Avinash Kunnath: The secondary was.... what's a nice word to say "a total disaster in every way"?
boomtho: This is a great test of one of my New Year's resolutions to be more positive! I think the secondary worked their asses off this year. In a pretty loaded conference at WR (thankfully they didn't have to play against OUR WR's!), they brought the effort week in and week out to tackle really talented guys like Agholor, Spruce, Mayle, and the Arizona corps of giant WR's. Our secondary was also certainly not big by any standards, making their jobs even tougher.
They were put in a bad spot by a number of factors. The D Line generated basically no pressure all year, forcing the secondary to cover longer than they should have. Kaufman, as a result, kept the scheme pretty vanilla (especially against the LA schools' barrage of swing passes and screens). This helped players in front of us* but really put the onus on the LB's and secondary to tackle consistently... which was a bit of an adventure.
*until they ran right by us
The squad was also hit with injuries, forcing guys into action either earlier or more often than we would have liked (I'm blanking on the specifics, it may be a case of PTSD. Stay tuned).
And, despite all that, I really think they continued to play hard all year. They gained a valuable year of experience under a competent DC (buh-urn) and we get a lot of them back, along with a fresh, talented group of recruits, to improve next year. I expect to see a big improvement in this unit next year, partially driven by greater DL effectiveness (hopefully!) and partially driven by their maturity and growth. Losing Avery Sebastian hurts, but I have high hopes for next year.
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Leland Wong: The secondary definitely struggled in 2014, allowing an insane 367.2 passing yards per game. Boomtho is a wise and beautiful scholar and I do agree that the secondary does not take all of the blame for this historic facepalm; football is a team sport and the lack of a pass rush (and even our own offense scoring like mad) also contributed. Still, we all witnessed a season of subpar performances from our defensive backs. The secondary struggled to defend (game-winning) Hail Marys, short and quick screens and passes to the flat, and everything in between.
The golden lining is that the players are developing. Though it was still a bit of a car wreck, our defensive backs did improve in their coverage and tackling. I'm sure that physical maturation and experience have contributed to this improvement, but I think there's more to it than that. I believe improvements in coaching by DB coach Greg Burns and DC Art Kaufman's system played a big role in our improvements.
Our coaches were able to prep and train non–defensive backs who were thrust into service and get them to become solid contributors, if not playmakers. Patrick Worstell and Bryce McGovern were forced to play safety late in the season due to injury and both played admirably. McGovern in particular stood out to me as always being around the ball and making tackles, thanks to Kaufman's schemes and Burns's coaching. Though these two were solid, they were unspectacular. If you want to talk about a playmaking receiver-turned-DB, look no further than Griffin Piatt.
Piatt had a breakout season and was quickly turning into a fan favorite and making midseason All-Pac-12 lists before a season-ending injury in Game 6. Piatt emerged thanks to a ridiculous start to his career, making three interceptions in the first three games of the season, which were each marked by superb play by Piatt to outsmart the offense and cut off the pass. Again, while I'm sure Piatt has natural athleticism and instincts that lead to his success, I'd also bet that solid coaching has benefited him and this coaching leaves me optimistic about our future.
Sam Fielder: Good news: The defensive backs weren't as bad as they were in 2013. Bad News: The defensive backs were still pretty bad. As Leland has already said, they did improve and they are developing, so yes, that is indeed a golden lining for sure. But any time you give the up the most passing yards ever in a game, it isn't like you can hang your hat on "improving". But we've loaded up again on recruits to bolster the secondary, there's no way the pass rush will be quite as non-existent as it was in 2014 ( or did we say that in 2013?), and we should get some key players back from injury. Add another year of coaching and seasoning and hopefully things will continue the upward trajectory that we saw in 2014.
Avinash Kunnath: The big issue with the secondary is a confluence of factors.
Speed: Cornerbacks don't have the foot speed or coverage skills to be trusted in man responsibilities, which forces us to play almost entirely zone. If we could play more man that would allow us to play more versatile packages and disrupt timing a bit better, but we're too afraid that when we play close up, fast Pac-12 receivers will get past us and burn us alive. Add in the huge factor of having no pass rush at all, and that's just going to be a recipe for disaster.
Inexperience: And it's not like zone really helped us either, as we gave up a bunch of points because our safeties made the wrong reads. Stefan McClure and Michael Lowe have plenty of experience, but Lowe has always had his issues reading in coverage and McClure was playing an entirely new position. Griffin Piatt and Bryce McGovern got inserted into the rotation at points, did their job, but they had no chance of playing the ball without getting burned. And the cornerbacks were pretty much an entirely new crop that needed a lot of seasoning.
Depth: Even with all our great recruiting classes and Cal never could seem to find more than one or two safeties a year that could stay healthy, and the last two years it's all come to a head. The number of walk-ons (some who were originally brought here to play defense) we had to play in the secondary last season boggled the mind. Against slower teams they had a chance to be effective, but once we hit the shred and spread squads we got torn up. If recruiting is any indicator, it seems like Kaufman and Burns want a bunch of new players.
They aren't a lost cause. The secondary showcased much better ball skills. They made some important interceptions. And their run support was mostly excellent--I don't recall too many huge mistakes we made on our backline, we generally kept most running backs at bay. But we need aerial shutdown too.