2014 Season Defense Recap (or maybe it's better not to have one....)
Do you remember that putrid Cal football defense last season? If you do, try to get that continual stank out of your head. If you don't, good for you - like every other Cal defensive unit under Sonny Dykes, last year's was a disaster. Our guys are one year older now, so we've got to assume they're one year bigger, faster, stronger, and smarter. At least, we can only hope...
In 2014, our D had an average of 39.8 points per game scored on us (that was 123rd in the country, which is waaaay down there). It didn't matter that QB Jared Goff led our offense to the 11th-best overall mark in the country. When our defense is literally the polar inverse of our high-powered attack, we're not going to be successful. You can only engage in so many shoot-outs in a season before your luck runs out.
The Golden Bears defense had a major depth problem the last two seasons under Dykes. Guys were already young to start with. Then they got injured. This ultimately led to a lot of guys then playing out of position or with literally no experience at all and getting minutes well before they were ready for the prime time. None of that is good for us.
But let's forget about the past. Rather than dwell on the endless sad defensive storylines, let's get hopeful for 2015!
The Big Uglies Up Front
With a 4-3 defense, second-year defensive coordinator Art Kaufman is looking to establish a strong front that can get at opposing team's QBs and plug-up the run. On the sides, DEs seniors Kyle Kragen and Puka Lopa will be charged with attacking from both ends. In the middle, DTs seniors Mustafa Jalil and James Looney will get the starting nods. Jalil led this group with 35 tackles (14 solo, 21 assisted) and 1.5 sacks last season
Notice our senior-laden D-line? That's a big deal, a really big deal. This is what Dykes & Co. have been biding their time for all these years - waiting for "their" guys to finally be experienced. Just as the O-line is indispensable for an offense to be efficient, the D-line needs to be dependable and follow their assignments up front - this allows our backs to not have to cover-up for mistakes and miss their own assignments.
Linebackers (aka The Enforcers)
Just as our D-line will finally have experience, so will our linebacker corps. Junior MLB Hardy Nickerson (defensive captain) will anchor the entire unit and call the shots from scrimmage. On the strong side, junior Jake Kearney returns from a successful campaign last season. Opposite him, junior WLB Michael Barton also returns with hopes of improving upon a breakout year. Between these three guys, they created 189 tackles (47% of which were solo) last season.
Defensive Backs (please stop hibernating....)
The unit that thoroughly embarrassed Cal last season should see improvements this go-around. Significant improvements? Probably not - these are still the same guys, after all.
On the corners, junior Cedric Dozier and senior Darius White, Jr. will try to capitalize on their added experience and significant game times last year. According to Dykes, White Jr. had great spring practices. Dykes and Kaufman went out to the JuCo ranks and nabbed local guys Antoine Albert from Diablo Valley College (Pleasant Hill) and Khari Vanderbilt (San Jose CC) to back-up our returners and provide more depth.
In the safety slots, star senior FS Stefan McClure is in search of a big season and (hopefully) make nice impressions for NFL scouts. On the strong side, junior SS Griffin Piatt comes back from a big 2014 campaign. Both guys are coming off injuries, though, so we'll have to hold our breath for their success.
What's interesting in this unit is the new addition intended to provide depth for Piatt - former jack-of-all-trades Luke Rubenzer. The star sophomore is quickly making a name for himself in Cal football lore. The dude just wants to get on the field any way he can. So, given that our QB position is pretty nicely locked-up (Goff is golden, Chase Forrest is emerging strong as our #2), Rubenzer is going to try his hand on the defensive side of the ball. He's been taking significant snaps at SS and Dykes sounds pretty intent to see how he'll do. Dude's a true baller - bandana and all.
Expect lots and lots of speed and highlights from our special teams unit. Senior Trevor Davis is blazin' with the rock in his hands. Remember all those highlights against the Cougars last year? That's undeniable talent and vision - one year later, it should be that much better. He'll be taking both kickoff and punt returns.
Davis' backups aren't shabby at all. Junior Khalfani Muhammad is former California state high school sprinting champ. Senior Bryce Treggs is... well, Bryce Treggs. He epitomizes "student-athlete" and Cal football. I still can't believe we get him for another year; he would've gotten a job in the League had he elected to go. With these three studs leading our special teams returns, expect Goff to start with great field position all season long.
Senior punter Cole Leninger returns for his last go-around. In 2014, Leninger punted 52 times for a total of 2,072 yards (39.8 yards per punt average - not that great compared to other FBS punters). He was utilized about 4.3 times per game (and amassed 172.7 punting yards per game). Like the successful punter before him (the great Bryan Anger), Leninger is building a pretty nice Cal career. Given our sub-par defense, the pressure will be on Leninger to pin opposing offenses as far back as possible.
Kicker James Langford was alright - nothing special or memorable. His 32.5% touchback percentage on kickoffs didn't often give opponents chances to return back down the field. Langford's 64.7% field goal percentage was thoroughly underwhelming, even downright disappointing at times when we needed him to come through in the clutch.
This season, junior kicker Noah Beito will be a fresh face to Cal fans - he's the projected kicker right now. He had one kickoff back in 2012 and two punts in 2013, but hasn't seen any action since then. Given the expected offensive explosions coming up this season, Beito (or whoever else secures the kicker spot) probably won't see a lot of field goal chances.
Given our team's amazing offense, our defense will probably not need to show-up every single game. But, championships and such are won by strong defensive units. Given all the preseason storylines, it appears our coaches are confident in our defense. Whether it's false bravado or the truth, at this point, we've gotta believe. For Sonny Dykes', Art Kaufman's, and Jared Goff's sakes, we need a real defense to show up this season.
Will our older, more experienced guys come through when it matters most next season? Will our JuCo talent provide the depth we haven't had in years? How do you think our defense will fare in 2015?