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Cal defensive backs preview: Can the young Bears take a leap forward?

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Better depth and an intake of young talent give the Bears hope that the defensive backfield's production can improve greatly this season. Who has emerged from fall camp as the top candidates for playing time?

Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

The Cal offense was loaded last season, but it was not enough to propel the team to a bowl game. The offense is expected to be great once again this season, but it cannot do everything on its own. As important as Jared Goff and the rest of the offensive stars are to the success of the team, a large portion of the Bears success will rest on the shoulders of the defensive backfield.

The numbers during the past few seasons have been scary as it pertains to the pass defense. The Bears have finished 104th, 128th and 125th in opposition passing yards during the last three seasons. If the Bears want to move up the conference pecking order and play in a bowl game then these numbers have to rapidly improve.

There was quite a bit of mixing and matching in the secondary during fall camp, but the picture started to take shape as camp went along. For the first time in quite a while, the Bears actually have depth in the defensive backfield. A lot of players who would have seen a ton of time if they were here during the past three seasons will only see limited time due to the abundance of capable players.

Who will the Bears rely on to slow down the high octane passing attacks of the Pac-12?

Cornerbacks

Darius White (SR) and Darius Allensworth (SO) appear set as the starting cornerbacks. They took a ton of first team reps together during fall camp. Likely to join them at CB when the Bears are in a nickel set is Caleb Coleman (SO). Coleman had an interception during the first team scrimmage of fall camp and it set the tone for his play throughout the rest of the camp.

After the top three, the depth chart is a bit murkier since the second and third team reps were split fluidly throughout camp.

After the second practice, Sonny Dykes said that he expects the freshman and transfer defensive backs from this past recruiting class to all see playing time this season. With that in mind, you can expect to see Antoine Albert (JR), Malik Psalms (FR) and Jaylinn Hawkins (FR) to all get reps at cornerback at some point this season. Hawkins had an interception during the fifth practice and made pass breakups throughout camp. It is going to be fun to watch his game develop over the next few years.

Though the new blood is making a strong case to earn playing time this season, the veterans who played last season won't easily relinquish their positions. Cedric Dozier (JR) and Cameron Walker (JR) will also be in the hunt for playing time. Walker saw the majority of his reps come as a nickel cornerback.

On to the position group which has arguably caused more problems for the Bears than any other during the Sonny Dykes era: safety.

With last season's starting safeties out with injuries to begin camp, the majority of the first team reps went to former quarterback Luke Rubenzer (SO) and Damariay Drew (JR). Drew was consistently making plays throughout camp until an illness kept him out for a few days. Rubenzer appears set to receive quite a bit of time at safety if camp is any indication. He received first, second and third team reps as Dykes wanted to give him as many reps as possible since he is acclimating to a new position.

Stefan McClure (SR) returned to practice and is ready to go for the opener against Grambling State, though Dykes noted he has been rusty since returning. His starting safety partner from last season, Griffin Piatt (JR), was still wearing a red shirt during the final practice, meaning I would be surprised if either of them are starting against Grambling State.

Vying for playing time behind Rubenzer, Drew, Piatt and McClure are Trey Turner (FR), Derron Brown (SO), Khari Vanderbilt (JR) and Evan Rambo (FR). Reports from camp have indicated that the defensive backs have been very competitive against the explosive Cal offense, which is a very encouraging sign that perhaps the defense has taken a step forward this season.

My biggest concern is the amount of reps Rubenzer has received. Dykes said Rubenzer is competitive and willing to contribute to run support, but he still is not smooth as far as the technical aspects of the position. We can probably get away with this against Grambling State, but I would rather see a natural safety, like Vanderbilt, take the field against better opposition until Piatt returns from injury.

All in all, the Bears have a ton more depth this season than we are accustomed to having in the secondary. We should see improvement. How much? Only time will tell.

How do you all feel about the state of the secondary entering the season?