Cal defensive tackle Brandon Mebane has always been the prototypical leader-by-example.
So when he grabbed the microphone while accepting the trophy for last December's Las Vegas Bowl, a 35-28 Cal win over Brigham Young, nobody was expecting anything memorable.
|'No matter who is in his way, they are going backward,' Mebane's position coach says. (Provided to CBSSports.com)|
And then, microphone in hand, Mebane let his heart do the talking.
"Next year, national championship," Mebane said, eliciting a loud roar from the Cal contingent.
Asked six months later about his proclamation, Mebane doesn't flinch.
"I just felt deep down that we have a chance to compete for the national championship," Mebane said of his comments that night.
It's a feeling shared by many others in Berkeley.
The Bears return 15 starters off a team that went 8-4 a year ago while dealing with a number of key injuries, as well as uncommon problems at quarterback -- and the latter doesn't figure to persist for a Jeff Tedford-coached team.
Cal defensive line coach Ken Delgado said that while Bears coaches generally prefer their players to act with humility, they had little problem with Mebane's boast -- though there was more than a little surprise.
"I was shocked that it came from him," Delgado said. "He doesn't speak very much, and he's not one of those vocal guys. But I don't think anyone in our program batted an eye when that was spoken. Whether we can back it up is going to be another issue. But part of our whole environment that is being bred now is to have high goals."
If the Bears do back it up, Mebane might be the biggest reason why -- literally and figuratively.
At 6-feet-3, 306 pounds, Mebane is a mammoth presence up front who opens things up for the rest of Cal's defense, notably a strong corps of linebackers led by senior Desmond Bishop in the middle.
"The thing that makes him who he is right now is the way he can assert force vertically," Delgado said of Mebane. "No matter who is in his way, they are going backward."
It's that size and ability that has some proclaiming Mebane as the top NFL prospect in the Pac-10 -- on either side of the ball.
But for now, Mebane is thinking only of his senior season in Berkeley, when he will be the leader of a defense that might change the image of Cal football. Since Tedford arrived in 2002, the Bears have been known primarily for their high-octane offenses -- think Kyle Boller, Aaron Rodgers and J.J. Arrington.
"It's almost been like people didn't think the Bears play defense because the offense puts up so many points," Delgado said.
Still, it's worth remembering that the Bears were the only team in college football to rank among the top six in both scoring offense and scoring defense in 2004. And a rebuilt defensive unit wasn't much worse a year ago, as Cal was second in the Pac-10 in yards allowed and first in points allowed (21.2 per game).
Now, almost everyone is back -- eight starters return as well as 13 of the team's top 16 tacklers -- with Mebane, Bishop and cornerback Daymeion Hughes all among the top players in the country at their respective positions.
"I'm confident we can be the best defense in the nation," said Mebane, who was sixth in the Pac-10 in sacks last year with six, the most for any defensive tackle in the conference.
But first, Cal has to be the best in its own conference.
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Though Cal held some statistical edges on Southern California a year ago in the final conference rankings, the Trojans were unquestionably better when the two teams met in Berkeley last November, leaving with a 35-10 victory. That concluded a stretch of four losses in five games that derailed Cal's season.
Mebane said, "We made some key mistakes in key moments" during that slump, which included three defeats by a touchdown or less, one in overtime at Oregon.
If experience means anything, those mistakes should occur less frequently this season. Six of Cal's returning defensive starters are seniors.
Five of those returnees are from Southern California, including Mebane and Hughes, who each played at Crenshaw High School in Los Angeles, about 10 minutes from the USC campus. But while he was kind of a Trojans fan growing up, Mebane said he never really was interested in staying home, preferring to go somewhere else and start "a new tradition."
Cal gave him his first scholarship offer, with Delgado -- then at San Diego State -- first seeing him when he was a freshman at Crenshaw. That was Mebane's first year of organized contact football. He had been too big before that to play tackle football, weighing 240 pounds as an eighth-grader -- outside the limits of his local league.
He comes by his size naturally. His grandfather, Walter Mebane Sr., was 6-8, 320 and played defensive tackle at Norfolk State; his father played several sports; and his mother was good enough at roller derby to consider turning pro before having children made her decide against it.
Delgado -- who has coached the likes of Luther Elliss (at Utah) and La'Roi Glover and Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila (at San Diego State) and considers Mebane as good as any of them -- said it became apparent from the minute Mebane arrived at Cal in 2003 that he would be a great one.
"When you recruit a lineman, there is usually an adjustment period where they are just not physically able to compete yet," Delgado said. "Brandon was not one of those guys. He was able that first year to come out and not get knocked around."
Mebane cracked the lineup for good in 2004 when he made what he says remains his favorite play to date -- a sack of Matt Leinart in what was his first collegiate start.
Cal lost that game 23-17, a defeat that prevented the Bears from having a chance to play for the national title. Cal was stopped on four downs after reaching the USC 9-yard line in the final two minutes. The teams will reunite in Los Angeles on Nov. 18 in a game that again could decide the Pac-10 title.
But Leinart, Reggie Bush and LenDale White are gone from USC, and if it's Cal's defense that's called upon to make a late stand this time around, Mebane has no doubts the Bears will remain upright.
"As long as we play hard," he said, "we will prove in the end that we are a good quality team and can play with anyone in the nation."
Bob Condotta covers the Pac-10 for the Seattle Times.