Jalil & Looney: Stuck in the Middle With You

BERKELEY -- For the Cal defense, strength comes from the middle, and there is no stronger -- or stranger -- bond than that between Mustafa Jalil and James Looney.



BERKELEY -- With a pair of burning coals for eyes under a severe shock of inky black mane, and a square jaw thicketed with a dark, thick bramble of beard, California defensive tackle Mustafa Jalil doesn’t look like the life of the party. He looks like the security guards at the door. All three of them. Sitting on each other’s shoulders.

The aptly-named James Looney, on the other hand, when asked who has the best hair on the team, spreads the corners of his mouth, and without batting an eye, chirps, “Oh, definitely me, no question.” He plucks at one of the light mocha springs that make up the Seussian truffula tree atop his head. “You can’t beat these curls.”

When the two first met, Jalil says, “I didn’t like him. I didn’t like the look on his face.” His eyes twinkle. “The haircut rubbed me the wrong way. It still does, a little bit.”

If that sounds at all familiar, it’s because Jalil and Looney are the defense’s answer to the offense’s own odd couple, and yes, one partner always says something about the other’s stupid face.

Tight end Ray Hudson, when talking about Heisman candidate quarterback Jared Goff last season, said, “The best is when everyone’s trying to make a serious face, his serious face is just … not at all. He just has to understand that there’s not any intimidating factor.”

“Moose is a character,” the cherubic Looney chortles in response. “I bet you he was just playing around. He’s a little (Editorial note: Jalil is 6-foot-4, 315 pounds of ‘little’) jokester. He’s a very sarcastic guy to be around. He’s a fun guy to be around. I love Moose. I love playing next to him, and I’ll make sure I’ll get him back for that when I get in the locker room.”

•••••

During spring ball, as I walked onto the Memorial Stadium turf before a practice, defensive line coach Fred Tate -- long a fan of my particular choice of chapeau – asked why I had eschewed my trademark topper. I responded, “Because I was having a good hair day. You remember those, right?” Tate cocked his head, looking through his brow to his own bare pate, and barked, “Nope!”

“At least he likes you,” defensive end Todd Barr said. “He just yells at us.”

Tate is the perfect mix of both Jalil and Looney. Perpetually exasperated at the top of his lungs, Tate’s voice is easily of the most instantly discernable on the field, for its blend of stripped-down honesty and incisive comedy.

Tate is a hard master to serve. He’s even harder to please. That’s why, on the first day of camp, when he instructed the clutch of freshman linemen to watch how Jalil and Looney did a particular drill, because “they do it right,” the moment stuck.

Last season, there was a lot of yelling. The Bears had one of the worst pass rushes in the nation, ranking 113th out of 125 Division I teams with just 16 sacks. Two individual players -- Nate Orchard of Utah and Hau’oli Kikaha of Washington – had more sacks than Cal had as a team.

For the second season in a row, the Bears were the worst passing defense among all Football Bowl Subdivision teams, and though head coach Sonny Dykes made a point of telling any media member who would listen at Pac-12 Media Days that Cal had to defend 70 more passes than any other FBS team, the fact of the matter is that teams dropped back so much against the Bears because they could.

“Everybody blames the DBs for getting beat, and all that crap,” says Tate, “but we’ve got to get to the quarterback, which we didn’t do.”

“That pisses me off,” Jalil says of the sack total. “It pisses me off that we didn’t work well as a group, like that.”

•••••



In football, a team’s strength flows from the middle: Defensive tackles, middle linebacker, safeties; quarterback, running back, interior line.

Looney and Jalil are about as solid a foundation as you can have. Tate himself says it’s probably the most talented two-man combo he’s ever coached on the inside.

“Probably, probably,” he says. “You’ve got one that’s a power guy, who has the ability to be somewhat of a twitch guy, and you have one guy that’s really a true athlete, a big guy that can do it all. You put them two together, and that gives us that additional push, which is different from last year, in terms of the interior pass rush.”

It’s not just the individual talents, though, that make the Bears’ starting defensive tackle duo so formidable. It’s how they work in concert.

“He just makes plays, and he makes opportunities for me, too,” Looney says. “Having a guy with that much experience is just really huge. He can call stuff out. He makes little checks here and there, seeing the guard backing up a little bit, knowing he’s going to pull. He’s a true veteran player. Having him out there makes the job a lot easier for me, and it gives us both more opportunities.”

Early in camp, Jalil helped clear the way for two pass deflections and a sack by Looney in one third-down period. Ever the gracious victor, Looney is just fine with letting Jalil get an ‘assist’ on those stats.

“Oh yeah, oh yeah, and I’m cool with him getting the assist. Maybe we can switch up a couple of times,” he laughs. “Hopefully, the majority are mine.”

“He’s got a lot of quickness, and he’s got a lot of power with that quickness,” Jalil says. “I’ve got probably more power than quickness, and that combo together, you can double me and let his quickness go, or you can double him and let my power overtake the guard and center. It’s pick-your-poison, I feel like.”

Still, Jalil doesn’t want Looney to feel too good about himself, which is a tough task. When asked how the two became such fast friends, Jalil shakes his head and plays Eeyore to Looney’s Tigger.

“I got stuck with him. I didn’t choose to be his friend,” he deadpans.

•••••



“When I first got here, I didn’t know anybody,” Looney says.

