Cal Defense a Work In Progress
by Glenn Dickey
Aug 31, 2005

OFFENSE INEVITABLY gets the most attention on any Jeff Tedford-coached team, but Cal’s success this season will primarily depend on how fast defensive coordinator Bob Gregory can bring a very young defense up to speed.

“We got spoiled last year,” said Gregory, in his office in Memorial Stadium. “We had some guys who had played with us since the first year we (he and Tedford, who had earlier been assistant coaches together at Oregon) came here. They knew the system, and they were very coachable.

“Now, we have to start over with the new guys. We have to really emphasize fundamentals, and make sure we tell them exactly what they’re supposed to be doing on every play. We actually have to coach!”

There’s an added complication for Gregory’s preparation: “Nine of our 11 opponents have either a new head coach or offensive coordinator – or both,” he said. “Only UCLA and Arizona have brought back their whole staffs. So, we’re not exactly sure what to expect.”

That includes the home opener on Saturday against Sacramento State. “They’re listing four receivers and a tight end in their starting lineup,” he said, “and only one back. Last year, they used a two-back system, so we really don’t have a read on them at all.”

Gregory’s overall system hasn’t changed because of the youth of the defense. “We put in everything in training camp,” he said, “but that doesn’t mean we’ll use everything in a game. We want the players to be confident in what they’re doing, so they can just use their ability.”

There are still some veterans to provide leadership. “Donnie McClesky, who plays what we call the ‘rover’ position (usually designated as free safety), will be a big factor for us. He’s an outstanding player and an outstanding person.

“Brandon McBane (defensive tackle) is a big playmaker, Tosh Lupoi is back, and he’s very important to us.” Lupoi started 11 games as a junior defensive end in 2003 but fractured his foot in training camp last summer and missed the entire 2004 season. He was granted a medical red shirt year.

OVERALL, GREGORY believes his defense has more speed than any of the previous three he’s had at Cal, and he expects some freshmen and junior college transfers to step up this season.

“We’re thin at linebacker, so I think we’ll get help there from two true freshmen, Anthony Felder and Zach Follet; they’re both running with the 2s (second-string) now. Desmond Bishop (a transfer from CCSF) has looked very good. He moved up to the first string on the third day of spring practice.”

College coaching is significantly different from pro coaching in that coaches are much closer to their players, starting with the recruiting process, when they try to learn everything they can about players, not just their game performances.

“We don’t have a lot to go on as far as their playing,” Gregory said. “We can watch them in only one game, so we look at a lot of video (most of it of poor quality), and we talk to a lot of other people, too, teachers, guidance counselors. We want to know if a player is serious about his class work. If we hear that he’s often late for class, that throws up a red flag.

“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to get through school here, but you do need to work hard. If a player doesn’t get up to go to class, well, he’s not going to do anything in the class room and he’s probably not going to do anything on the football field, either.”

Tedford and his assistants closely monitor the classroom work of their players. Between that and the recruiting process, they know their players well, so it’s significant when Gregory says the attitude of the players is good.

“I think they’re picking up the defense very well,” he said. “We’ll put in more and more as we go along, so we should improve from week to week. I’m sure we’ll make a lot of mistakes, but hopefully, we’ll learn from them.”

The schedule is favorable for the Bears, with the toughest games in the second half. By that time, the young defenders should have enough experience to thrive. The game everybody looks at is against two-time national champion USC at Berkeley on Nov. 12 – the game is already sold out, and there may be a record attendance on Tightwad Hill, too – but the game the week before, in Eugene against Oregon, will be a tough one, too. And the Bears are well past the stage where they can expect to take teams by surprise.

IT WON’T BE easy for the Bears to repeat their success of 2004, when they went 10-2 and were ranked fourth in the nation, but they’re a very well-coached team which will get the most out of its potential.

Gregory is a very important part of that. His defenses have been consistently good since he’s been at Cal and last year ranked eighth in the nation in points yielded, 16 a game.

Then, it all fell apart in a 45-31 thrashing by Texas Tech in the Holiday Bowl, a result of an emotional letdown because the Bears didn’t get to the Rose Bowl, where they should have been, and a bad matchup.

“Nobody notices the defense until you look bad,” Gregory said, “but we’re using that game as a motivation for us this year.”

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