Expectations Can Make or Break

Eight months of discussion, analysis and endless hand wringing brings us to Knoxville, TN, where the grits and the great BBQs can't obscure one overriding question. What kind of team will face the Tennessee Volunteers on Saturday?

Answers may lie in an examination of the team's position groups relative to expectations for each.

EXCEEDING EXPECTATIONS:

Offensive Line: Almost universally cited as a major question mark after losing three senior starters to the NFL, the reality is that this unit is among the Bears' deepest and most talented. Going up against what some project as the nation's top pre-season defense, this group has more than held its own. Pass protection lags run blocking, but both should continue what has become the hallmark of a Jeff Tedford offense, great line play.

Running Back: It's awfully difficult to exceed expectations when they're already sky high. The fact is both Lynch and Forsett have improved markedly since last fall. Lynch has lost 5-10 lbs and is noticeably quicker. More importantly, he is hitting holes harder. Forsett has packed on 5-10lbs of muscle and has added tackle breaking to his superb vision and quickness.

Special Teams: Based on physical ability and practice performance, Cal's kicking game will likely go from one of the nation's worst to one of its best. Andrew Larson is Ray Guy reborn, and Schneider was simply Mr. Automatic from inside 40 yards. Mentally, both will face early challenges, but given how often practice is indicative of game success, this appears to be a huge upgrade. DeSean Jackson returning punts is a touchdown waiting to happen and Marshawn Lynch hustling kickoffs back up the field just adds more opportunities to his Heisman candidacy.

MEETING EXPECTATIONS:

Wide Receivers: It's rare to see as few dropped balls as were witnessed in Strawberry Canyon this fall. This group of wide receivers has fantastic hands to go along with outstanding speed and quickness. All that is missing is a big body that can go up and get the ball a la Dameane Douglas or Geoff MacArthur.

Linebackers: Similar to the running backs unit, this group comes into the season as one of the nation's best. What made this squad shine above and beyond this spring was a single player - Worrell Williams. He's HUGE, he's fast, and he hits like a runaway freight train. It's hard to imagine there being any better linebacker duo in the country than Bishop and Williams. Add to that two freshman All-Americans in Anthony Felder and Zack Follett AND a bevy of talented depth and you've got one of the most talented corps in the Pac-10 - if not the nation.

Quarterbacks: The 'glass half full' crowd saw this as an area that had to materially improve given last year's dismal play. Based on fall camp, this appears to be the case. Redshirt sophomore Nate Longshore is the starter and he brings a strong and accurate arm to the table. While he's still struggling to have the type of command and confidence he will likely gain by season end, Cal is in far better shape than it was last season even if he should falter. Joseph Ayoob didn't transform himself into an All Pac-10 player since the debacle against USC, but he has improved by leaps and bounds. As for Steve Levy, the gutsy senior is almost certainly the best third string quarterback in the conference and perhaps the country. The net is that quarterback play remains the Bears biggest question mark going into the season (particularly relative to its importance to winning games) but the downside should be FAR better than what Cal got from the position last season.

CONCERNS REMAIN:

Defensive Line: Injury problems aside, this group did not look like the nation's top defensive line as was heralded by one national publication. For sure, Tafisi and Mebane did not disappoint in fall camp. However, last year's anemic pass rush did not show marked improvement though the lack of success here was surely impacted by the absence of Philip Mbakogu. Mbakogu came on strong at the tail end of last season, finally showcasing the raw talent that made him one of the nation's most coveted recruits. The other question is who plays alongside Mebane in the trenches. While true freshmen Tyson Alualu and Derrick Hill look like future stars, neither Mika Kane (injuries) nor Matt Malele did much to distinguish themselves as playmakers.

Secondary: The loss of Tim Mixon made a young secondary downright baby faced. With two lockdown corners, Gregory could afford to blitz his fleet group of linebackers early and often. Now, more will be asked of the green safeties, and for the front four to generate a pass rush on its own. While depth and athleticism abound with this group, experience does not. An area of strength for the Bears pre-camp has now resurfaced as a key vulnerability. Expect for opposing offenses to put the ball in the air and test the youthful Cal secondary.


