D.J. Holt is playing so much faster this season that he's playing two positions at the same time.
Holt, Cal's starting strong-side inside linebacker, was forced to split time at his own position with the weak-side inside spot last week while senior Mike Mohamed sat out with a sprained toe. Holt played well in an otherwise dismal defensive showing against Nevada and might have to rotate between positions again Saturday at Arizona with Mohamed's health still up in the air.
"He did well. That will help us if we need to do that again," Cal linebackers coach Kenwick Thompson said. "I was very pleased that he was able to do that."
Holt is blossoming at the right time, because the Bears need him. He is the only inside linebacker besides Mohamed on the depth chart that has any measure of experience, and there really weren't any other players defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast could have plugged in.
"He kind of had to make some adjustments on the run there but played really well," Cal coach Jeff Tedford said.
Playing well has become a trend for Holt this season. Holt was ranked the 21st-best linebacker in the country by rivals.com coming out of Crespi High-Encino in 2007, but it took him a few years to feel his way into college football. Now a redshirt junior, Holt appears to be coming into his own.
He had 16 tackles in Friday's loss at Nevada. The previous week in a win over Colorado, he had seven tackles and broke up a pass. Holt enters Saturday tied for fifth in the Pac-10 in tackles (9.0 per game).
"I really do feel more comfortable," Holt said. "Last year, I was kind of working my way into the system, but I still wasn't comfortable. This year, I'm taking on more of a bigger role. I have to lead the defense. I just feel more aggressive. I'm not reading as much. I'm just playing fast -- using my abilities the best I can."
In three games this season, Holt already has stood out more than he did all of last year, when he started eight games and played in all 13. The biggest difference is he appears to be faster, which has helped him make more plays in the open field.
Holt has always been a big linebacker -- he's listed this season at 6-foot-1, 250 pounds. But Thompson said Holt is playing about 10-12 pounds lighter than last season and worked hard during the offseason to increase his speed and agility.
"He's really, really worked hard on trimming down and losing weight," Thompson said. "It's really helped his change of direction and speed. On some plays, you can see that. But even though he was a bigger guy, he's always been a great athlete."
Holt said his offseason work has indeed made him faster, but just as important is his experience. He no longer is thinking as much on the field, just reacting. And that has allowed him to play faster.
"Last year, I was fast, but it might have seemed like I was slower because I was thinking too much," Holt said. "This year, I'm ready to go. I've always had that speed that people really don't notice until you see it on film or I might catch somebody from behind. But I've always had it. Now, I'm able to just go."
When the Bears lost Zack Follett, Anthony Felder and Worrell Williams after the 2008 season, it seemed as though it might be Holt's time. Although he received his share of playing time last year, he never played well enough to give the impression he was going to stick in the lineup.
But one more spring practice and another offseason of workouts allowed Holt to turn the corner.
"You don't want to be seen as a bust," Holt said. "That was on my mind. But at the same time, I was just thankful for the opportunity to come here and play. I didn't really care, but at the same time you hear other people talking when you're expected to do big things."