued the trend of blowing up deceptive offenses. We rarely saw the linebackers getting badly fooled on screens, draws, sweeps, and play action. As a result, teams did not get a lot of big plays against the defense, the way so many teams did last year. That was a huge difference in terms of winning and losing.

Grade: A-


Not much to say here - this group was great at this. Along with Oregon State, this was the best group of stunting linebackers in the conference. The test of a good stunting linebacker is how often he makes something happen when he brings pressure. It doesn't need to be a tackle every time either. It can be as little as disrupting the QB's timing by forcing him to step up, or blasting a blocking RB backwards into another blocker to free up another pass rusher, or altering a RB's path just after he gets a handoff.

On this criterion, this unit was extremely good. When Gregory unleashed the hounds, something good almost always happened. And it wasn't just Follett. Mohamed and Williams were also pretty disruptive.

Grade: A

Pass Coverage

This group has always been pretty good in zone pass coverage, especially in obvious passing downs. Just like last year, they protected the middle of the field well this year, and came up with some big INTs (Williams vs Ore, Felder vs. Ariz, Mohamed multiple times). As a unit, they had 6 INTs (25% of the team total), up from just 2 the year before. And for the most part, when they did allow catches, they were right there to lay the lumber, Williams in particular, with 6 passes broken up, which is a lot for LB.

Grade: A

Coach Kenwick Thompson

While I give Gregory most of the credit for the linebackers' resurgence, second year coach Kenwick Thompson has to get some credit for the way these guys played. Felder in particular seemed to improve in his tackling and technique considerably, to the point where he was manhandling people at times. And the entire crew seemed to improve in its play recognition, which I attribute to Coach Thompson being up in the box and Gregory down on the field during games for a change. I think this allowed Thompson, as a position coach, to have a better appreciation for the big picture, schematic goals of the defense. Rarely do position coaches have this luxury, and I really think it rubbed off on his players. Should make Thompson a great teacher to next year's crew.


I am only going to review returning players on an individual basis, other than to say that Follett, Felder and Williams will go down as among the best linebacking corps to wear a Bear uniform. I'll always remember the countless punishing hits to QBs by Follett, the images of Williams flying across the line of scrimmage, and Felder mauling runningbacks and throwing them to the ground...Aw, look at me, I'm ramblin' again. Well I hope you folks enjoyed yourselves. Say bartender, you got any more of that sarsparilla?

Mike Mohamed

Mike Mohamed is every coach's dream, the kid you want all the other players to play like. Mohamed was an under-recruited guy from Brawley who dominated his high school league as a lanky, fast wide receiver and linebacker. You could tell from the way he talked about Mohamed early on that Tedford knew he found a gem in this kid that everyone had overlooked. First Mohamed lit up the scout team and got scout team player of the year. Then his RS freshman year, last season, he rotated a lot at almost all the linebacker spots, and even started the Oregon game in place of Zack Follett (though interestingly Gregory went 3-4 that day, so Mohamed played inside).

This year, he basically emerged as not only the most versatile linebacker, but the best in pass coverage, earning him honorable mention all Pac 10 despite not being a starter. The guy played every linebacker position, stunted, blitzed, got a couple sacks, got a couple INTs, including one for a TD, was third on the team in tackles with 87, and continued to have a nose for the ball on special teams. And he made a lot of those plays cold coming off the bench. Gregory's now famous quote about Mohamed says it all: "He was so good we couldn't start him." To top it off, he's a two-time Pac 10 All-Academic selection, carrying a 3.39 GPA.

In terms of how he played, I would say he tackled, blitzed, and dropped into coverage as well as any linebacker on the team, and gets an A in those areas. Where Mohamed struggled some was with shedding and filling. As long-armed and athletic as he is, he plays more like a slippery, cagey type, rather than a bull. He tries to rely on speed and elusiveness, to slip blocks, rather than trying to blow them up or play through them. While this is actually a great skill, which most players at his size don't have, at times, he got caught by blockers and didn't have strong enough position to free himself. Overall, I'd give him a B in this area. In terms of play recognition, he seems to have good instincts, but by virtue of playing mostly situationally, this area of his game seemed a bit limited - A for pass route recognition, B for run.

For next year, I expect the latter two areas to improve considerably. In fact, I see Mohamed as making a bigger leap than any of the outgoing seniors either of their last two years. Why? Because he already has skills that are hard to learn: speed, elusiveness, and coverage skills. Play recognition and shedding techniques can be learned (and typically are).

In terms position, on any other team, I'd put Mohamed at outside linebacker, probably weakside. But on this team, given the lack of experience next year, I think Mohamed is best suited for the weak inside linebacker position. There he can protect the middle of the field, and sort of step up as a leader of the defense. I still expect to see the coaches move him around a lot too, just like this year.

I predict a great year for him, and I think it is not out of the question to see him make second team all Pac 10, the way Alualu did this year after a strong sophomore year.