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Answers may lie in an examination of the team's position groups relative to expectations for each.

EXCEEDING EXPECTATIONS:

Offensive Line: Almost universally cited as a major question mark after losing three senior starters to the NFL, the reality is that this unit is among the Bears' deepest and most talented. Going up against what some project as the nation's top pre-season defense, this group has more than held its own. Pass protection lags run blocking, but both should continue what has become the hallmark of a Jeff Tedford offense, great line play.

Running Back: It's awfully difficult to exceed expectations when they're already sky high. The fact is both Lynch and Forsett have improved markedly since last fall. Lynch has lost 5-10 lbs and is noticeably quicker. More importantly, he is hitting holes harder. Forsett has packed on 5-10lbs of muscle and has added tackle breaking to his superb vision and quickness.

Special Teams: Based on physical ability and practice performance, Cal's kicking game will likely go from one of the nation's worst to one of its best. Andrew Larson is Ray Guy reborn, and Schneider was simply Mr. Automatic from inside 40 yards. Mentally, both will face early challenges, but given how often practice is indicative of game success, this appears to be a huge upgrade. DeSean Jackson returning punts is a touchdown waiting to happen and Marshawn Lynch hustling kickoffs back up the field just adds more opportunities to his Heisman candidacy.

MEETING EXPECTATIONS:

Wide Receivers: It's rare to see as few dropped balls as were witnessed in Strawberry Canyon this fall. This group of wide receivers has fantastic hands to go along with outstanding speed and quickness. All that is missing is a big body that can go up and get the ball a la Dameane Douglas or Geoff MacArthur.

Linebackers: Similar to the running backs unit, this group comes into the season as one of the nation's best. What made this squad shine above and beyond this spring was a single player - Worrell Williams. He's HUGE, he's fast, and he hits like a runaway freight train. It's hard to imagine there being any better linebacker duo in the country than Bishop and Williams. Add to that two freshman All-Americans in Anthony Felder and Zack Follett AND a bevy of talented depth and you've got one of the most talented corps in the Pac-10 - if not the nation.

Quarterbacks: The 'glass half full' crowd saw this as an area that had to materially improve given last year's dismal play. Based on fall camp, this appears to be the case. Redshirt sophomore Nate Longshore is the starter and he brings a strong and accurate arm to the table. While he's still struggling to have the type of command and confidence he will likely gain by season end, Cal is in far better shape than it was last season even if he should falter. Joseph Ayoob didn't transform himself into an All Pac-10 player since the debacle against USC, but he has improved by leaps and bounds. As for Steve Levy, the gutsy senior is almost certainly the best third string quarterback in the conference and perhaps the country. The net is that quarterback play remains the Bears biggest question mark going into the season (particularly relative to its importance to winning games) but the downside should be FAR better than what Cal got from the position last season.

CONCERNS REMAIN:

Defensive Line: Injury problems aside, this group did not look like the nation's top defensive line as was heralded by one national publication. For sure, Tafisi and Mebane did not disappoint in fall camp. However, last year's anemic pass rush did not show marked improvement though the lack of success here was surely impacted by the absence of Philip Mbakogu. Mbakogu came on strong at the tail end of last season, finally showcasing the raw talent that made him one of the nation's most coveted recruits. The other question is who plays alongside Mebane in the trenches. While true freshmen Tyson Alualu and Derrick Hill look like future stars, neither Mika Kane (injuries) nor Matt Malele did much to distinguish themselves as playmakers.

Secondary: The loss of Tim Mixon made a young secondary downright baby faced. With two lockdown corners, Gregory could afford to blitz his fleet group of linebackers early and often. Now, more will be asked of the green safeties, and for the front four to generate a pass rush on its own. While depth and athleticism abound with this group, experience does not. An area of strength for the Bears pre-camp has now resurfaced as a key vulnerability. Expect for opposing offenses to put the ball in the air and test the youthful Cal secondary.


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If you haven't done so already, subscribe to The Bear Insider so you can participate in this active online Cal community and get access to the members-only content from the nation-wide Scout.com network.

Bear Insider staff writers visit the Insider discussion board regularly, and are available to discuss questions you may have about this article and Cal Athletics.

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