For two years in a row now, Coach Clancy Pendergast's defense has been one of the statistical conference leaders. However, there are still grumblings from fans about the hit and miss nature of his aggressive schemes. When everything is dialed in, our D looks impressively dominant. But we've also shown an alarming penchant for giving up the inopportune big play.
With two of the best defensive recruiting classes in recent Cal history finally coming of age, will this be the year where our defense flexes it's full potential? Or, do we replace too many grizzled veterans with young athletes and find ourselves taking a step back?
It's a good thing this is just spring ball. Otherwise, we might start looking ahead to the prospect of opening the season against Nevada's pistol offense with two new ILBs and two new safeties. Maybe this will be the year we tackle that darn, elusive, athletic guy who takes the snaps. There are rumors that the NCAA passed a new rule which _will_ allow Cal defenders to tackle the quarterback. Madness!
Starters Trevor Guyton and Ernest Owusu depart. But, backups Mustafa Jalil and Deandre Coleman were getting as many or more snaps than the starters by the end of the year. Coleman does a nice job of getting upfield push and is powerful enough to be used inside on certain formations. "Moose" Jalil was impressive enough to demand playing time as a true frosh. With an off-season of Blasquez and more technique-work, he could really make strides in year two. Waiting in the wings is an impressive array of heralded young players; Gabe King, Puka Lopa, Todd Barr, and Brennan Scarlett.
Aaron Tipoti and Kendrick Payne both return for their senior years. When healthy last year, Tipoti displayed a nice burst and motor. Payne has gotten playing time since his redshirt freshman year and is a solid veteran backup. The x-factor here is Viliami "Tiny" Moala. One of the few 5-star DTs that Cal has ever signed, he got his feet wet in limited action last year. If everything comes together for him, he has the physical tools and strength to be an absolute beast in the middle.
There should be a nice rotation here between Chris McCain, Cecil Whiteside, and Dan Camporeale. Both McCain and Whiteside really started to come on and showcase their athleticism last year. When they were at their best, we were able to put pressure on the opposing quarterback without relying on blitzes. Campo may not have the same type of raw speed, but he's a heady player who knows his assignments. Before he went down with injury, Brennan Scarlett was also getting snaps here last year. This was a young group last year and has the potential to be one of the strengths of the defense. Jalen Jefferson and Nathan Broussard might also get some looks here. Although both were initially slotted for the inside, Coach Pendergast has shown more of a willingness to play young players on the outside because of fewer reads and responsibilities. Jason Gibson was highly regarded as a rush backer, and could see time here if he doesn't work himself into the two-deep as an ILB.
This is arguably the biggest area of concern now that we have to replace both DJ Holt and Mychal Kendricks. Although Kendricks is the one who made the most "wow" plays, the underrated Holt was equally valuable to the defense because of his versatility and consistency. Best guess is that Dave Wilkerson will move back inside after staying outside the last two years. If he can stay healthy, he brings a lot of speed and hitting ability. In the mix for the other spot are some young guys such Jason Gibson and Nick Forbes as well as some experienced reserves in JP Hurrell, Steve Fanua, and Richard Mullins. It'll be interesting to see what Coach Thompson decides to do with this group. Although the older reserves have gotten snaps in the past two years when Mohammed or Kendricks were out, they didn't perform well enough to stake their claim on the position. It may be that we roll the dice with some of the young players and let their potential outweigh the probable growing pains.
Despite the talent and athleticism available here, expect there to be plenty of ups and downs. Kendricks, Holt, and Mohammed all struggled initially as first-time starters. If there were an over/under on touchdowns to opposing tight ends, bet the over.
Marc Anthony and Steve Williams return as a solid starting tandem. At times, Williams flashed some great coverage skills last year. Anthony fought the injury bug a bit and had an up and down year. He's set to sit out spring ball in order to continue his recovery. Considering that Coach Pendergast often leaves his corners on an island, we'll have to hope that the two continue to improve under position coach Ashley Ambrose's tutelage. As backups, there should be a spirited competition between Stefan McClure, Kam Jackson, Joel Willis, and Adrian Lee. Before hurting his knee, McClure showed a tremendous amount of potential. Although expected back for fall camp, it's unknown whether he'll be 100%. Jackson performed admirably when pressed into spot duty. Willis has such good ball skills that he might get a look at WR. Lee is known as a speedster. With both Anthony and McClure out, there should be plenty of snaps available for Jackson, Willis, and Lee to distinguish themselves.
This is the other huge question mark as we lose both starters and their primary backup. Avery Sebastian will emerge as the leader here, and possibly become one of the inspirational leaders of the entire defense. During camp last year, he turned heads with his big hits and playmaking. He was also one of our best special teams cover guys until he hurt his hamstring. This past offseason, Sebastian made a name for himself by stepping up to provide leadership, class, and resolve in the wake of departing coaches and the ensuing recruiting crisis. He rallied his fellow players and reminded both present and future teammates, "We all we got. We all we need." If he isn't one of your favorite players already, he soon will be.
At the other safety, it's most likely that they'll move Josh Hill back from nickel. Always a smart player, he showed an improved nose for the ball and tackling ability last year. Here's hoping he makes a Conte-like leap in his final year. Also in the mix are Michael Coley and Alex Logan. Coley was playing well before he hurt himself, but his recovery time is also unknown.
Biggest Questions for the Defense:
1) Who will fill the void in the middle left by the steady DJ Holt and playmaking Mychal Kendricks?
2) Who will be our starting safeties? Will they move Josh Hill back from nickelback or rely on Sebastian and another youngster?
3) How will the Dline shake-out? With both starting DEs departed, which talented young players will force their way into the two-deep?
4) The depth chart behind our starting corners is uncertain. With McClure's recovery timetable unknown, who will be our nickel and dime backs?