This team has some Miltons in its basement that it needs to watch.
I will admit I have been saying since 2007 ended that I was already looking forward to the 2009 team because of all the young talent. With QB questions all around the conference and USC and AZ at home, this season presents Cal with as good a shot at a conference title as it has had since Tedford came on board. In other words, there's reason for optimism (even for Cal fans).
That said, when you look at this team, there are some chinks in the armor, some more latent than others, that could "burn the building down."
1. Defensive End Depth.
Without question, this one scares me more than anything else about this team. The media and fans are high on our starting defensive line. And for good reason. This is as stout a front line as Tedford has had since he's been here.
But more than any other position, defensive line needs depth behind it. And not just situational depth, like for third down or goal line. You need constant rotation to keep guys fresh. This is a big reason teams like SC are so strong in finishing games in the fourth quarter as compared with other teams. Their defensive line reserves are good enough to play significant minutes without much dropoff, keeping the whole d-line fresh all game. (And most of their opponents' d-lines are not as deep, so SC's offensive running game also tends to get rolling late in the game.)
With the pounding defensive linemen take, you also need interchangeable reserves who can play significant minutes if a starter can only play limited minutes because he's dinged up. And of course, if someone goes down for the season, you better have someone who is ready to come in full time. Think of the ripple effect of Mbakogu's injury, or even Davis' inability to stay healthy the last two years.
If Alualu or Jordan goes down, right now the first guy off the bench is probably sophomore Guyton. Other guys available include Browner, Owusu and Tipoti. All nice players, but none are proven, and none have had significant reps. And they're all second year players except Browner (who's not even listed on the post-spring depth chart).
Guyton looks like in another year, he'll be a stout defensive end in the Alualu mold. But as of now, he's a soph who started to rotate more as the season wore on. He seems to still be growing into his body, getting comfortable at the position, and is not as refined as Alualu was when he started as as soph in 2007.
Browner is a good pass rusher, but has yet to show he can be a three-down run stopper. He is still a little light and I've yet to see in him a guy that who can hold his ground against the Schwartzes of the conference. We'll see how he looks come fall. He wasn't even listed on the post-spring depth chart, in part I believe because of injuries.
I know a lot of folks are high on Owusu. From what I saw, Owusu has the physical tools, but he's got a ways to go in order to be a guy you can leave in for three downs. He seems to take plays off, has some poor technique, and needs a lot of work on gap control. I think he's still a year away. If he puts in the work though, he and Guyton could both be forces in 2010.
I have also heard a lot of excitement about Tipoti, but he has yet to a play a single snap, redshirting last season. Most defensive linemen don't hit their stride until year 3. But in particular, when they redshirt their first season, that is usually a sign they were not college ready their first year. In those instances, it is not realistic to expect that in their second year they are all of a sudden going to be able to be a legit #2 without much dropoff after the starter.
Point is, the defensive end backups are young guys without much experience, which could make an injury to Alualu or Jordan pretty costly.
2. Strong Safety Depth
Since 2007, all meaningful snaps at strong safety have gone to Hicks and Ezeff. No one else on the roster has had much of anything in the way of experience at the position. If Ezeff goes down, it's sophomore DJ Campbell, or one of the myriad corner/safety hybrids like Conte, Nnabuife or even Cattouse.
I think DJ Campbell can be a nice player eventually. He shows some nice athleticism in his high school highlight video (link here), and he got scout team player of the year honors. But as with defensive line, he's got very little experience. And he's a bit light to be playing the position at 5'11 198. Ezeff is 220. And Conte, Nnabuife and Cattouse are really free safeties or cover-2 corners who aren't exactly built to come up and play in the box. I have no doubt they could adapt to the position eventually, but that will involve a dropoff in production at least for a time.
Ezeff is not necessarily an all conference player, but he is a solid guy who knows the position very well, can play all 4 downs, and has a lot of starts. If he goes down, it will leave a bigger hole than people think.
3. Running for short yardage.
Good rushing schemes can put up big rushing yardage numbers - Oregon, GaTech, AFA, etc. But those same teams often fail to get 1 or 2 yards when they really need it. To be a great team, you need to be able to get that yard or two.
I think this team is going to struggle a bit in this department, especially up the middle. As of now, this is not an overpowering offensive line or runningback group. Last year's wasn't really either, and they had Mack and Ta'ufo'ou. This group doesn't even have that.
From watching them last season (granted they may have improved since then), Boskovich, Guarnero and Teofilo did not show blow-you-off-the-ball type ability. Best and Vereen are not power backs. Holley (if he gets the start) gives up 2 inches and about 20 pounds to Ta'ufo'ou and has little experience.
For this reason, I think we will see glimpses of 2006 all over again, where the offense moves the ball well most of the time (better than the last two years I predict), except when it gets into short yardage and red zone running. In 2006, as good as the offense was, it had problems punching it in or moving it several key times. Arizona after Hawkins tripped on the 1 yard line comes to mind. And that 2006 team struggled with short yardage despite having a true power back in Lynch and a legit passing game led by Jackson. This team has neither.
There are two glimmers of hope here though. First, this year's offensive line group is massive, probably the biggest since Tedford's been here: Tepper (6'7" 320), Boskovich (6'4" 304), Guarnero (6'2" 275), Teofilo (6'3" 330), Schwartz (6'6" 335). The hope is that because this is a young group, if they can match that size with a mean streak and good technique, they can perhaps grow into a dominating unit as the season progresses.
Second, if Tedford's comments at the Coaches' Tour are any indication, this year's offense may find a better, more creative mix of plays to open up the straight ahead run game a bit until the power game comes along. Well crafted, well timed screens, counters, shovel passes and cutbacks work wonders for the run game, because they slow the defense down. A good passing game helps in this department as well, which is an area I expect we'll see improvement. Once the defense slows down because it is guessing or thinking, it can be blown off the ball more easily in the run game, even by less overpowering blocking. At least in theory.
But there is no substitute for old-fashioned road grading, which is something this program really hasn't been able to do effectively since 2005. I predict this struggle to continue this season, at least for a time.