“Moose was just being a jokester, came up to me, tried to introduce himself, kind of bumped me, like testing my manhood, but I stood strong,” Looney says, chest puffed out with mock pride. “From then on out, we’ve been the best of friends.”

“I think we’re both the same type of guy,” admits Jalil. “We both play hard, have fun. We both love this thing. I think it’s a good match.”

“When he first came here, he was a little quiet,” Jalil says of Looney. Jalil himself has been a sphinx over the past four years, declining interviews, preferring to toil in silence. He didn’t think he deserved to talk to the media. In his mind, he hadn’t done anything yet.

After coming in as a four-star recruit, Jalil’s first three years were filled at times with frustration – he missed the entire 2013 season due to a knee injury – and unfulfilled potential. In his words, he “really wasn’t satisfied” with himself.

Finally, in the midst of starting all 12 games last season, Jalil decided it was time to open up again, to become that big, smiling St. Bernard puppy again, complete with the requisite outsized paws. Now, though, Jalil is older. He’s mature. He’s grown into those paws, and he walks taller. He doesn’t have to be a goofball. That falls to his other half.

Every time Looney sees a camera pointed his way, out comes the ham: His lips spread into a mischievous rictus, his arms go wide, his chest opens and the little ringlets on his head bounce. Jalil just shakes his head.

“Once you get to know Looney, he’ll open up his shell,” says Jalil, without a hint of irony. “He’s opened up now, and all the guys on the team love him. He’s part of Cal now.”

•••••



After transferring from Wake Forest, Looney had to sit out a year, but during that year, he studied. At least once a week, Tate would mutter to himself, after watching Looney’s pass rushing reps, “God damn, I wish you were eligible.”

One of the reasons Looney came to Berkeley was because Wake Forest was more for his brother – Joe – than it was for him. While Joe’s spot on the San Francisco 49ers roster – meaning their mom can spend a weekend in the Bay Area and watch both of them play – was a plus, it wasn’t the main reason. The main reason was that he fit in, in Berkeley. The next step was to fit in, in the locker room, and on the field. The first, he accomplished with Jalil. The second? That’s taken a bit longer.

“Coming in last year, I still wanted to prove myself to the team, so I didn’t take plays off,” Looney says. “I was always going full-go, just to get the respect of the coaches. Now that the season is approaching, I turn it up an extra gear, trying to play at a real high level. I want coach to really critique me, so I can fix the little things. Coach Tate’s been doing a great job with it, been watching film. We’ve been in there, day-in and day-out.”

“He’s really athletic for his size,” says defensive coordinator Art Kaufman. “He’s 280, 290, but he’s really, really light on his feet, and he’s strong. As big as he is, he’s really light on his feet.”

Looney’s used the year since his transfer to transform his body, crediting strength coach Damon Harrington’s Crusades regimen for redshirts with his physical improvement. He’s explosive, he’s fast, and, in Tate’s words, he wears “an athlete’s cleats.”

“He had a really good offseason,” says Kaufman. “He got his strength level up. He gained four pounds of body weight, but his strength numbers really jumped, and I’m pleased with where he’s at right now.”

•••••



Looney and Jalil spend “too much” time together, Jalil mutters. Both estimate it’s around four to five hours a day, but it’s time well spent. Whether it’s Looney going to Jalil’s place, going out, or the two spending time in the film room together – as they both did this offseason, and during spring ball, when Jalil was held back to make sure he would stay healthy -- the two are joined at the hip. They play as one. It makes them that much better.

“I think so. When you know each other and you know each other’s tendencies and what they’re going to do and how the are as a teammate, and you guys have got that friendship with each other, you go all-out for each other,” says Jalil.

There’s a difference in the pass rush. There’s no doubt about that. Dykes says that the trenches are “more competitive” than they’ve ever been in his time here.

“I think, 100 percent, our pass rush is way better,” says Jalil, who finally has the same defensive coordinator for two years in a row for the first time since high school. “I think that helps so much. You see the same coach for two years in a row, you see the same scheme, I think that’s No. 1 the biggest thing that’ll help us out this year.”

It all starts with the men in the middle.

“I just feel like the coach has done a great job,” says Looney. “Coach Damon [Harrington] has gotten us a lot faster, a lot stronger. Coach Dykes breeds this high intensity – go out there and run to the ball. We’re playing with a higher motor, I think, and that’s what pass rush is all about – go go go.

“Coach Tate is doing a great job fixing little things, like little angles you take to the quarterback – those make a huge difference between two seconds and the three seconds that he throws the ball. It’s little stuff like that. And, I think we’re older, we know what’s going on with the defense, we understand the defense a lot more, so we can actually play off each other, like me and Moose, kind of. Kyle Kragen’s another big, huge guy. Jonathan Johnson has a great pass rush. Having Nate Broussard barking at me, you’ve just got a veteran, older defense. It’s a lot better, playing with those guys.”

“I think we’re way tighter as a group right now,” Jalil says. “From the first guy to the 14th guy we’ve got, I think we all work together. You’ve got Looney with a little more speed, you’ve got me with a little more power, [Kyle] Kragen coming off the edge, DeVante [Wilson] coming off the edge, Puka [Lopa] doing his thing. Everyone’s got their own little thing, and if we all work together, you actually see Kragen push the quarterback out, Looney go around and wrap up, or me push the quarterback out and Puka gets it.”

Maybe this year, Tate won’t yell so much (not likely). But, maybe, just maybe, like Looney, he’ll smile, as long as his odd couple gets to the quarterback.

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