Looney Ready For Big Things in Senior Season

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By Jim McGill, Staff Writer
Posted Aug 5, 2017
If by BearInsider Staff or Contributor, this article is Copyright © 2017 BearInsider.com


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Cal defensive end James Looney
6-3/280 senior defensive end James Looney could easily be considered the most important piece of the Cal football defensive puzzle heading into the 2017 season and the outgoing, high motor Florida native is ready to live up to the billing and more as he prepares for his final season in blue and gold.
"First off, I just want to come in and establish myself after missing spring from a lower body injury," said Looney, noting that he's all the way back physically. "I have to continue to earn my respect with Coach Azz in camp and hopefully establish myself as the starting left end."
 
Looney will be making the move to defensive end this season after playing a defensive tackle his first three seasons of collegiate ball.
 
The move suits his physical talents well. 

"We transitioned from a 4-3 to a 3-4 and we're a 2-gap team," said Looney. "I play kind of like in a 4, head-up on a tackle.

"On the edge, I think I'll be a little bit more free since I won't be having to deal with so many double teams. I love it. The 3-4 defense is just fun, man, because there's just so much that you can do. So much coverage that you can almost just hide. So it's like, you can show one thing and run something else."
 
The return of defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter to the defensive coordinator role after five seasons as head coach at Fresno State and a stint as interim head coach at Texas A&M in the Aggies Meineke Bowl win in 2011 means the Bears will have a wealth of knowledge on the defensive side of the ball combined with veteran DL coach Jerry Azzinaro and new head coach Justin Wilcox -himself a defensive coordinator for 11 seasons with Boise State, Washington, USC, Tennessee and Wisconsin. 

"Coach DeRuyter has a lot of energy always," said Looney. "We blitz a lot more than we did last year. Last year, we just played a basic defense. We didn't imitate too many coverages. 

"I don't want to make excuses. If you have good players, you have good players, but I just think it will open up more opportunities because the offensive linemen won't just know you're doing the same thing every play. 

"Coach DeRuyter's a good coach, but to be honest, it's really Coach Wilcox's defense. He's pretty involved with everything. 

"Our defensive coaching staff is all on the same page. They're always in different meetings with each other and come in with other position group meetings. 

"I don't know how common that is for coaches to do stuff like that but I've seen other defensive position coaches walking into defensive lineman meetings a lot. It's going to just establish even more that everyone knows what everyone should be doing and we'll be even more on the same page."

Azzinaro has been a revitalizing force on the defensive line, bringing with him several years of NFL coaching experience with  the Philadelphia Eagles and San Francisco 49ers as well as head coaching, defensive coordinator and defensive line coaching collegiately.

"Coach Azz just has a great personality," said Looney, with a smile. "He's just one of those guys where you look forward to going into one of his meetings. That's rare.

"Football meetings can often be like, 'Ah, I gotta go watch film,' but Azz makes it fun. He's funny and the way he breaks down film is amazing. 

"You know you're going to walk in there and learn something every time. A lot of coaches can't do that.

"To him, we're all professionals and it's always a competition. He'll tell you, 'I don't care where you come from or what your background is. If you work hard and play well, you'll play for me.' I love that about him. He treats you equally and has that professionalism about him."

Azzinaro spends time tag teaming with outside linebackers/defensive ends coachTony Tuiotti and the duo have proven to be a compatible force working together to revitalize the Bears' defense.
 
"Coach Tui is with us about half the time when he's not with the outside linebackers," said Looney. "The outside linebackers are in there with us in meetings a lot of the time.
 
"Tui and Azz will coach us simultaneously and it works well. They work really well together. They're always on the same page. They're like one person. Tui's the right and and Coach Azz is the left. Even when we split up, I think it benefits us a lot to have a coach as good as Coach Tui in there with us. He knows the game of football almost as much as Coach Azz. They've just got so much knowledge. Everyone can learn so much from these guys. 

"It's incredible. If you came and sat in on a meeting, honestly, you can learn more football in one meeting with Azz than people have their whole life. I'm being serious, too. I'm not exaggerating. 

"Coach Azz is really a genius when it comes to football."

Looney comes from a talented athletic family, with older brother Joe heading into his sixth season in the NFL after being drafted in the 4th round in 2012 by the San Francisco 49ers after graduating from Wake Forrest. 

The closeness between the brothers was one of the motivating forces for Looney transferring to Cal after his freshman year at Wake Forrest, commuting all the way to Berkeley from the south bay, where he lived with his brother.

Looney's exposure to the NFL through his brother only enhanced his drive to play in the league one day himself.

"That's been a dream of mine since I was a kid," said Looney. "To be honest with you, no matter what coach I had or no matter what scheme I was in, playing in the NFL was always a dream of mine.

"Having Coach Azz and Coach Wilcox will definitely help me when it comes to that. Their knowledge and experience will definitely help us as players to raise our game enough to be ready to play in the NFL once we get that chance.

"We trust them. They put themselves out there to show us they're in it for us."

