BERKELEY -- In 2011, the California Golden Bears had a tremendous tandem at middle linebacker. Mychal Kendricks finished 2012 as the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, while D.J. Holt racked up honorable mention all-conference honors as well. The bad news for the Bears? Both will have to be replaced.
The good news? There appears to be more than enough talent waiting in the wings.
One of the young talents vying for a spot to replace the dynamic Kendricks-Holt duo is redshirt freshman Jason Gibson. Gibson -- who is listed at 6-foot-2, 223 pounds -- was recruited to Cal to play on the outside. But, in the Bears' controlled scrimmage on Saturday, Gibson made his mark as an inside linebacker, racking up six tackles, two TFLs and even a pass breakup. Even though he did that running with the second-string defense, it was hard not to notice Gibson making plays around the ball all over the field. One could say that Gibson looked natural quarterbacking the defense.
"I feel a lot more comfortable," Gibson said. "I was pretty nervous at first, thought I was going to make a lot of mistakes. But after a while, I just grew into it, and all the defense just started pumping me up and getting me more comfortable. I felt pretty good. It was like high school again."
As a senior at Gardena (Calif.) Serra, Gibson tallied 93 tackles, 13.5 sacks for 69 yards, one interception, one pass deflection, one fumble recovery and one blocked punt as a defensive end. As a junior, Gibson registered 94 tackles, 15.5 sacks for 89 yards, six passes defended, one fumble recovery and one forced fumble.
But even with the added pressure of being The Guy After the Guy, as it were, Gibson knows that he is just trying to step up and take over a position to help his team win.
"I'm not trying to be another Mychal Kendricks. I'm just trying to be my own person," says Gibson. "I'm trying to fill in a spot but, you know, just play my game and just make plays all the time, and just get on the field this year since I redshirted."
What Gibson and Kendricks do share is the experience of learning the position under linebackers coach Kenwick Thompson. Under Thompson, the Bears have had an impressive array of linebackers come through the ranks, and Gibson hopes to be the next one in line.
"I like [Thompson's coaching]," says Gibson. "He's on me tough, but there's a lot for me to improve on. But, I'm ready. I trust him. So I'm just trying to improve on everything, and take what he gives to me.
"It's technique, instinct ... I started learning the plays before they even run it. Coach Thompson helped me do that. So, I'm just learning the game and playing more smart."
One opportunity that Gibson is competing for is the chance to step on the field to face USC at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum come September. But the reason stems far from simply having the chance to beat Cal's rivals to the south. For Gibson, there is a bit of a personal stake, stemming all the way back to high school, and former teammates Robert Woods and Marquise Lee.
With both Woods and Lee making headlines and breaking wide receiver records for the Trojans, Gibson feels that it would be a blast just to compete with them, and just maybe put them on their backs.
"Every time I go home, those are the guys I kick it with," says Gibson. "They're still my friends, my family. We play each other, we talk trash all the time ... but that's the fun part about it."
If Gibson keeps performing like he did on Saturday, he just might get his chance.