Pac-10 Position Breakdown: Secondary – Cal Bears
Next to USC, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better secondary in the Pac-10 (and the country) than the one in Berkeley. Last season, the Bears finished 6th nationally in pass efficiency defense, 3rd in the nation with 24 interceptions, 2nd in red zone defense, and 10th in third-down efficiency defense.
As impressive as the 2008 season was, the unit has a chance to be even better in 2009.
Defensive coordinator Bob Gregory and defensive backs coach Al Simmons will have the services of virtually every contributor from last year, and they will welcome fresh new talent as well.
One of America’s best cornerbacks will headline this unit, and he is looking to end his remarkable career in Berkeley with another tremendous season.
Decorated senior Syd’Quan Thompson enters the 2009 season as a legitimate contender for the Jim Thorpe Award (Best DB in Nation), Chuck Bednarik Award (Best Defensive Player in nation according to Maxwell Football Club), and Bronco Nagurski Trophy (Best Defensive Player according to Football Writers of America).
Thompson has started 39 straight games for Cal since redshirting in 2005. He is the Bears career active leader in tackles (208), interceptions (six), passes defended (32) and pass breakups (26). Last season, he finished with 70 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, four interceptions (team-high), and 14 pass breakups (second on team) on his way to first-team All-Pac 10 honors.
On top of his stellar defensive production, Thompson also returns punts for the Bears. He finished 4th in the Pac-10 during 2008 with 28 returns for 344 yards (12.3 YPR) and one touchdown.
At 5-9 191 pounds, Thompson possesses excellent speed (4.4) and arguably the best ball skills of any cornerback in the country. He is an instinctive player who can cover an opposing team’s feature receiver one-on-one, and his exceptional ability to tackle in space separates him as a truly rare CB.
Despite his relatively small frame, Thompson can be a devastating hitter who is not afraid to lower his shoulder on players much bigger than he is. He’s also a threat to score after an interception, possessing elite field awareness once the ball is in his hands, as evidenced by his punt return production.
The Sacramento (CA) native became a superstar defender even before his arrival in Berkeley, garnering five-star recognition from Scout.com and 4-stars from Rivals during his successful prep career at Grant High School (CA).
Thompson now enters the final chapter of his collegiate career as the unquestioned anchor of this impressive secondary.
Joining Thompson as a starting corner for the second straight season will be junior Darian Hagan.
Last season was Hagan’s first taste of extensive playing time (no recorded stats in five games during ’07) and he thrived, finishing with 56 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, three interceptions and a school-record 15 pass breakups in a breakout sophomore campaign.
At 6-0 186 pounds, Hagan plays faster than his 40 time (4.5), showing fluid movement and tremendous range in coverage. He possesses great size and strength, and has a knack for reading offensive plays with his natural instincts. Hagan demonstrated his superior ball skills last season (15 pass breakups), but he is also capable of playing in the box on run-support.
The Los Angeles (CA) native was given 4-star recognition by both Rivals and Scout.com, while also being named a PrepStar All-American. Hagan has been limited recently in fall practice because of a sore knee, but he is expected to be 100% for the season. He will be one of the key performers for this defensive backfield in 2009.
Two top reserves that should provide quality depth at cornerback are junior Bryant Nnabuife and redshirt freshman Marc Anthony.
Nnabuife played sparingly last season, contributing mostly on special teams and finishing with five tackles and one pass breakup. Even in a very limited role, the junior college transfer (Blinn College, TX) managed to make a huge impact for the Bears in 2008 by returning two blocked punts for touchdowns (first against Michigan State and then Colorado State). He will now make a position switch from safety to cornerback for 2009.
At 6-1 190 pounds, Nnabuife is a fantastic athlete with great size and some of the best speed on the team (4.38). The Houston (TX) native has worked with the first team at times during the fall, and he will be an important contributor in 2009.
Anthony spent last season with the scout team but now appears ready to make an impact for the Bears. At 6-0 194 pounds, he’s physical in press coverage, aggressive in run support, and a very good tackler.
Anthony is not a burner (4.5), but he makes up for it with his intuitive feel for the position. Rivals.com gave the Chandler (AZ) native 4-star recognition during his excellent prep career at Chandler High School. He has looked good during the fall and could become a mainstay at corner over the next few years.
