Sam Fielder: Defense, defense, defense. I'd say safety would be 1a in terms of need as Cal has just been getting brutalized by the pass this year and then I'd rank a pass rusher as 1b as we cannot get any semblance of a consistent pass rush on anyone, which is part of the reason why the secondary looks so horrible. You leave anyone out on an island by themselves for that long and they'll get burned. If Cal wants to be competitive in the Pac-12, we have to be able to stop passing attacks, which we currently cannot do. So if we can stock up on some solid defenders that are good against the pass both on the line and in the secondary I think that would go a long way towards making us more competitive in these games against better teams.
boomtho: Two key units on the defensive side of the ball would be my priority. First is the DL, specifically the pass rush. I long for the days of Rulon Davis, Alualu, and Cam Jordan terrorizing QB's. Our guys right now are trying but they simply aren't good enough to get to the QB. Second is the secondary. Again, our guys are trying, and they seem to be absorbing the scheme pretty well (i.e. way fewer 'what the hell is he doing' plays than the Buh era). But when you have tiny DB's trying to tackle USC's or Arizona's giant WR's, there's only so much scheming can get you. A third priority for me would be the OL, but I think that would be much more of turning the offense from good to great, rather than fixing the struggling D.
Nick Kranz: Hard to argue with anything Sam and boomtho have said. Secondary and defensive line are glaring recruiting priorities. What I will add is my perception of recruiting timelines and immediate impact vs. long term impact.
With cornerbacks and safeties, signing day measureables are so huge. If a guy is 6'3'' and can run a 4.4 40 yard dash as a freshman, he'll probably be able to do so for the entirety of his Cal career. If he's 5'9'' and runs a 4.6 40, that's not likely to change appreciably either. High end talent at cornerback and safety can potentially come in and contribute immediately, assuming the player in question can learn the playbook. Syd-Quan, as just one example, was a valuable player almost immediately, Tennessee game aside. In my defensive previews, I've seen examples of true and redshirt freshmen playing in the secondary with varying levels of success all over the conference. The hard part is finding those guys and securing committments.
Tape of Cal commit Russell Ude
Defensive line and pass rush is harder. Talent obviously matters, but development is huge as well. It's very, very rare for defensive linemen to come in a contribute at a high level immediately, even with 4 and 5 star talents. Examples of freshmen and sophomore linemen starting and contributing on Pac-12 defenses are much rarer than in the secondary. If Cal's pass rush is going to significantly improve next year, then it's probably going to have to come from players currently on the roster, or maybe from JC recruits. This year's recruiting will obviously be critical 3-4 years down the line, but for next year Cal needs guys like Mustafa Jalil, Todd Barr, Brennan Scarlett and Johnathan Johnson to hit the weight room and take big steps forward in terms of on field production.
Avinash Kunnath: I agree with most everything being discussed here defensively. But I think that for the sake of this particular team, the top priority must be upgrading our offensive tackles. It's clear our staff is offensive-minded, so our focus must be on getting talent on that side of the ball. This defense is going to struggle recruiting a large amount of talent until this offense proves it really is good enough to put 40-50 points on ANY opponent. They're close, but the weaknesses in pass protection are holding us back. We need to be bringing in 4 or 5 guys each year and find guys who can be even the last bit credible guarding the edges for our quarterbacks.
Cal needs good offensive tackles or Jared Goff and the quarterbacks that follow him are going to be constantly running for their lives. They currently have one in Steven Moore, and he's playing out of position, and it shows up a lot. They need to stack up on centers, particularly with Chris Adcock graduating--this position is too critical for this offense, and I'd feel better knowing we have depth behind Matt Cochran and Addison Ooms. They need someone to step up and fill that other tackle position so Jordan Rigsbee can move back inside and be more of a force.
With Goff at least secure through next year, Cal seems to be set up to have a deep quarterback chart for the next few years. The running back depth chart should be decently stacked up. And we will have no trouble recruiting wide receivers. Our issue is the same as it's been since the dawn of time--finding an offensive tackle every year who can hit our two deep. Otherwise everytime we face a defense like USC's or UCLA's or Washington's or Stanfurd's, they will give our QB hell. We have to fix this soon or we could find that we have ceilings we hit.