Note: This interview took place before the UCLA game but most of this discussion remains pretty topical.
What's your take on the Andy Buh situation? The defense seems to be improving but it still gave up 44 points at home to Washington State and plenty of yards to UCLA.
It's not good, that's for sure. I'd venture to say that it's hard to gauge whether or not this defense is actually improving given the number of injuries and the fact that so many different bodies have been thrown out there the last several weeks. A lot of guys that weren't slated for playing time on defense have been thrust into prominent roles thanks to so many likely starters going down. As a result, there's a lot of "learning on the job" occurring for many of the less experienced defenders...a sure recipe for mistakes and breakdowns. When you factor in that Buh really only had the Spring to install his defense and it makes for a steep learning curve.
Injuries or no, this defense is on pace to be historically bad. Considering Sonny Dykes made Andy Buh one of the highest paid DC's in the conference, this is absolutely unacceptable. The fact that Buh opted to convert Cal to a 4-3 defensive front despite the fact that the prior defensive staff had recruited personnel better suited to a 3-4 hasn't made things easier either. Feels like forcing a square peg into a round hole. And while I understand those taking the position that Buh should be on the hot seat and tend to agree, I'm not in favor a mid-season change. I'm far from happy with what I've seen thus far, but I struggle to draw any hard conclusions about Buh's coaching acumen with so many guys hurt. That said, the defensive side of the ball has been awful, and that falls on him. I've seen little to make me feel as though a healthy Cal defense would actually be a good defense. Buh needs to find a solution. And if he can't, Sonny needs to find a guy that can.
Why is the Cal running game so dysfunctional when the passing game has had so much success? Is it more on the offensive line or the running backs?
I think some blame can be laid at the feet of both the offensive line and the running backs. Plus, throw the coaching staff in there as well. The OL is young (two sophomores and two redshirt frosh flanking the center), but has underperformed by anyone's standards. Whether it's struggling with speed rushers or being over powered by a 3-man rush, this unit hasn't been able to physically impose its will on opposing defensive fronts...Portland State included. The running backs have really been underwhelming as well. They've struggled to find holes and the speed that Bigelow, Lasco and Muhammad possess has only been seen in flashes since they've struggled finding space and breaking tackles. The run game has lacked any real physicality; struggling in short yardage situations especially. That's on both the OL and running backs.
Many of Cal's run plays are sweeps designed to get a back outside and into space. This leads to running backs spending more time running east/west than north/south. And while these runs may best suit the backs that Cal is using, it isn't fooling opposing defenses or helping out an OL that isn't very mobile yet. Employing more inside runs would help open up the outside for these sweeps. When Cal does run inside, it comes in predictable situations. Since the OL is struggling to get any push, I'd be in favor of putting a guy in the backfield who can create his own push. Such a guy exists, and his name is Lucas Gingold.
A lot of new players have had to step up with the injuries. Which players have succeeded and which ones have struggled?
I think pretty much every new player has had moments where they've struggled, but I think the positives have outweighed the negatives with freshman Cameron Walker at safety. He signed last Spring as a cornerback, but was switched over to safety early in the season primarily due to depth issues. He's made some nice plays filling in and has actually been one of the more consistent defenders for Cal. The bar is set low obviously. On the defensive line, defensive end Puka Lopa's opportunities have been minimal, but I enjoy the way he plays. He has a motor and is a relentless passrusher. Generally Cal's defensive ends have really struggled though, and the injury to Brennan Scarlett along with the dismissal of Chris McCain have left that entire group devoid of the athleticism necessary to contain the speedy offenses Cal has faced thus far. And in the limited action they've seen, I think both Adrian Lee and Cedric Dozier have shown some promise at cornerback thanks to their athleticism.
When identifying players who have struggled, you really have to start with cornerback Isaac Lapite. He's been picked on consistently the first five games, but Washington State took it to a whole new level. After committing a couple pass interference penalties, surrendering a couple touchdowns and a few other converted third downs, Lapite was mercifully taken out of the game. Injuries in the linebacker ranks forced Lucas King into extended playing time in a couple games as well, and he really struggled corralling Washington State's running backs in space last week [Ed note: This continued against UCLA]. I alluded to the struggles at defensive end, and Kyle Kragen is a guy I expected to be an instant contributor in the passrush. He has one sack this season, but has really been a nonfactor on pass plays and a liability against the run.
While the on-field results thus far have been poor and will likely continue to be as the season progresses, I think it's good that so many guys have gotten playing time. My hope is that once many of the injured guys who were expected to start or make significant contributions are back, the staff will find itself flush with experienced depth. What this team looks like healthy could be very different. Or it could be the same, which would be a big problem.
If you were in Sonny's shoes, what improvements would you suggest Cal make to become better?
Sonny's in a tough spot. He's acknowledged that this rash of injuries is something he's never before experienced as a coach. As a result, a lot of guys have been forced into playing before they've been ready, and a whole lot of mistakes have been made. Establishing any continuity or progress has been a challenge with new guys going down every week. It feels like this season has become more about survival than progress, as depressing as that may sound. I personally think it's difficult to hold Sonny entirely accountable for what the team has endured to date.
That said, some of the on-field issues do fall on the shoulders of the coaching staff. The tackling on defense has been really poor, as has the gap discipline of the linebackers. The defensive line hasn't been able to generate any pressure on opposing quarterbacks, allowing a thin and inexperienced secondary to get picked apart. Both the running game and pass protection on offense have been bad as well. My understanding is that Sonny and the staff have gone back to the basics a bit in practice in an attempt to shore up some of the fundamental issues on both sides of the ball. That's great and all, but fall practices theoretically should not be the time to teach how to tackle. Additionally, a few guys are being tried at new spots, in some cases on a completely diffeernt side of the ball. That works for me too.
Short of shaking things up and axing the defensive staff (a drastic step which I wouldn't recommend), I'm unsure how much more Sonny can actually do to improve this team THIS season.
Looking at the recruiting front, what type of players do the Bears need to grab to improve in a more immediate fashion?
22-year old Valedictorians that bench press mobile homes and power clean cement mixers would be ideal, but possibly a tad unrealistic. Short of that, Cal needs to focus on both sides of the trenches and defensive backs. Currently, the Golden Bears have 4 DB's committed in the 2014 class, and safety help is on the way with Koa Farmer, Jaleel Wadood and Quentin Tartabull in the fold. CB Jeremey Winchester is a long and athletic guy unlike anyone currently playing the position for Cal. With just 1 OL (Michael Trani) and 1 DL (Isadore Outing) currently committed, I'd like to see the staff make a concerted effort at bringing in three more defensive linemen and at least two more OL to help beef up each position. Depth is an issue at all three spots, as we've seen this season. And with the performance of those group thus far, playing time should be an easy sell.