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Cal Football Spring Practice Preview: The Defense

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Can the defense improve enough to keep the pressure off of a young Cal offense this season?

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

The Cal defense improved from 2014-15 to 2015-16, but further improvement is necessary in order to have a decent 2016-17 considering the youth on the offensive side of the ball. The defense had a good start to the season, particularly in forcing turnovers, but struggled a bit more as the schedule became tougher.

Here is where the Golden Bears defense ranked nationally during the previous campaign.

Total Defense: 108th, 453.7 YPG and 6.10 yards per play against

3rd Down Conversion Defense: 97th. Opponents converted 83 of 193 attempts against the defense for a .430 percentage.

Red Zone Defense: 122nd, opponents scored a touchdown on 32 of 52 possessions while adding a field goal on a further 16. Opponents scored on 48 of 52 attempts for a .923 percentage.

Passing Defense: 91st, 243.9 YPG, 7.89 yards per attempt, 13.27 yards per completion.

Passing Efficiency Defense: 88th, 135.49 opponent passing efficiency.

Rushing Defense: 105th, 209.8 YPG, 4.83 yards per rush.

Scoring Defense: 89th, 30.7 PPG.

Turnovers Forced: 13th with 27 turnovers forced.

The only notable defensive coaching changes are that Garret Chachere has shifted from linebackers coach to running backs coach, while defensive coordinator Art Kaufman fills the linebackers coaching void.

Now let's take a look at the Cal defense by position heading into Spring practice.

Note: Incoming freshmen who will not be participating in Spring practice will not be included in the position by position breakdown.

Cornerback

Notable Departures: Darius White (13 GP, 13 GS), Joel Willis (9 GP, 0 GS) and Cedric Dozier (11 GP, 0 GS).

Notable Returnees: Darius Allensworth (13 GP, 13 GS), Cameron Walker (13 GP, 11 GS), Trey Turner (13 GP, 0 GS), Antoine Albert (8 GP, 0 GS), Caleb Coleman (6 GP, 0 GS),

Darius Allensworth returns for his senior season and figures to be the number one cornerback for the Bears when they take on Hawaii to open the season.

His cornerback partner from last season, Darius White, is gone now, but players like Antoine Albert, De'Zhon Grace and Malik Psalms will look to fill that void and take over as a starter this season.

The nickel cornerback position returns mostly intact with Cameron Walker, Caleb Coleman and Trey Turner all returning to contribute once again this season.

Allensworth, Turner and Walker each intercepted one pass last season.

Safety

Notable Departures: Stefan McClure (13 GP, 13 GS)

Notable Returnees: Damariay Drew (11 GP, 11 GS), Khari Vanderbilt (11 GP, 0 GS), Evan Rambo (11 GP, 0 GS), Griffin Piatt (7 GP, 1 GS).

Damariay Drew returns as the presumptive starter at free safety, but the strong safety position is up for grabs now that Stefan McClure has graduated.

If Piatt can stay healthy then I would imagine he would have a great shot at earning the nod and starting next to Drew when the Bears take on Hawaii.

The Cal defense looked a lot better last year when Drew was on the field. A few times in-game he left the field due to injury and each time the defense was worse off without him. He is hugely important to the success of the defense.

A potential safety duo of Drew and Piatt has promise if the latter can replicate the fast start to his sophomore campaign from a couple of years ago.

Keep an eye on Rambo and Vanderbilt as they will be competing hard for a starting gig as well. Luke Rubenzer could enter the fray if he does not win the quarterback competition as he saw playing time in 12 of Cal's 13 games last season and contributed two interceptions.

Linebacker

Notable Departures: Jalen Jefferson (11 GP, 11 GS), Michael Barton (9 GP, 0 GS), Jake Kearney (10 GP, 1 GS), Nate Broussard (13 GP, 1 GS)

Notable Returnees: Hardy Nickerson (13 GP, 13 GS), Raymond Davison (12 GP, 0 GS), Devante Downs (9 GP, 1 GS), Derron Brown (9 GP, 0 GS), Hamilton Anoa'i (7 GP, 0 GS)

The lack of incoming linebackers in the 2016 recruiting class has been a hot topic of discussion on CGB for a while now and it is a legitimate concern. If Nickerson or Downs -- the favorites for the two starting positions, assuming Cal plays mostly nickel defense -- were to go down for any extended period of time then the linebacker corps would be extremely thin and inexperienced.

As long as they stay healthy this season then the Bears will be fine at linebacker in my opinion. Downs is a player that I am really excited about seeing take an increased role in the defense as he contributed two interceptions and returned one for a touchdown despite starting just one game.

Defensive Line

Notable Departures: Kyle Kragen (13 GP, 13 GS, 7 SCK, 8 TFL),  Mustafa Jalil (11 GP, 7 GS), Todd Barr (13 GP, 0 GS), Trevor Kelly (12 GP, 0 GS), David Davis (13 GP, 1 GS), Puka Lopa (8 GP, 0 GS)

Notable Returnees: James Looney (12 GP, 11 GS), DeVante Wilson (11 GP, 8 GS), Tony Mekari (12 GP, 6 GS), Cameron Saffle (8 GP, 0 GS), Marcus Manley (13 GP, 1 GS), Noah Westerfield (4 GP, 0 GS)

The Bears are losing 21 starts on the defensive line with Kragen being the biggest loss of the bunch. Kragen contributed seven sacks, while Todd Barr added four. No returning Bear tallied more than two sacks last season.

Since Kragen and Barr contributed the most sacks on the team last season, let's start with defensive end and how it looks heading into Spring practice.

Wilson started eight of the eleven games he played in last season while contributing one sack and 2.5 tackles for a loss. Wilson is likely the favorite to earn one of the starting defensive end spots. The other spot is extremely wide open as Saffle, Westerfield and redshirt freshman Zeandae Johnson and Trevor Howard look to secure the starting gig.

The interior of the defensive line returns more of its cogs from last season than defensive end does. James Looney started eleven of 12 games he played in and contributed 35 tackles, one sack and three tackles for a loss. He will likely start at one of the two defensive tackle spots alongside one of Mekari or Manley.

A couple of newcomers to look out for at defensive tackle are Rusty Becker, a junior college commit from the 2016 class, and Russell Ude, perhaps the most highly touted recruit from the Bears' 2015 recruiting class.

Which position group are you most confident in? Which one worries you the most heading into Spring practice? Post your thoughts in the comments below!