Reliable senior Marcus Ezeff will lead the safeties in 2009. Ezeff has established himself as a stable presence in the defensive backfield over the last two years, playing in 34 games and starting 17 during his career.
Last season, he finished fifth on the team with 66 tackles, and also totaled three interceptions (tied for 2nd on team) and six pass breakups as a full time starter. Many may remember Ezeff for his clutch hit on Oregon’s Cameron Colvin in 2007 where he jarred the ball loose for a touchback and preserved the win for Cal.
At 5-11 219 pounds, Ezeff is a technician at safety who always seems to be in the right position and plays with perfect fundamentals. He has very good range and can close down space in a hurry. The Santa Rosa (CA) native has become more of a vocal leader during the off-season, and he will look to close out his career with another productive campaign.
The other starting safety will be hard-hitting senior Brett Johnson. After two seasons on special teams, Johnson started nine games last season, finishing with 43 tackles, two interceptions, three pass breakups, one forced fumble, and one punt block (against Michigan State).
At 6-1 194 pounds, Johnson is a solidly built athlete with good speed (sub-4.5) and leaping ability (39 inch vertical). He’s a powerful tackler who can be an intimidating presence in the secondary, and also possesses the size and skill set to help against the run. The Las Vegas (NV) has been battling some minor injuries in fall camp, but he should be ready for the season.
Pushing Johnson for time at safety will be sophomore Sean Cattouse. Cattouse enjoyed a successful redshirt freshman campaign in 2008, finishing with 13 tackles, three interceptions (tied for 2nd on team), and five pass breakups in 11 games (two starts). At 6-2 206 pounds, he possesses good athleticism and a ball-hawking mentality.
Some around the Cal program believe he will supplant Johnson as the starter at some point this season, but he should see plenty of action even as a backup. The Chicago (IL) native has taken reps with the first team in fall practice (while Johnson recovers from injury), and looks like the future at safety for the Bears.
Experienced junior Chris Conte enters the season as another top reserve at safety after switching from cornerback this off-season. Last year, Conte played CB in 12 games (one start) and finished with 28 tackles, one interception, one tackle for loss, and seven pass breakups. Two years ago, Conte earned honorable mention Freshman All-American in his debut season with Cal (32 tackles, one tackle for loss).
At 6-3 205 pounds, Conte blends safety size with cornerback speed (4.4) and quickness. He may be the most versatile defender in the secondary, and could end up playing all over the place this season. Rivals.com gave him 4-star recognition during his prep career at Loyola High School (CA). The Los Angeles (CA) native has been excellent this fall, and he should be the Bears best utility DB in 2009.
Other players competing for time are: juniors Charles Amadi and Jesse Brooks, sophomores D.J. Campbell and Chris Moncrease, and freshmen Steve Williams (fast riser during fall camp, 4-stars from Rivals and Scout), Alex Logan, Tyre Ellison, Josh Hill, and Vachel Samuels.
Kudos to DBs coach Al Simmons for the job he has done with this secondary. Many of the players believe he was largely responsible for the Bears sixth rated pass defense last season. Since Simmons return to Cal (served as DBs coach from 1998-2000 and returned in 2008) the level of play at the third level has been absolutely outstanding, and he seems to have turned very good players into great ones.
As mentioned earlier, this defensive backfield deserves to be mentioned with the best in America, especially if you consider that there’s even more talent present within the unit this year.
Syd’Quan Thompson could conceivably be playing pre-season games in the NFL right now, as he was very close to entering the draft last season. Fortunately for Bears fans, his return is one of the major reasons that a Pac-10 title is a realistic possibility. If Thompson has the kind of season that most are expecting, I think he will have a great chance to be a first round pick this April.
Hagan proved last season that he is a reliable number two corner. With teams looking to avoid Thompson, he played exceptionally well, and I expect another productive season in 2009. After Hagan, there is quality depth, with Nnabuife, Anthony and others capable of contributing (which is why a stud like Steve Williams can probably redshirt).
At safety, Ezeff should continue to be rock solid in the back, and Johnson is a quality veteran as well (although I see Cattouse making a hard charge for that job).
Bob Gregory’s defense looks scary from front to back, and this secondary should be especially difficult for opposing offenses to navigate in 2009.