Eddie Young

Eddie Young is your quintessential "solid, but unspectacular" linebacker. Not the fastest or the strongest, doesn't typically make the highlight plays, and really isn't quick enough to be effective in pass coverage. But he played the run off the edge decently this season. I actually watched him quite a bit because I was frankly curious why he won the job over Mohamed (until Gregory explained with his quote above), so I got to see how he handled himself pretty often.

When plays came right at him, he seemed to recognize it pretty quickly. And more often than not, he did a decent job of either shedding the block or pushing his man back into the play to clog the lane. That is 75% percent of your job as a strong-side outside backer. In that sense, Young held his own. Some people called for him to be benched, but I don't think he deserved it. He did his job solidly, and for him to hold it down as long as he did with all the talent on the team says a lot about what he shows the coaches in practice and on film.

However, there were also times when his lack of speed was pretty apparent. There were a few plays this season that came right at him, he shed his block, and the runningback just plain beat him around the edge. It wasn't pretty. And there were also times when he (and Mohamed and Follett) got swallowed up by a tackle or tight end and weren't able to free up to make a tackle. His tackle total was less than half that of Mohamed despite being a starter, which is a number you'd like to see improve.

Shedding and filling: B
Play recognition: B+
Pass coverage: NA - he came out on most third downs and passing situations
Blitzing: NA - never really saw this from him, and he had no sacks and only 1.5 tackles for a loss.

I expect Young to start again on the strongside outside, and his experience should allow him to hold down his area pretty well. However, there is a chance the coaches could move him inside to make use of his experience. And, the younger players could push him for playing time. They may however need to leave him in the game on passing downs unless they can find four other linebackers who are better than him in that regard.

Devin Bishop

Bishop actually rotated in from the very first game this season, for Eddie Young on first and second down, for a few series. This continued on and off most of the year. He also saw time in goal line situations, likely due to his size and strength. I watched him here and there, and what I saw is a guy who looks the part of a big-time linebacker, and can cover ground pretty well, but is still feeling his way quite a bit in terms of play recognition.

However, the stories about him are that he is a vocal leader, and an intense player. His father played in the USFL and was reportedly a very vocal, booming presence from the stands in practice. And then there's his older brother who set quite an example for him. And his coach at SF City College called him the best linebacker he's ever coached (including his older brother, who that same coach called the most intense player he's ever coached).

What all this says to me is, with one year left for Bishop, a starting job up for grabs, and a leadership vacuum on the defense, no one is going to work harder than him this off season to get better and take over the job. Interestingly, I noticed he was the guy leading the team in its pre-game rally cry just before taking the field for the Emerald Bowl, which I thought was promising for a guy who got pretty limited playing time this season.

If Young moves inside, I could see Bishop at strongside outside linebacker. If Young stays outside, the logical place for Bishop would be strong inside, though this is not a perfect fit for him. Wherever he plays, I think he will struggle a bit with recognition, but he will also make some big plays with his athleticism. I expect a year somewhat like Williams last season.

DJ Holt

DJ Holt is a guy everyone has been really high on, including me. But I have to admit, I just didn't see much to get excited about this year. Granted he didn't play a ton, but when he did, it wasn't what I had hoped. He's built like Williams, and plays a bit like him too, with maybe a bit less lateral ability.

If he sees the field, it figures to be at strong inside - he seems like the classic plugger. The one thing he did very well was shoot the gap. When they sent him up the middle, he crashed hard and at least once, he made a play which was impressive for a redshirt freshman. But I also saw a few plays go right by him up the middle, and saw him drift a bit lazily on a few plays.

I know a lot of folks think he'll start. I am not so sure. But if he does, I think he'll be a bit inconsistent at first (he will be a RS Soph, so that is to be expected somewhat). And I suspect he will be taken out in passing downs.

Mychal Kendricks

Kendricks is a kid I was also really high on, and from what little I saw, I think he has a very bright future. He appears to be the fastest linebacker on the team. He covers a ton of ground in a hurry. He's a little shorter than your typical outside backer, and looks a bit like a strong safety, but he plays like a linebacker. The upperclassmen and coaches had glowing things to say about him after spring and fall camp, and those who have watched practice think he'll make a big splash.

I don't know if he'll start right away, but if he does, I suspect it will be at weakside outside - Follett's position. His speed will be an asset on the edge, especially against mobile QBs (he got his most playing time vs. Oregon this year). Either way, I expect him to play early and often. Cal faces two spread option attacks in the first 5 games: Minnesota and Oregon, so he'll get a lot of playing time in both those games.

With all that in mind, have a look back again at Danzig's highlights of the linebackers from this season:

Wrecking Crew 2008 - Cal's Linebackers from jack bauer on Vimeo.


ooglie said...

Nice writeup. I'm really going to miss Follett, Williams, and Felder. I hope next year's LBs are up to the task!

By the way, it's spelled "Mohamed." :)

SD said...

Thanks ooglie

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