Hello, welcome to the first defensive preview of the year! Certainly nothing will go wrong between beginning to write this and finishing it up.
Anyhoo, intros are stupid, so let’s dive into what will definitely be a for sure happening game that has no chance of not happening.
Personnel and What to Expect
Last year’s Cal defense gave up 20.9 points per game. AKA: really good. That also doesn’t take into account that with Chase Garbers out for five weeks, their offense subsequently had five mega-anemic games that frequently put the defense in a poor position. For example, against Utah, the longest drive Cal’s offense orchestrated was 27 yards. After their first two positions, they went 3-and-out on six of the remaining eight drives. Yeesh. Throwing those five games out, their points per game allowed goes down to 17.25.
But it’s not like that should be news to any of us — since Justin Wilcox took over, Cal’s been really good at defense.
And when you look at it, it makes sense; this defense looks a lot like UW’s defense — good tackling, lots of nickel, limited explosive plays allowed, strong secondary, etc.
In last year’s preview for the Bears, I said this:
Their look continues to be, just like all of us, primarily nickel ... often 2-4-5 with a sprinkle of dime at 2-3-6 as well on obvious passing downs. Most importantly, this year’s Cal defense looks like they’re just starting where last year’s defense left off. Likely, they’re better than 2018. So that’s fun.
... This defense has no weakness per se, but if you had to pick the strength, it’s probably best to go with the secondary. Simply put, Cal’s secondary is one of the best in the country — certainly the most overperforming.
It’s worth noting that, similar to the Dawgs’ situation a couple years ago, Cal’s got a slight responsibility change with the coaches this year. While the play-calling has formerly been done by OLBs coach and DC Tim DeRuyter, that responsibility’s been changed to ILBs coach, former Husky coach, and dad of Jackson, Peter Sirmon. Even with that change, though, the philosophy shouldn’t look any different and there’s little reason to believe there’ll be any big effects from that.
But back to the secondary, where we’ll start:
Considering the parts that’ve made Cal’s defense so fearsome the last couple years, you have to look at the departures in what’s become their best unit. Because they’re big deals.
Last year’s secondary was anchored by two mid-round NFL draft picks at safety, Burlsworth finalist Ashtyn Davis and Jaylinn Hawkins, who went in the 3rd to the Jets (ow) and 4th to Atlanta. They also graduated versatile nickel Traveon Beck and their dependable next-man-up Trey Turner.
That being said, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment if you read that and went, “Okay, so this should get a lot easier.”
Because, while depth charts can be deceiving (hello, Huskies), the one Cal released this week looks like what you’d expect with the DBs, including the key pieces they do return. Camryn Bynum returns to start again for his senior year at corner after previously opting out — he’s fifth all-time for Cal’s pass breakups and their active interception leader with five. Also returning is starting safety and fellow senior Elijah Hicks. Then at the other safety and outside corner spot, junior Daniel Scott takes up a starting role for the first time after playing over 20 previous games, and senior Josh Drayden jumps to a full-time starter after six previous starts and almost 40 games for the Bears. Meanwhile, Chigozie Anusiem is listed as a backup cornerback but will also slide in to nickel as well, and he started last year’s bowl game. The other three in the two-deep are true or redshirt freshmen including former Washington target Trey Paster, but it’s not like they’re being thrown into the fire or forced to play out of necessity.
In other words, it’d be naive to just look at the “starters lost” column from last year to now and conclude Cal’s secondary will dropoff a lot.
But in front of them, there’s a giant gaping loss that Dawg fans are relieved to see: no more Evan Weaver. Oh thank you lord baby Jesus, finally.
There’s no debating that, for all the stars in the secondary and impact players up front, Weaver was the absolute terror of this defense and its soul on and off the field. How do I feel about Evan Weaver? This is how I feel.
While I don’t think there’ll be a weakness on this defense really, I suppose just the negative space filled by Weaver means they have to kind of take a step back here... right?
But it’s not like there’s huge departures here otherwise — Cameron Goode and Kuony Deng return for their senior years at OLB and ILB, respectively, while Braxten Croteau and Evan Tattersall slide into their opposite starting OLB and ILB positions. Both Croteau and Tattersall are sophomores, the former having played a decent amount as a true freshman last year but without huge stats.
Other players who you’ll likely see rotate in includes redshirt freshman Blake Antzoulatos and true freshman Muelu Iosefa, both inside, who’ve gotten a lot of praise from staff. It’s also worth mentioning that both USC and Oregon tried to flip Iosefa before he signed with Cal as an early-entrant. (Also, we’ll likely see a sighting of Rainer Beach grad and redshirt freshman Orin Patu.)
Deng and Goode are of course the leaders here, and it’s Deng who’s the most intriguing almost to the point of bizarre. For starters, he’s 6’6” and 250 lbs. No, you didn’t read that wrong, nor did you read wrong that he’s an inside linebacker. I feel that confusion on your face — in what world does a guy like that play there?
Obviously being that size provides some unique advantages and disadvantages. On one hand, He’s useful shooting up to blitz the middle or using his length to clog passing lanes. Simply put, whoever Washington’s quarterback is, they won’t face anyone else who just takes up so much space to pass around.
That being said, it’s not hard to guess what his relative weakness would be with those measurables — you can only be so fluid in coverage at that size, especially when it comes to quick hips. He can make up for that with his athleticism sometimes, but good receivers and a quick tight end could take advantage of that.
One of the few question marks last year was run stuff, something which I was somewhat surprised to see; per Write For Call, they were bottom 10 in the country last year here. It makes sense that this year, that could once more be their weakness with the loss of Weaver the wrecking ball and nose tackle Luc Bequette, who transferred to Boston College.
Which brings us to the defensive li —
Hold up, what’s that?
Oh, the game’s cancelled?
Well *inhales a deep breath for 20 seconds* DANG IT TO HECK 2020 WHY ARE YOU LIKE THIS.
I am very sad, here’s me:
Stay safe so we can have football.
I mean, actually you should stay safe so that we can protect other people around us because people are more important than football...
But also stay safe so we can have football.
AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH HOW MUCH LONGER MUST 2020 CURSE US SO...
Do good things, don’t do bad things, and bow down to Washington.