No, seriously. Now that I've arrived at the brief respite from graduate school they call the winter break, I'll be catching up on recruiting over the next few weeks, with a series of scouting report posts. This edition will cover three of the new reinforcements to the secondary in Evan Rambo, Billy McCreary, and Derron Brown.
For the last few seasons, it's been painfully evident -- and perhaps equally painful to hear me repeat myself -- that the secondary has lacked size and athleticism. Michael Lowe and Stefan McClure did a bang-up job back there this season but were often unable to track down guys in space, while our young corners -- all less than 6'0, save for Darius White -- got pushed around too often against the kinds of short screens the college game has evolved to feature. The eye test and any quick scan of our memories will prove this.
So, in Coach Dykes' second "true" recruiting class, the secondary has become the area targeted for immediate fixes, and it appears they're doing a fine job of getting players who will make up the aforementioned deficits, as well as replenishing depth. There are three guys who are sure DBs already in Brown, Rambo and Psalms, a likely fourth in McCrary, and several more DBs still being sought after (paging Frank Buncom IV, paging Frank Buncom IV). How many of them will contribute immediately will sort itself out, but like with the defensive line -- more on that next week -- there's going to be bodies back in play.
At the very least, it's not as likely we'll be trotting walk-on receivers back there again in 2015.
As far as the size and athleticism thing goes, here's a little data for you to illustrate the point:
Average height and weight:
Cal cornerbacks (8)
71 inches (5'11), 181 pounds
Cal safeties (9)
71.55 inches (5'11.5), 195 pounds
Cal 2015 DB recruits (5)
73.4 inches (6'1.4), 189.6 pounds
Now, even after acknowledging the fact that recruiting measurements should be taken with a grain of salt (they are so often falsified or out of date by the time the recruits get to campus -- all data taken from Rivals' database and the Cal roster), it's clear that the emphasis is on getting bigger in the back four. We've fallen behind in the arms race against offenses the last few seasons.
This, friends, is catch-up ball.
I am not a professional talent evaluator.
II. In which we examine Derron Brown, the JUCO safety
With Avery Sebastian gone to transfer, Michael Lowe to graduation, and both Griffin Piatt and Quentin Tartabull suffering ACL tears that could hamper them a while (it's a two year injury, remember), the safety situation is, again, as it has been for years: far, far, less than ideal.
The only thing we can count on (thus far) is the return of Stefan McClure, who'll likely anchor one of the two spots. The other could belong to Derron Brown, who, as a JUCO player, has more experience than anyone else coming in.
Let's take a look:
- 0:00 -- Mesa looks to me like it's in Cover-1 Robber, a play made possible due to the DC's great job scouting -- Brown looks like he's expecting the #1 receiver to run a dig the entire way, then he simply turns toward the QB to watch the ball thrown into his hands.
- The next three plays are also interceptions by Brown, all of which come from tracking the ball in the air, then making a play on it. It's helped a lot by some pretty inadequate throwing by the QBs -- each is underthrown -- but offering even a glimpse of this skill is be great, since we haven't had a ton of DBs turning their heads...although we'd probably get flagged for that.
- 0:56 -- Offense brings man in motion, which is his assignment, so Brown follows. When the handoff doesn't go to the jet sweep motion, he's fast enough to look back the other way toward the running back, chases him from an interesting angle (best way I can explain it is that he's attacking the ballcarrier by running right at him, rather than adjusting -- it's a quick calculation that he's fast enough not to get beat), then forces the fumble. Diagnosis. Change of direction. Valuable safety traits on film.
- 2:36 -- Brown is really active with his hands. Notice how he's already given up the catch, but he manages to put his hand in there and break it up anyway? He does that a few times on the film. Very competitive through the catch, which is a good quality you wanna see.
- 2:44 -- Impresses me because the offense runs a concept designed to get the secondary mixed up -- I believe it's called scissors, with a corner and a post being run -- but Brown isn't fooled at all. He switches off the receiver to pick up the post and is in good position to compete on this throw. In a lot of plays here, he's being disciplined and doing what he's expected to, whether that's sticking with his man on the option pitch, prepared against fake 2 point conversions, or whatever. Eyes aren't glued into the backfield or in the wrong places.
