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Previewing the Cal Defense

Believe it or not, the California Golden Goffs do field a defense on Saturdays. How much trouble will they cause the young Husky Offense this week?

John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

Defense Overview

To put it lightly, Cal’s defense in the Sonny Dykes era has been pretty bad.  While the offense with QB Jared Goff has continued to become more balanced, dangerous, and explosive, the defense has pretty much remained stagnant.  They did see improvement last season, in DC Art Kaufman’s first year, compared to 2013 when they were a complete sieve.  The 2014 Bears improved 48 spots nationally in rush defense, and shaved nearly a touchdown off their points per game allowed.  Kaufman has been known for engineering some pretty great defensive turnarounds and overall has coordinated some pretty defenses across college football.  Have the Bears continued that upward trend so far in 2015?  They’ve certainly forced a good amount of turnovers, with 7 interceptions and 7 forced fumbles (only 2 recovered, however).  This might not necessarily indicate a sound and tough defense to gain yards on, but getting the ball back for the offense is the primary job of the defense and they do it on average 3 times a game, which is very good.  Their season averages through 3 games also suggest defensive improvement, giving up 21 points per game and 424 yards (compared to 511 last year).  A lot of that has to do with their first two opponents, Grambling State and San Diego State, both pretty bad teams.  When they faced their toughest test of the season, on the road against the Texas Longhorns, they looked much more vulnerable, giving up 44 points and 548 yards.  While the defense looks like it has some play making ability and is run by a pretty good coordinator, against decent competition they have a propensity to give up points.  It’s also worth noting that their top 3 tacklers so far this year play in the secondary, which is typically not a good sign.  Let’s a take a look at some individual contributors and see how they might affect the match up.

Key Players

Damariay Drew: Jr, Safety

Drew currently leads the Bears in tackles with 17 through 3 games, which is impressive considering he missed the entire 2014 season.  The junior is a solid overall defender and has the ability to cover a lot of ground to make a tackle.  It should be mentioned that Drew left the Texas game with a foot injury in the first half – he made it back onto the field, but missed the entire 2nd half.  This wouldn’t be a loss on the level of Budda Baker (maybe Jojo McIntosh or Brian Clay level) but he’s still their starting safety and leading tackler.  Luke Rebenzer or Khari Vanderbilt will replace him if he’s unable to go on Saturday.

Cameron Walker: Jr, CB

Ladies and gentlemen, meet the Cal Bear’s leading sack man so far this year.  Cornerback Cameron Walker has done a really nice job in 3 games making plays in the backfield: 2 sacks, and .5 tackle for loss.  He had no sacks in his previous 2 years as a Bear, in which he’s played in 22 games.  The versatile Walker has 19 starts, and while not listed officially as a starter against UW, look for him to line up in the slot, outside, and as a nickel back.  He only has 5 tackles but has recorded an interception this year which he returned 14 yards.

Jalen Jefferson: Sr, LB

Jalen Jefferson is the leader of this unit.  He has started 27 games in his career, and leads active Bears in many defensive statistics: tackles for loss yardage, and sacks.  The very experienced Jefferson has totaled 13 tackles and 1 interception so far this year.  Expect to see him attack the line of scrimmage to take advantage of a young UW offensive line, but also drop back into coverage a good deal.

Michael Barton: Jr, LB

Michael Barton is pretty similar to Jalen Jefferson, stats wise, and actually edges the more experienced Jefferson.  Barton has 13 tackles, but beats out Jefferson with his 1 TFL to Jefferson’s zero.  Barton also has an interception to his name, and is very experienced with 13 starts to his name.  It’s impressive that only starting 13 games he’s still the active leader in TFLs among current Bears.  He’s also 2nd in tackles.

Closing Thoughts

Overall, this is not a hugely intimidating unit.  The interceptions scare me, especially since all 7 come from different players – Jake Browning won’t simply be able to avoid 1 or 2 defenders when so many are able to snag the ball out of the air.  While the turnovers are impressive, they do give up some yards and points, and that’s an area the Huskies need to exploit.  A defense that surrendered 286 yards and 6 TDs on the ground to the Longhorns might be just what a struggling Husky run game needs to get going.  While the rushing statistics are poor, they didn’t allow a touchdown pass vs. Texas, so that will be something to keep an eye on, especially if starting S Damariay Drew is out injured.  Jake Browning really seemed to find a groove against Utah State, and their defense might actually be better than Cal’s.  But, Cal is a Pac – 12 team with Pac-12 athletes.  How much will scheme come into play?  Jonathan Smith was able to counter the Utah State pressure and blitzing with some nice play calls, where Jake threw it downfield with touch and accuracy.  Will Cal’s much more conservative defense cause less openings downfield and Jake to think more before he throws?  Will less pressure open up the running game?  Personally, I think the Cal Defense will pick off Jake Browning, but are soft enough against the run that UW should be able to piece together a run game, with around 150 yards on the ground.  They also will be able to hold on to errant passes and probably won't drop 2-3 interceptions as Sacramento State and Utah State did.