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Cal spring football preview: Linebackers? We still have those?

Just a few it seems.

Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports


Departing: Khairi Fortt (NFL draft), Johnny Ragin III (transfer), Nick Forbes (medical retirement), Lucas King (early graduation), Chad Whitener (probably?)
Remaining: Jalen Jefferson, Michael Barton, Hardy Nickerson
Newcomers: Devante Downs (if healthy), Ray Davison (redshirt; moving to LB), Edward Tandy (partial playing time last year on ST), Jason Gibson (back from safety), Nathan Broussard (back from injury. One can only hope.)

Hey everyone, look! Only three linebackers with any sort of experience to stack up our depth chart! Remember when this position group was supposed to be the deepest on the roster? Those were better days, weren't they?

So this unit last year was, in a word, not very good. Not quite as disastrous as the pass rush and not nearly as bad as the secondary, but certainly not good. We knew that this was possible when Forbes went down. We knew it was even more possible when the injuries on the units in front of them and behind them piled up.

Then it just got ugly. The Bears were already in the middle of a switch to the 4-3, and had no real options behind Forbes...but knowing those two things, were unable to make any effective shifts or adaptations to that situation. (Thanks Andy Buh!).

If the three starters stay healthy this year, they will almost certainly be better. Jefferson has become a solid player and figures to be perfectly capable in the Sam. Nickerson struggled most of the year as a starter and definitely wasn't ready for full time Mike duty last season. But with Forbes out, he had no choice but to step up, and he did have at least a couple of promising games -- UCLA and Arizona come to mind. The key for him will be how much faster he gets, both in the mental and the physical aspect of the game. Teams knew to exploit Nickerson in space last year, and it wasn't like Buh could counter by taking him off the field in a 4-2-5. We didn't have enough defensive backs.
Barton had his own troubles, but seems to be the Will by default for now, unless we end up moving a defensive end back. Hopefully some depth can be found here soon.

The key to this defense will be finding a capable Mike linebacker who can identify and make the correct tackles and a Will linebacker who can get pressure on the passer. With no Forbes, I imagine it will be Nickerson again taking control of this situation.

The name that I wish could be called upon is the very athletic Devante Downs, but it's unclear how far back he is from ACL surgery. I'd be surprised if he did any actual contact play this spring.

So if we're looking for backups, we have our choice of Broussard (who has never enjoyed clean health, but was slated to start last year), Gibson (who spent a year playing as a backup safety), Davison (a converted defensive end) and Tandy (who has played more Cal rugby than football). Not too encouraging, knowing that one injury to our starting three will force us to rely on one of them for starting rotation time. Moreover, it's difficult to figure out where to slot any of them outside of Broussard. There are concerns about conditioning so that all the players put on enough weight and produce as solid linebacking options.

Help will come on the way in the fall, where Chandler Leniu will probably be plugged in as the next in line at the Mike. We'll also probably hear one of Hamilton Anoa'i, John Porchivina and Aisea Tongilava called up during the season if we absolutely need any sort of depth.

But none of these guys are here this spring. What we do have instead is a bit of an uncertain mess. Thankfully we'll have a few months to try and find some backups behind our primary three.

Art Kaufman and Garret Chachere certainly have their work cut out for them.