BERKELEY — Considering that Butkus Award candidates Zack Follett and Worrell Williams are the main reasons Cal's linebacking corps is regarded as one of the best in the country, the following declaration by defensive coordinator Bob Gregory could make opposing offensive coordinators a little uneasy.
"Tony Felder is playing the best he's ever played since he's been here," he said.
Felder at his best may be just as good as Follett and Williams at their best. He was a freshman All-American by rivals.com in 2005, but a series of nagging injuries has prevented him from reaching his full potential. Felder appears to be in the best shape of his career, and is flourishing in his new role as a middle linebacker in the Bears' new 3-4 base defense.
"This is the best I've felt at this point in one of our fall camps," Felder said. "I'm about as healthy as I can be coming out of camp. I feel great. My mind is where it should be. I'm pretty focused on the season. Everything is kind of falling into place."
It's not as though Felder has fallen off the map since his freshman year, although injuries really limited his production as a sophomore. He came back last season to register 101 tackles, despite playing banged up much of the year.
Felder is moving inside this season after playing his first three seasons on the outside. Already a star in the weight room, Felder put up the best weightlifting numbers of his career during the offseason in preparation for his new role.
Now that the Bears will have one less defensive tackle on the field, Felder made a conscious effort to bulk up so he can contend with opposing offensive linemen.
"It's a really different thing for me," Felder said. "I'm going to be a lot more in the box than I have in the past. Over the spring and summer, I think that I've gotten pretty comfortable with my assignments."
Felder's move inside will allow Follett and junior Eddie Young to utilize their speed as playmakers on the outside. Follett is on the preseason watch list for several awards, and Williams has earned preseason All-America honors and is ranked as the fourth-best inside linebacker prospect in the country by ESPN draft expert Mel Kiper Jr.
Felder earned All-Pac-10 honorable mention last year but isn't receiving nearly the preseason recognition his teammates have.
"That's not really any of my concern," Felder said. "It doesn't determine how I play on Saturdays. Ultimately, it's just me doing my job. It's not really about what accolades I get for myself."
The Bears are excited about what a fully healthy Felder might be able to accomplish this season. It also may serve as a reminder of what they may have been missing.
"It's really hard to say what's going to happen after your freshman season," he said. "I had a good season, but a million things can happen in a college career. I was just trying to do the best I can for the next season — get better, stronger, faster, everything. Things happen. Maybe I didn't end up in the same place I would have if everything would have gone right, but that's just how things go sometimes."
Note: Cal center Alex Mack was named to the preseason watch list for the Rimington Trophy, given annually to the nation's top center. Mack was a finalist for the award last season.
Contact Jonathan Okanes at firstname.lastname@example.org.