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No substitute for experience, Holmoe hopes

By Jared Green Daily Planet Staff
Friday August 31, 2001

The Cal Bears head into the 2001 season with nearly the same cast of characters that fashioned last year’s 3-8 disappointment. Star players Andre Carter, Nick Harris and Jacob Waasdorp are gone, as is offensive coordinator Steve Hagen. But head coach Tom Holmoe is back, as are 17 starters from last year’s squad. 

“In the past, we had young guys coming in who played right away, and not neccesarily because we thought they were ready. They had to play because there wasn’t anyone else,” Holmoe said. “That’s not the case this year. Those freshmen and sophomores are juniors and seniors now, with playing experience. That alone should make us a better team.” 

New offensive coordinator Al Borges comes with six years of Pac-10 experience. Whether or not the Bears can master his complex offense quickly will be the key to this make-or-break season for Holmoe. 

“We’ve taken a look at just about everything we’re going to do by now, but we’re going to scale it back quite a bit for games,” Holmoe said. “But Al will give us a chance to win every game. It will come down to who executes better on game day.” 


QB: Junior Kyle Boller came to Cal as one of the top quarterback prospects in the country. Signing him was a coup for Holmoe, that one special player who was supposed to be the difference-maker. He jumped into the starting lineup as a true freshman in the Pac-10 opener, and led the Bears to a 24-23 win over Arizona State. He struggled for the rest of that season, but showed marked improvement last season, upping his completion percentage from 38.6 to 46.7 and cutting his interception ratio from one in every 17 pass attempts to one in every 26. This season will be his first under a real quarterback coach in Borges. Former coordinator Steve Hagen was more of a receivers coach, so a quantum leap in Boller’s game could be in the offing. 

Junior college transfer Eric Holtfreter will be the backup. If Boller goes down, Holmoe and Borges are comfortable with Holtfreter running the offense. Redshirt freshman Reggie Robertson, third on the depth chart, offers a more athletic option but isn’t ready to play. 

Grade: B 


RB: What was supposed to be a position with tremendous depth and experience suddenly dried up when tailback Joe Echema was ruled ineligible by the NCAA two weeks ago. The junior was to be the No. 2 guy behind classmate Joe Igber, but the NCAA’s ruling leaves Igber as the only tailback with any college carries. 

Before Echema’s benching, Borges had already made it clear he wants Igber to get the lion’s share of carries, as opposed to last year’s rotation of Igber, Echema and Saleem Muhammed (who transferred to Portland State this summer), so the game plan doesn’t change much. Redshirt freshman Michael Sparks, who is nursing a shoulder injury, and true freshman Terrell Williams are only other tailbacks available.  

“You don’t really want a true freshman at number two, but that’s how it shook out,” Holmoe said. 

If Igber gets hurt, it would likely force senior fullback Marcus Fields, a former tailback, to switch positions. Fields has gained 30 pounds since his days as a tailback, so it would be a tough transition. Out of the fullback spot, Fields is a multi-dimensional threat, as he can carry the ball, catch the ball out of the backfield and even split wide on occasion. Backup Ryan Stanger is more of a traditional blocking back. 

Grade: B+ 


WR: The lack of a game-breaking wideout is the one key missing ingredient in the offense, and a luxury Borges has had for the past few years at UCLA. He’ll have to adjust his offense to account for the lack of a defense-stretching threat unless sophomore Geoff McArthur or senior Derek Swafford can show more than they have in the past. Swafford was expected to be a starter for the opener, but missed most of fall camp with nagging injuries. He will be replaced, at least against Illinois, by Charon Arnold, who had six catches for 68 yards and two touchdowns in Champaign last year before going down for the last seven games with a stress fracture.  

“Charon gives us an added dose we didn’t have for most of last year,” Holmoe said. 

Former walk-on Sean Currin has been earning heaps of praise from the coaching staff, but is too slow to have much of an impact, while Chad Heydorff will miss at least the opener with a hamstring injury, and sophomore Chase Lyman could be out for the year after an appendectomy. True freshman Christian Prelle will get some playing time, and walk-on freshman Burl Toller will get time on special teams. 

Grade: C- 


TE: This spot has been a black hole for the Bears during Holmoe’s tenure, and there doesn’t appear to be any change this year. Junior Tom Swoboda has been named the starter, with gigantic Terrence Dotsy his backup. Neither player has caught a pass for Cal, but Dotsy could be an effective blocker with his 6-foot-4, 285-pound frame. Swoboda showed good hands in spring practice, and Borges is known for using his tight ends in the passing game, but until something actually happens in a game, there’s no reason to believe there will be anything for opponents to worry about. True freshman Jordan Hunter was highly regarded out of Albany, Ore., and could be the starter as soon as next season. 

Grade: D 


OL: The offensive line will be one of the conference’s best this season, provided the starters can avoid injuries. Three starters were nicked up in Turlock, with tackles Langston Walker and Mark Wilson and guard Scott Tercero all sitting out some portion of camp. But the line should be complete against Illinois, so there should be ample time for Boller and holes for Igber. 

Walker and Wilson are both NFL prospects, and should provide excellent bookends. Walker is massive at 6-foot-8, 345 pounds, one of the nation’s biggest linemen. The senior broke his left ankle in the fourth game last season, ending his year prematurely. The bright side was that it put Wilson into a trial by fire at left tackle as a redshirt freshman, earning him All-Freshman honors. He will move back to the right side this year and should be a steady influence. With four-year starter Walker on the other side, the Bears won’t have to worry much about edge defenders. 

