California's Hardy Nickerson knows all about name brands. The son and namesake of the former four-time NFL Pro Bowl linebacker understands whose name is on the Golden Bears marquee this fall, the guy who's creating buzz for a program that has been in retreat nationally since quarterback Kevin Riley took an ill-advised scramble against Oregon State in 2007, thereby preventing the program from ascending to No. 1.
More than a few folks are projecting Cal as a contender in the Pac-12's North Division -- two years removed from an atrocious 1-11 finish -- because of quarterback Jared Goff, a junior who is expected to be a first-round NFL draft pick next spring. Nickerson knows this as well as anyone.
"Jared is our guy. He’s the leader of this team. I have nothing but great things to say about him," Nickerson said. "He’s been working hard all summer, getting the offense going. In my opinion, he’s taken a big step this spring and offseason. I’m excited to see what’s going to pan out on Saturdays."
Yet what's going to pan out on Saturdays won't be anything special, no matter how good Goff's offense is, if Nickerson's defense doesn't improve significantly. The good news is the present trajectory is positive. The Bears welcome back seven starters and a number of expected contributors who missed last season because of injury or transfer rules to a unit that yielded nearly a touchdown less per game last season than it did in 2013. The bad news is they still surrendered nearly 40 points per game.
Pass defense? You really want to know? The Bears gave up 42 touchdown passes. Not only was that nine more than any other Pac-12 team, it was the most ever for a Power 5 team. Yikes. Though the Bears might counter they were fairly stout against the run -- opponents averaged 4.0 yards per carry -- that is watered down by the fact opponents completed 65.4 percent of their 45 passes per game.
It's not much of a stretch to think at least a few of those opposing quarterbacks thought "Candy from a baby!" as they launched another scoring toss.
Yet the Bears' defense improved last fall, and Nickerson believes the baby steps of 2014 will be mas macho in 2015. Improvement started with a sounder, simpler scheme from coordinator Art Kaufman, and that led to significant advancement in technique, fundamentals and sheer confidence in spring practices.
"It was the simplicity of the defense," Nickerson said. "Instead of having a bunch of words that kind of mean the same thing it was just one direct term that meant this, and guys were able to grasp that better. I think we were able to understand what we were trying to get done."
Nickerson, who ranked third on the team with 69 tackles last season, is the Bears middle linebacker in Cal's 4-3 scheme (Cal and Utah are the only Pac-12 teams that don't run a base 3-4). He owns 14 career starts and should benefit from what should be a far stouter defensive front this fall. End Kyle Kragen, who missed last season because of a severe case of mononucleosis, was a pass-rushing force in spring practices, and Mustafa Jalil and Wake Forest transfer James Looney give the Bears a strong combo at tackle. Moreover, the depth is much better than it's been the past two years, particularly if former USC signee and JC transfer DeVante Wilson breaks through at end.
That improved front in itself should bolster the Bears' biggest question: The secondary. At the very least, it can't be any worse than it was last season, when injuries and inexperience made the unit look like raw meat.
Said Nickerson, "At times we were very thin out there, but we’ve got a lot of guys coming back coming back at that position."
Nickerson is Cal through-and-through. His dad, presently the linebackers coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, is a member of the Cal Athletic Hall of Fame and still ranks second on the school’s all-time list for tackles. His mom, Amy, also went to Cal, as does his twin sister, Haleigh. So when you ask Nickerson about the worst news the Bears' defense received this offseason -- end Brennan Scarlett transferring to, gulp, Stanford -- there's some real emotion to the answer.
No, it won't be easy playing against a former comrade in blue.
"Ahhh, man," he said before pausing for a few clicks. "It’s going to be really weird, but, hey, he went over there so now, on that day, we’re enemies. We’re going to try and get the best of him."
For Nickerson, the Bears' defense will turn on playmaking -- more sacks, more turnovers, more key stops on third down. If the Bears reduce their yield by another TD per game this fall, it's difficult to imaging their not earning bowl eligibility.
If they do better than that? Then things might get interesting.