- Given the way that he hits and pursues in the middle of the field, I'd expect him to get some look at the strong safety position when he gets here in January, and he could (should?) be up to around 200 by the time the season starts. Mesa lets him play free, mostly, so there's not a ton of tape on him coming up in run support or fighting off blockers, but starting from about 3 minutes on, there's a couple of clips that show Brown being brought closer to the line of scrimmage. He didn't look that bad doing it, and with more strength and a few more pounds, he looks like he might be able to handle himself.
- Cal Rivals has noted he has three to play three. Oh, and that whole, we're trying to get faster thing? He runs a hand timed 4.4.
- All in all, I would expect him to be a contributor this year -- not necessarily all Pac-12 difference maker or anything like that just yet, but he should find his way into the mix.
III. In which we take a look at Evan Rambo
- Like I said up top, one of the things you want to see with anyone who is going to anchor the back of your defense is intelligence and discipline. Watch Rambo smartly make sure the ball carrier can't get around him on the second play of this film -- he knows he's the edge player and stays on the outside, meaning that the back has to either cut back into on-coming defenders, or eventually stretch it to the sideline. Little things like that show up consistently when he's tasked to come up in run support.
- He's a much more demonstratively physical player than Brown on highlight reels, although that might be a function of the roles each is respectively asked to play. Rambo has a lot more plays where he's up on a receiver or close to the line of scrimmage, for example, so we get a better sense for him fighting off blocks, whereas Brown's mostly in coverage situations.
- 1:05 -- Good break on the ball to blow up the pass. He follows it up on the next play by identifying the go/flat combination, then getting in there to drop the receiver before he gets much farther. The offense is trying to get that receiver some more space by hoping Rambo follows the go route up field, but he reads it correctly to hold for a short gain. A few plays later, he's switching off and breaking up a post-wheel concept, too. All those things tell me he knows where he's supposed to be and how to play coverage in a team setting.
- 1:32 -- Also good controlled pursuit from sideline to sideline.
- Not giving too much credit for the interception at 3:05. That's a bad ball that probably needs to be out more toward the sideline, away from the safety.
- Rambo does a lot of things pretty well, and he's the tallest DB we're bringing in so far, with some noticeably long arms on tape. Great thing to have on hand, since wingspan can make up for height and speed a little. I don't have a prediction for what happens to him in the 2015 season yet -- and I have even less of one for Billy McCrary, who we'll talk about in just a second -- but there's a lot of little skills to like, some versatility having played both corner and safety, and a solid athleticism. Would love to see how his tape athleticism translates in our practices, but alas...
IV. In which we look at Billy McCrary, the athlete
First, a word: it's possible that we are looking at McCrary to play receiver, so it wouldn't surprise me if he ends up there, but the information that I'm told (for once, it is I with SOURCES!) is that they want him at safety first.
That being said, assuming that he's in the defensive backfield as a freshman, he's a little tough to gauge, you guys. I have tremendous respect for him as athlete and a match-up problem -- his 40 time is a legitimate, laser-timed 4.3 from a camp earlier this year -- but because he played offense in high school, there isn't enough to tell what he can do as an actual safety.
There've been players I've scouted in the past on tape who didn't play the position they eventually would in college -- Quentin Tartabull was a linebacker for Alemany, for example, and I favored Hamilton A'noai as a receiver more than linebacker. McCrary's problem is compounded, though, by the fact that he doesn't play that side of the ball whatsoever, meaning it's hard to find scout out some translatable skills.
That being said, if you watch the tape for a sense of his general movement, then you can easily see him playing somewhere, period.
You don't need all 12 minutes to know, really. After the first couple times he's running away from defenders, you can already tell that that speed is undeniable. It's there when he's getting to the edge, and then turning corner before everyone else. It's there when he's wiping out angles that look good from pursuing defenders. It's there when teams are overrunning themselves to try to pin him down, only for him to cut back the other way.
And he's doing it all with balance and power, whenever it is that teams are actually managing to touch him. (I'll whisper it in hushed tones, because you know the coaches are probably thinking about it too. Special packages?)
While I don't know if he's ready to contribute this season -- there's nothing that indicates his knowledge of defensive coverage shells, etc -- I am absolutely tickled to death by thoughts of what this guy might be able to do, especially at close to 200 pounds already. If Burns coaches him up well, that's a middle of the field patroller we haven't had in quite some time. The range! The speed! Augh. And if he plays offense...whew. Watch out.
Needless to say, I have real high freaking hopes for Billy McCrary, guys. To me, he's got the highest ceiling of anyone in the class not named Lonny Powell. That's right, I said it.