Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Reviewing the Defensive Backs

This is the first installment of a position by position breakdown, reviewing the returning players' '08 season.


For me, this position was easily the most pleasant surprise and the one that most exceeded expectations. New hire coach Al Simmons clearly made a huge difference, confirming that having the right staff is perhaps the most underrated aspect of building a successful program. To a man, the players commented starting back in Spring ball what a great teacher Simmons is, and how much they were all growing as players because of him. And Coach Tedford made it clear that he had been coveting Simmons for a few years and was thrilled eventually to hire him. With a full offseason under his belt and every guy returning (assuming Syd comes back), it is safe to say Coach Simmons will mold this group into the top secondary in the conference this coming season.

In terms of reviewing the unit, there are four main elements or skills I look at in grading a secondary: playing the ball in the air, being in position on pass plays (both in man and zone), defending the run, and play recognition.

Playing the Ball in the Air

As a unit, this secondary had over 50 passes broken up (up from 25 in 2007) and 17 INTs (up from 6 in 2007). Those are big numbers and big improvements. As a team defense (which would include other positions as well), Cal was third nationally with 24 INTs, 1st nationally with 96 passes defended (second place was 85), and 1st nationally with 72 passes proken up. Though national stats are only kept for team defense, the secondary's numbers alone (without the rest of the team) would rank 20th nationally among team INTs and 30th in passes broken up. Not bad.

And this ballhawking was clearly the biggest difference from years past. To a man, this unit played the ball on nearly every play, almost as if they expected to get their hands on it, especially in obvious passing situations. That's what you want from a defense - to want the chance to be on the field in crucial situations. And for every INT each game, there were at least two other near INTs.

Being in Position on Pass Plays

This was also a big area of improvement over years past. Under Coach Littlejohn, the secondary looked lost a lot of the time. People were catching balls with no one around them in zone, and with little harrassment in man (other then desperate face guarding on occasion). This year, under Simmons, most balls were thrown into a closing window in zone, and guys were right there with their hands near the ball in man to man.

If receivers caught balls, they were usually well covered, and usually hit immediately, or else the pass was broken up or dropped. They defended the sidelines, the short pass, and the endzone very well. Especially in third down when Gregory went to 5 DBs, the defense just seemed to swallow up passes. I dare say it got to the point where I expected passes on third and long to be unsuccessful.

However, there was very small re-occurring problem in this category: receivers being thrown to in stride on post patterns across the middle of the field. Thompson got beat on this pattern at vs. UofA, Ezeff multiple times including Michigan State and Miami, and Cattouse vs. ASU when he was supposed to pick up the receiver coming out of the short zone and into the deep middle. In fairness this is a difficult pattern to defend, because it requires great speed in man and great flexibility and acceleration for a safety in zone. But this was clearly a soft spot in this defense that good QBs were able to exploit. This is definitely an area to look for improvement in this coming season.

Coming Up in Run Support

After looking downright soft in the Maryland game, this became a strength of this unit. Syd has always been a ridiculous open field tackler. But Hagan elevated this aspect of his game as well. And the safeties, as usual under Gregory, hit like trucks. A typically physical Cal secondary against the run.

Play Recognition

The big ones here are not biting on play fakes and getting burned deep, and seeing edge plays developing in time to be in position. This was generally an area of strength for the team, with the exception of the Maryland and UofA games, where everyone seemed to take turns making bad reads. For the most part though, the safeties seemed not to get beat over the top on play fakes. And the corners were able to get in position early to stop plays on the edge.

I think this will be an area of improvement in '09 given the experience of this unit. The key will be to get reps for the backups because this is a skill that cannot be learned sitting on the sidelines.



Syd'Quan Thompson

What can you say? First team all conference, 14 passes broken up, 18 passes defended (tied team leader) 4 INTs (team leader), 2 sacks, 7.5 tackles for a loss (3rd on team), 70 tackes (4th on team), and countless of his signature open field hits stopping much bigger players dead in their tracks. People basically stopped throwing his way, but when they did, he broke up nearly every isolation endzone play thrown at him. The latest in a nice run of great Cal corners, after O'Neal, Asomugha, and Hughes.

There is talk he may enter the draft if he is advised he'll go in the top 3 rounds. I always believe if a kid has aspirations to play and he gets credible advice he'll be drafted that high, he should go. Especially in Syd's case, where (1) he has a family to support, and (2) his height and straight ahead speed are probably the knock against him, neither of which are going to improve significantly with one more season.

However, he only recently started being talked about as one of the best cover corners in the country, so if he stays, it might actually gain him some more notoriety, thereby improving his draft stock. Selfishly, I hope he does, as he and Hagan would make a formidable tandem next season.

Darian Hagan

Easily the biggest surprise on the whole team in 2008. Hagan went from borderline bust to breakout player of the team in 2008. I can only assume Coach Simmons had a lot to do with this. Hagan played with cockiness that you rarely see from a sophomore. I actually think he shows better natural ball skills than Thompson did in his second year - he had 3 INTs (2nd on team, two more than Syd his soph year), 15 passes broken up (team leader, 5 more than Syd his soph year), 18 passes defended (tied team leader, 7 more than Syd his soph year).

In terms of tackling and run support, Hagan initially looked a little soft, especially vs Maryland. He seemed to want to avoid contact and just pull guys down by the collar or be an ankle biter. But someone must have talked to him after that game, because from the next week forward, he came up and tackled very well, finishing with 56 tackles (8th on team).

At this rate of improvement, Hagan projects as a first or second team all conference corner next season (the coaches mysteriously left him off any post-season team this year). Unlike Syd, he actually has the size to become even more imposing and could end up a pretty high draft pick himself. Unquestionably, if Syd comes back, these two will be the #1 corner combo in the country.