Brandon Ludwig spent last season as one of the Pac-10’s top guards, but the coaches decided to move him to center for his senior year. Ludwig resisted the move initially, but has grown into the position and has meshed well with Boller. His size (6-foot-4, 285 pounds) and agility should make him an excellent center. Nolan Bluntzer was in the running for the position before Ludwig’s move, but will instead move over to Ludwig’s right guard spot. Bluntzer was adequate as a center last year, but may be a bit undersized for guard. Scott Tercero, on the other hand, enters his third year as the starting left guard, although he was banged up last year and never really got on track. If he’s healthy, Tercero should be a force in the running game. 

Grade: A 


DL: The defensive line is bound to go through an adjustment period after losing All-World end Andre Carter and scrappy tackle Jacob Waasdorp. But with nine linemen ready to play, the Bears have better depth to combat opponents. 

The starters against the Illini will be Tully Banta-Cain at rush end, where he came on strong at the end of last season. But without Carter drawing constant double-teams, Banta-Cain will not have the luxury of having just one blocker to beat on every play, so he could struggle. Junior college transfer Josh Gustaveson will be at Carter’s old spot, with fellow juco transfer Tom Canada and redshirt freshman Tosh Lupoi backing up both ends. 

Daniel Nwangwu was supposed to join Carter and Waasdorp in dominating defensive lines last year following an impressive freshman season. But instead he gained 30 pounds and was rarely heard from. Nwangwu is back to his old playing weight of 290 pounds, and will have to be more of a factor this year, as he has some young guys just waiting for an opportunity. Sophomore Josh Beckham showed excellent run-stopping ability last year and has claimed the other starting spot on the inside. Redshirt freshman J.D. Cafaro is ready to play, and Lupoi can move inside if needed. But the real story might be true freshman Lorenzo Alexander from St. Mary’s High in Berkeley. The Bears’ top recruit, Alexander has impressed his coaches with his quickness and technical ability and could force his way into the starting lineup. Defensive line coach Bill Dutton has compared Alexander favorably to a young Andre Carter, who ended up a four-year starter for the Bears. 

Grade: B- 


LB: This group will be led by senior Scott Fujita, a major success story for Holmoe’s walk-on program. Fujita has gone from a skinny scout-team safety to one of the top outside linebackers in the nation, a potential first-round NFL draft pick. He will, however, have to get used to shedding more blockers this year, as he won’t be lining up behind Andre Carter for the first time in his career. But Fujita should be the playmaker for the Cal defense. 

The two inside spots in defensive coordinator Lyle Setencich’s defense are mostly run-pluggers, and the two best appear to be juniors John Klotsche and Matt Nixon. Klotsche took over a starting spot midway through last season and led the Bears with three fumble recoveries, including a touchdown return against Washington. Nixon is undersized (220 pounds), but showed a knack for stuffing the run with 15 tackles for loss last year. They will be pushed by senior Chris Ball, a good blitzer, and athletic redshirt freshman Wendell Hunter. 

Grade: B- 


DB: The cornerback spots are the most hotly contested for the Bears, as four candidates vie for the two starting assignments. Juniors Jemeel Powell and Leshaun Ward were both spectacular at times last season, but both struggled through spring and fall practice with injuries. That gave sophomores James Bethea and Atari Callen the opening they needed, and the younger players are now at the top of the depth chart. Bethea showed promise as a nickel back last year, and is a steady performer. Callen is back after a redshirt year to get his academics in order. The De La Salle graduate was a highly-regarded prospect two years ago and has the speed to run with receivers. 

But Powell, if healthy, has the potential to be one of the top corners in the nation, with the size, speed and leaping ability NFL teams look for. He outleaped UCLA’s 6-foot-5 wideout Brian Poli-Dixon for an end-zone interception to clinch Cal’s overtime victory over the Bruins last year. But after a groin pull and two off-season surgeries, it could well take him some time to get back in the swing of things. Likewise, Ward is a superior physical specimen with play-making ability, but a scar y internal injury took him out for the end of last season, and a hamstring injury has slowed him this fall. If these two are healthy, the Bears will boast talent and depth at cornerback that few teams can match, as well as formidable nickel and dime packages. 

“The secondary is still up in the air. (Defensive backs coach Randy Stewart) really hasn’t decided on the starters yet,” Holmoe said. “But you’ll see all four guys early, and they all will play.” 

The safety spots are easier to figure out. Free safety Nnamdi Asomugha made huge strides last year, including a Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Week effort against UCLA, and has a stranglehold on his position. The junior from Los Angeles is effective in both pass coverage and supporting the run. Dewey Hale and Bert Watts share the strong safety duties, just as they did last season. 

Grade: B+ 


Special Teams: Many fans bemoan the loss of All-America punter Nick Harris, the NCAA record-holder for career punts and punt yardage, but if the punter is as important this year as last year, the Bears are already sunk. More important is the punt protection, which cost the Bears possible victories against Washington State and Stanford when Harris had punts blocked. The hiring of a special teams coach, LeCharls McDaniel, should help the protection scheme greatly. Sophomore Tyler Fredrickson doesn’t have Harris’ booming leg, but should be adequate. 

Mark Jensen is an accurate kicker from inside 35 yards, but the junior has never hit a field goal longer than 40 yards at Cal. Fredrickson could be called upon for longer kicks. 

Powell can be spectacular punt returner, but again, his health is a question. Holmoe has decided to use him on special teams to start the season, but he could be pulled if he gets nicked up. Callen, Bethea, Arnold and cornerback Ray Carmel will split the kick-return duties. 

Grade: C+