With the Bears almost universally expected to finish at or near the bottom of the Pac-12 standings, Looney isn't about to concede a rebuilding year.
 
Can the Bears surprise fans and pundits with a successful 2017 season? 

"I don't know if I'd use the word 'surprise,' said Looney. "We know we have a good team. We're going to win games. If it surprises other people that didn't believe us at first, fine, but I believe in our players. We have a talented team. I don't think us playing well and winning games will surprise us, even if it might surprise some other people.

"We have a great coaching staff now that's dedicated to what our cause is."

With the Bears finishing near the bottom in most defensive categories in 2016, the fast-paced offense did the beleaguered and battered Cal defense no favors in their frequent inability to sustain drives and give the defense a breather.

"Some people don't realize, running that Bear Raid offense put a lot of pressure on the defense," said Looney. "The Utah game, I think we played 100 snaps. It's hard when you're going hard like that every game. With the starters playing the majority of the snaps, you get beat up. 

"I'm excited about the new scheme on defense. I think it's going to help us out a lot. I think the new offensive scheme will help out a lot, too. We added tight ends and can hold onto the ball a little bit more and keep drives going and give the defense a rest.

"I think we're going to be a lot better. The buy-in so far has been great. We just need to go out there and execute to our potential. 

"I can't wait till we play North Carolina because that will be a true testament to how hard we've been working and doing what we're supposed to do."

The Bears' defensive line will be thinner than expected with anticipated starting defensive end Zeandae Johnson recently ruled out with an injury for the 2017 season, putting more pressure on the fairly thin defensive line to stay healthy.

"Yeah, that's tough," said Looney. "But you know what, man? Honestly, Luq Bequette, #93, is going to be a special player. The guy's an animal. His genetic body build is crazy. He's full-go after his acl tear last year.

"He's dedicated to the team. He plays around a lot, just like me, but I'm telling you, he's going to be something special. I think he might plug in for Zeandae and make a big stand.

"Anther guy is Rusty Becker. Rusty's working hard. Since he's been here, I'd say he's the most-improved football player I've seen since I've seen in college. 

"He came in and was having a real tough time. I didn't know if he'd ever get it. But when Azz got in here, the lights came on. He turned it on. He had a great spring.

"Udeogo's good, too. And another guy that's going to be really good is Evan Weaver. He's a physical specimen. He's quick, fast and strong. He's talented and he has a lot of confidence for a young guy.

"Confidence can make a difference. He always believes in himself and he never gets down. He's healthy now, too.

"Saffle's been good, too, at outside linebacker. At first, he didn't seem like he was really feeling the switch and having to cover receivers but now he loves it. He's really benefited from it. At first he was like, 'I just want to be in the trenches and go after the quarterback but he's good playing in space.

"That's what I love about Cam. He has that edge about him. He has the trench warrior mentality but the athleticism to do a lot more. He'll be a great player for us, too."

As for Looney's thoughts on newcomer defensive teammates, the senior DL had plenty to say about cornerback Elijah Hicks -an early entry freshman from La Mirada High School.

"Elijah''s phenomenal," said Looney. "I can't say enough about him. He's just so mature. The way he takes care of his body. The way he eats. It's almost like he's a senior. He has that maturity like a grown man, to be honest. It's good to see. When I was young, I didn't know anything about nutrition or any of that other stuff.

"These guys are dedicated to being great."

Looney also mentioned another spring newcomer -Blinn JC outsider linebacker transfer Alex Funches.

"Alex is really really good," said Looney. "He's going to be a good outside linebacker and pass rushing specialist. He can get to the quarterback every time he wants to. He can destroy tackles with his athletic ability. He's so athletic.

"I've always loved Funches. I hosted him on his visit. He works hard and he's good."

On the issue of health, the NCAA established new practice guidelines that rule out 2-a-day practices in camp to protect players from injury. The reaction's largely been positive amongst players and coaches.

"I loved 2-a-days," said Looney. "It was almost like a testament to your hard work. But the new rules are going to help players stay much healthier.

"It eliminates a large risk of injury when you go out there when you're so tired and more susceptible to injury.

"It's going to be amazing for our bodies. And having Sunday off now is incredible. You get to go to church, recharge the batteries and get yourself ready.

"Really, football is easy physically. My dad always said football's not a physical game, it's mental. You play the game the right way every day. It's a mental game. Us being better rested helps with that mental game.

"Honestly, if you come to Cal, you're a special guy but you still have to find that balance between work and rest, school and football and just life, in general."

Looney will have a light load in the fall, needing just a class or two before graduating in December -all the better to go out with a bang in pursuit of his ultimate goal of playing in the NFL.

"Cal is just a great school, man," said Looney. "I always look forward to going to class because I know I'm learning things that will be beneficial for me in life and we're learning with and from the best.

"Cal will test you, but it's good, man. It's that competitiveness that drives you in the classroom, on the field and in life. When you go out into the real world, you're better prepared because you've been doing it all along in college."



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