BERKELEY — Mike Mohamed was supposed to be a starter this season. With Cal needing an extra linebacker after switching to the 3-4 base defense, it seemed obvious that the sophomore would get the nod. He registered 46 tackles last season in limited playing time.
But when the 2008 season opened, it was junior Eddie Young who was in the starting lineup against Michigan State. Defensive coordinator Bob Gregory said the Bears needed Mohamed's versatility to back up all four linebacker positions, so he would be kept on the bench to begin games.
It's a role Mohamed has accepted and, not surprisingly, mastered. Mohamed enters Saturday's game against Oregon second on the team with 45 tackles. He also is the reigning Pac-10 Player of the Week for defense after recording nine tackles, a sack and a 19-yard interception return for a touchdown in last week's 41-20 win over UCLA.
"I've accepted my role," Mohamed said. "I get to play a lot still. It's working for me. I'm getting to do all the things that I want to do. It doesn't really bother me."
Mohamed actually will make his first start of the season against the Ducks. The Bears will need as much speed as possible on the field to contend with Oregon's spread option offense, and that is Mohamed's biggest asset as a linebacker.
"He's fast, almost as fast as me," said a smiling Zack Follett, another Cal linebacker known for his speed. "He's playing tremendous. He's flying around to the ball."
Gregory pointed out that Mohamed probably gets more playing time than any of the linebackers because of all the different roles he fulfills. He lauded Mohamed's mental acumen for grasping the playbook at four positions on a weekly basis. Mohamed himself admits it's a lot to digest.
"It's really tough because on top of learning four positions and learning the whole playbook for the week, you still have school," Mohamed said. "It's a pretty tough load."
Follett knows what it's like to come off the bench despite being productive. As a sophomore in 2006, Follett had 62 tackles, 51/2 sacks and four forced fumbles despite starting only one game. He was named All-Pac-10 honorable mention.
"I had this talk with him last week. I said, 'I've been in your shoes. I know exactly how you feel,'"" Follett said. "You come in and do your thing and come out. You know you should be on the field starting, but it's not in your hands. I was in his exact same shoes. It's so frustrating."
But it's not like Mohamed has been sitting in favor of less deserving players. Follett and Worrell Williams were on the preseason watch list for the Butkus Award, and Anthony Felder is the team's leading tackler with 48.
"You talk about a guy you can trust," Cal coach Jeff Tedford said of Mohamed. "He's a student of the game, always in the right spot. He's physical and can run. He does what his coaches coach him to do. He's just a guy you can really count on. He's a dependable player."
Mohamed is simply grateful to be playing this much at all. As a senior at Brawley High in Southern California, he received offers from only Cal and San Diego State.
"I never would have thought I'd get to play this much when I first got here," Mohamed said. "I just worked hard."
Mohamed has made only one other start, last year at Oregon when Follett was sidelined with a neck injury, and made eight tackles.
"The speed (Oregon) has out there fits Mikey Mo a little better than Eddie," Follett said. "He's one of those guys that has that instinct to get to the ball. He has a knack for getting to the ball. I'm so happy that he finally got his opportunity to shine."
Note: Redshirt freshman Bryan Anger was named one of 10 semifinalists for the Ray Guy Award, given to the nation's top punter. Anger, who ranks eighth nationally in punt average (44.8 ypp), was the only freshman named to the list. ... Tedford said Kevin Riley will start at quarterback Saturday. ... Right guard Noris Malele (ankle) missed practice again Thursday and now it appears he's doubtful for Saturday. Sophomore Justin Cheadle would start in his place.
Contact Jonathan Okanes at email@example.com.