Chris Conte

After getting the starting job last year, and playing well at times and not so well at times, Conte lost his job to Hagan this season, but he played very well when he did come in. He was a fixture in the nickel package, when Syd shifted inside to play the slot receiver. The thing that strikes me about Conte is his attitude. He has the right swagger for a corner. Miami picked on him twice on isolation plays to bigger receivers, and he broke up both of them (though he got beat on two slants). He also had a nice INT vs ASU right off the bench, where he jumped a slant route.

With the secondary intact for next year, he projects again to be the first corner off the bench, and the regular fifth DB in nickel. And at 6-3, he is still going to be very useful on bigger recievers. With another year under his belt, and familiarity with this role, he will be a very nice situational player for the team next year.

Reserves and New Players

Charles Amadi is listed as the next guy off the bench and was pushing for playing time in the spring and fall. Marc Anthony, Bryant Nabuife, and Josh Hill (all sophs/RS frosh) look like the next crop of players at corner. Nabuife was a special teams standout and saw some PT in a few big wins. The staff is high on all three, and but Nabuife seems most likely next off the bench.

Incoming recruits Steve Williams and Vachel Samuels are also pretty talented. Williams is a Texas kid, who's on the small side, with very good man cover skills. He is a bona fide blue chipper who played in the Under Armour HS All American game. He de-committed from Oklahoma and has verballed to Cal - big coup for Cal (coincidentally, Oklahoma was the other name school who recruited Syd, also an undersized corner). Samuels is also highly rated and has verballed to Cal as well, over Oregon and other Pac 10 schools.

Overall grades for corners:

  • Playing the ball in the air: A

  • Being in position on pass plays: man A-, zone B+

  • Coming up in run support: A-


Marcus Ezeff

Ezeff is one of those guys who quietly plays very solidly, and is always in the right place in run support, but no one ever talks about him. Sometime, just watch him for 5 plays in a row, and you'll see that he's either in on every tackle, or right there waiting. He's not flashy, and he's not great in pass coverage, but he's smart and has made some big goal line stops for Cal over the years. Remember he won the job as a sophomore, and kept it this year. He needs to improve on his man pass coverage, and his reaction to receivers coming out of breaks, but that may not get much better - he plays a bit more like a smallish linebacker than a DB. However, he has great instincts and chances are he keeps his job next season and continues to play well.

Sean Cattouse

This was another player who kind of broke into the spotlight this year with three INTs and some big hits in run support. Cattouse was actually recruited as a taller corner, but the coaches moved him to FS this season (his more natural position in my opinion), first in nickel, and then as a starter when Brett Johnson got hurt. When Johnson got better, Cattouse seemed to keep the job. He plays centerfield very well, seeming to come out of nowhere to snatch balls out of the air near the endzone this year. As great as DeCoud was, he never made plays on the ball as a senior the way Cattouse did as a RS Frosh. He has a bright future and probably gets the starting job next year.

Brett Johnson

A lot of people were excited about Johnson's athleticism and hitting ability. He actually looked pretty good at times once he took over for Hicks this season. But Cattouse's knack for INTs seemed to impress the coaches more. Johnson actually appears to have more speed and burst than Cattouse, and he definitely likes to lay the lumber in run support. But he did seem out of position at times, and bit too hard on play fakes, and was maybe a bit hesitant in terms of feel. He and Cattouse will probably battle it out for the starting job, but whatever happens, he'll probably rotate a lot next season, even if he doesn't get the starting job.

Reserves and New Players

The first guy off the bench at SS seems to be DJ Campbell, though Ezeff was out there most of the time so there wasn't a lot of backup play at SS this season. The rest of the safety backups are Chris Little and Jesse Brooks - neither guy saw meaningful time.

The incoming safety recruit Alex Logan continues the trend of bigger safeties, at 6-2, 200.

Overall grades for safeties:

  • Playing the ball in the air: A-

  • Being in position on pass plays: man B+, zone A-

  • Coming up in run support: A-


ieeewok said...

Very thorough and well written thanks! It DID look rather apparent that Coach Simmons came in right away and taught our backs proper fundamentals and ball skills.

I'm curious, Hicks seem to disappear into the bench this season. I am aware of injuries that prevented him from playing, but was he just plain outshone by Brett Johnson and Sean Catthouse?

SD said...


On his best day, Hicks wasn't markedly better than Cattouse or Johnson, who were a couple years behind him. And he has always struggled a bit with route and play recognition. Like all big hitting safeties, he got sucked into play action from time to time. Plus, he just didn't have the range to cover the field with the speed that Cattouse and Johnson do.

I think if he had stayed healthy, he'd have rotated regularly with Johnson early on, and Cattouse would have played in nickel and passing downs. But I think the fact that he didn't stay healthy might have been a blessing in disguise, since it allowed Cattouse to show what he could do.

Anonymous said...

Excellent analysis...please note that Anthony, Hill and Little were all RSFr this season.

Hopefully the additional DB talent will also result in more productive kickoff defense STs.

SD said...

I agree the new DB players should mean good ST play - Cal always seems to utilize its athletic recruits well on special teams. However, I think we can all agree that no one may ever match Nabuife's two TDs off blocked punts last season. As a freshman, no less. That has to be some kind of team record.

Anonymous said...

Hicks did lay some of the biggest hits on defense but those were always blind shots when the opponents didn't know it was coming. He's absolutely atrocious tackling in open space and head on. His pass coverage was below average and he was ok in run support.

Hicks was just not very good. Serviceable at times, but I heavily preferred Johnson and Cattouse. I hate seeing our guys go down with injuries but it is what it is.

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