Josh Hill served as the Bears' fifth defensive-back last season, starting half of the regular season from that spot. He finished fifth on the team in tackles with 49, adding two interceptions.
And that was before the arrival of four new coaches in the conference this offseason, all of whom will be running some form of spread offense, making the position even more critical.
Hill will parlay his experience into a starting safety job this year. Sophomore cornerback Kameron Jackson, hoping to follow in those footsteps, has made it a point to rely on the redshirt senior as a resource.
"We talk about that everyday," Hill said. "I tell him he has a great chance to be the third nickel back for us. He just has to learn more, learn the little things, so I'm trying to teach him."
Jackson has emerged as the top option to join veteran cornerbacks Marc Anthony and Steve Williams, Hill and Alex Logan, who has an edge on the second starting safety job. There is also a chance Hill could again defend the slot, with another safety covering the back end.
Coming out of famed Long Beach (Calif.) Poly, Jackson recorded only six tackles last season while appearing in six games. Now he could be facing off against All-Americans like versatile De'Anthony Thomas of Oregon, Washington State receiver Marquess Wilson, or USC's Robert Woods and Marqise Lee.
"It's a big challenge for me," Jackson admitted. "I'm still trying to get it locked in right now. Coach (Ashley Ambrose) threw me in the fire, so I'm trying to prove him right and make something happen."
Some of the preparation for the new role happened in the summer when Jackson cut down on fast food to improve his physique.
"I gained five pounds over the summer, good weight, but I had to lose some bad weight first to gain it back right. I had to start eating healthy, get rid of the McDonald's and Carl's Jr. and start mixing in a salad," said Jackson, now a more chiseled 185 pounds.
The other training has come in the film room and on the field, learning from Anthony, Williams, and Hill, who have combined to start 58 career games.
"From Anthony, he taught me a lot of red-zone techniques," Jackson said. "Steve-o, he taught me reading my keys. Josh, he taught me a lot of nickel too. He likes taking me through the basics."
Hill knows first-hand that working as the nickel back can create a better overall perspective.
"It has helped me look at the whole picture, the whole formation," Hill said. "It makes you know everything on the field and just really think about what can happen."
With Anthony set to graduate after this season, it could also serve to elevate Jackson heading into 2013, as it did for Hill.
Bears to Get Break
After working in full pads Saturday evening, a session split between Witter Rugby Field and Memorial Stadium, Cal players will now have two days without football.
Head coach Jeff Tedford decided to cancel Monday's practice to provide the increasingly battered Bears a chance to recuperate.
The bumps and bruises are most apparent along the defensive line, where limited numbers have forced coaches to be creative, taking the form of pods, where offensive and defensive linemen faced off in groups of one or two.
"I think we'll be fine there once we get them all back in the rotation. I feel good about our top seven," Tedford said.
Another prominent player expected to benefit from the time off is tight end Richard Rodgers. The sophomore has been limited to 7-on-7 and non-contact drills because of a shoulder injury, but should be back in full Tuesday, Tedford said.
Weight Down, Stock Up for Powe
Darius Powe of Lakewood (Calif.) arrived on campus as the most physically developed of the five freshmen wide receivers. Unfortunately, he was a bit too hefty for Tedford, who publicly admonished Powe to drop 10 pounds.
Now a trimmer Powe is asserting himself, down to 208 pounds after starting camp at 218.
"Darius made a great catch in the back of the end zone. He's really stepping up," Tedford said. "He looks like he is moving much better."
Bryce Treggs and Chris Harper have pushed to the front of the pack among the newcomers. Listed at 175 and 170 respectively, they are slight compared to the more imposing 6-foot-3 Powe. Tedford even favorably compared his physique to that of junior Keenan Allen.
"He is very similar to Keenan in that way," Tedford said. "He is a big, physical guy with great hands. Seeing him move better each day as he is dropping weight is really benefiting him to be able to get down the field and make some plays."
Dan Greenspan is the publisher of Cal Sports Digest and covers the Pac-12 for Fox Sports/Scout.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanGreenspan.