Heading into his junior season, linebacker Michael Barton is ready to move forward and is excited about the steps the Bears have taken to shore up a Cal defense that has struggled mightily in recent years.
But before Barton steps forward this year, he stepped back in time, in a manner of speaking, spending several practice sessions with the Bears on Owens Field in Concord at De La Salle High School where he starred for the Spartans as a 4 star prep player.
"It was so nostalgic," said Barton. "When I was back there, so many great memories came to mind.
"It was great to see (De La Salle principal) Mr. DeMarco. And I got to introduce Moose (DT Mustafa Jalil) to Coach Lad (former DLS head coach Bob Ladouceur).
"He was teaching a kid how to swim for the first time and that just sums up Coach Lad perfectly. That's just the way he is. You'd never know how important a guy he is if you just saw him doing what he does."
Asking Barton about famous actor Jim Caviezel's dry portrayal of Ladouceur, the junior linebacker noted the surface similarities as well as the differences in the way the famous actor portrayed the legendary coach.
"Coach Lad may seem kind of dry but once you get to meet him, he's one of the most amazing people you'll ever meet," said Barton. "He's one of the guys I'll always look up to.
"When you're in the program, you can't help but respect him so much."
The 6-0/240 junior led the Bears in tackles in 2014 with 80 and is the Bears' active career leader in tackles for loss with 15.5.
Like most of his teammates, Barton is excited by what he's seen in camp and in practice preparing for the Bears' 2015 season.
In Barton's redshirt freshman season under defensive coordinator Andy Buh, it seemed to observers that there was often mass confusion on the defense, with the 2-deeps full of inexperienced players, playing under a new coordinator and new system.
In 2014, the Bears shored up their run defense under new defensive coordinator Art Kaufman and rarely looked lost like they did the season before, however the pass defense struggled with little depth or experience to call on.
Fast forward to fall camp and the defense looks like a whole new unit, going three deep with capable players at most positions and with a number of returning starters plus key players like defensive end Kyle Kragen and safety DeMariay Drew -both slated to start- returning to the field after a year away.
"I think it's just really that guys are just moving around together," said Barton. "Defenses really need to be synchronized. When you're dropping into coverage, guys need to be in the right spots. I've seen that more than anything this camp.
"If you watched our defense in 7-on-7's last year, guys would catch the ball and just turn up field for big yards. Now, if someone manages to catch a ball, there aren't many extra yards to be had. That's going to make such a difference.
"I feel 10 times better about the defense and the team. Where we were last year compared to this year, we're so far ahead. And I think having so much more experience, just having guys who have been there and know how to handle these situations, we've been in every situation you could ask for and we know how to take care of busines now with that added experience.
"You have to have depth, you have to have experience and you have to have athletes on the field in this conference," said Barton.
On the defensive line, outside of senior Kyle Kragen, another player who's really caught Barton's eye is Riverside CC transfer DeVante Wilson, who originally signed with USC out of high school before falling to injury and transferring out.
"Once that guy gets comfortable and lets loose and doesn't have to think too much about things, whew, scary!," said Barton. "That guy looks like Jadaveon Clowney sometimes. He's 6-5/260 and he runs like a gazelle. He's super-athletic. He's going to be really good.
"I think having that pass rush is going to make such a difference. That's where it all starts. And not only the pass rushing but getting our blitzes down and syncronizing them, too, will help.
"Once you get comfortable with the blitzes, the guys that are covering the running backs, they're able to blitz, too -basically, blitz the back. Instead of just sitting back, we're adding more pressure to the quarterback by having those guys rush the line of scrimmage to take their man."
Last season, the Bears weren't able to blitz effectively, often giving up big plays whenever they tried to get more aggressive.
This season, with better coverage and a stiffer pass rush, the Bears will look to blitz more effectively and more often and have several strong options to get to the quarterback.
"I'll get to the quarterback, for sure," said Barton. "Devante (Downs), he's just so big. He can blitz well. So can Jalen. Hardy's really good at the point of attack. We can all get to the quarterback."
As for young players standing out in camp?
"Luc Bequette's really been doing well," said Barton. "We have so much depth at defensive tackle now, I don't know if he'll even play this year but he's been taking some big steps at d-line. He uses his hands really well, better than some of the returning guys.
"At linebacker (redshirt sophs) Devante, Aisea (Tongilava) and Hamilton (Anoa'i) have all looked really good.
"At defensive back -Trey Turner- I like that kid a lot. The thing I like about him even more than the other young db's is he's not scared to put his nose on the ball. He'll hit you. He doesn't care how big you are.
Turner is playing safety for the first time after starring at quarterback as a prep. He's joined by fellow former QB Billy McCrary as safety converts.
"Billy's playing well, too," said Barton. "I think quarterbacks are just smart players and can adjust to any position."
As for the new jc players?
"Antione Albert -I like him," said Barton. "He's a little bulldog out there."
And on the offensive side of the ball?
"Kanawai Noa -man that kid's going to be really good," said Barton. "That kid's going to play, I'm sure. And Singleton's really good. Fast -like Chris Harper-ish fast."
Barton appreciates the athleticism of an elite hurdler like Singleton was in high school as a double state champ, with Barton competing in the state finals in 2011.
Another Bear who excelled on the track but who continued his career at Cal in both track and football is Cal running back Khalfani Muhammad, who won back-to-back state championships in both the 100 and 200 for Notre Dame (Sherman Oaks, CA) -only the third California prep to ever achieve the feat.
"Khalfani -he's so explosive and he's been able to translate that track speed to the field this fall," said Barton. "He's so hard to tackle because he's so dang fast and knows how to apply that force to the ground. His speed and physicality have improved.
"He's always been fast but the way he's accelerating now is showing way more football speed. And pound for pound, I think he's our most physical running back this year. Vic is big and he's hard to tackle but as far as who's going to boom you, Khalfani's gonna come downhill and hit you. When Demariay came to hit him full speed in practice recently and they hit, that was the loudest sound I ever heard."
Majoring in American Studies with a minor in Rhetoric, Barton plans to graduate after the spring and apply to grad school at Cal for his senior season. But for now, he's ready to take the step to the next level as a program -starting tomorrow, as the season kicks off vs. Grambling State at 2:00 in Memorial Stadium.