This is a position that didn't see too much turnover this offseason. Aside from the early departure of Kameron Jackson, almost everyone is back. The big question is whether they will be vastly different players from the defenseless monstrosity we saw out there last season, and what combination we'll see them in.
Likely starter: Cameron Walker. The true freshman earned playing time in his first season at safety once Avery Sebastian went down. Being tremendously undersized at free safety, he obviously struggled (how many true freshman come out and dominate at the safety position in college?), but he played as well as he could given the circumstances everywhere else on the defense. A move back to corner should help him out tremendously. Pencil him in at one spot.
Other starter: Well. Take your pick. Randy Stewart sure went through everyone last season to put alongside Jackson, from pushing poor Isaac Lapite out into man-to-man coverage for at least two to three games, then trying out Adrian Lee, then some Joel Willis, added in with a bit of Cedric Dozier, then cycling back through all those names again ... you get the picture. It was a bit disconcerting to see all these changes happen, and then see yet another 70 yard touchdown with six missed tackles happen because the cornerback at his spot couldn't press his man or hold his edge...
Expect one of the true redshirt freshmen to step up and at least be in the conversation for a starting role this year. Both Trey Cheek and Darius Allensworth had injuries that forced him to sit out parts of last season, but they figure to be talented enough to start now that they're fully healthy.
Dozier and Lee probably have the best shots among last year's motley bunch to grow into a starting role. Lapite was overwhelmed most of the time; Willis had the speed but lacked coverage skills in part because he has switched around most of his career. Dozier is a bit rawer but probably has a bit more upside; Lee had good moments but also got whipped a few too many times. Look for Cheek and Allensworth to try and crack the rotation and give the Bears some solid cornerback depth for the next few seasons.
And let's not forget that Cal is getting a gem in junior college cornerback in Darius White, who could surpassing all of these names once he arrives in the summer. Definitely a lot to feel good about at cornerback despite the disasters of last season. We don't know which two or three will see the field, but the odds are high that things will be better.
The real danger on the backline lies at safety, the same as it has for the last decade...
The earth revolves around the sun, human history lasts 14 minutes in our calendar of the universe, and Cal starts spring ball with practically no safety depth on their roster. That was my pitch for the opening line of Cosmos. You like it?
Likely starters: Michael Lowe and Avery Sebastian. If Sebastian is healthy (and all indications are that he's ready to return from injury), he will play here. If he is not, I imagine McClure will slot in and try and give it a go (although I'm not sure how ready he'll be for spring camp). But it was clear that Cal was going to struggle without Sebastian manning the backline, and they need him on that field next year. For all his problems in the passing game, he was a terror against the run, and would have cleaned up a lot of tackling issues himself. Lowe has always been pretty solid, if largely unspectacular. No reason to expect that will change now.
Backups: If health continues to be an issue for Sebastian and McClure, things get really dire really quick. Damariay Drew is the only other safety who saw significant playing time last season. He had some decent tackles, but like Walker just needed more time to develop physically and against the pass. Maximo Espitia does have a safety's build, but he has yet to make any meaningful contributions outside of special teams. It should also be noted that he was a mid-season switch from inside receiver.
After those two, though, nothing but walk-ons. Safety recruiting has been bad the last three seasons (despite some deep California safety recruiting classes in previous years), and Cal will pay the price with no depth at all for yet another season. Sam Atoe will come in this fall and could make the two deep almost by default.
Greg Burns is being given little wiggle room with which to try and improve secondary play. He'll have plenty of depth at cornerback, so it's possible he'll try and shuffle some of the talent to safety to try and find some answers this spring.