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Cal football linebackers preview: Stay healthy, my friends

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There will be plenty of new faces in the linebacking corps this year. Who will step up?

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Cal's linebacking corps has been slowly leaking bodies since the end of last season. Jalen Jefferson graduated, Nathan Broussard decided not to pursue a sixth year of eligibility, and Michael Barton announced his plans to join Arizona as a grad transfer. With our returning depth already looking thin, Jake Kearney said he would medically retire after struggling to return from a back injury. Then came the kicker. Hardy Nickerson decided to spend his final year of eligibility at Illinois, where his father was recently named defensive coordinator.

So where does that leave the Bears? Without giving too much away, the answer is very, very thin at linebacker. Like, if you see Devante Downs on campus, try not to sneeze on him just to be safe kind of thin. Not to mention that's just common courtesy.

Look for Coach Kaufman—who recently added the LBs to his charge—to compensate for roster limitations with scheme. Cal already plays quite a bit of nickel and single-linebacker defense, and will likely do so even more this season to take the load off the LBs. Having an experienced guy like Cameron Walker at nickelback will go a long way there. Beyond that, staying healthy will be key until the younger guys get up to speed.

WILL

Raymond Davison, as one of two major contributors returning this season, gets the nod on the weak side. He didn't start last year, but did appear in 12 games and recorded 23.5 tackles, the most of any returning LB. Behind him and coming up fast is Derron Brown, who has impressed since moving over from safety in March. Sonny had glowing words for Brown's skill and athleticism as an edge rusher in spring practice, which would be a huge upgrade after Cal's LBs posted one of the worst havoc rates in FBS last season. With the sudden influx of live bodies in the secondary, moving Brown up seems like a no-brainer to build some depth.

Third on the July depth chart is Nevada transfer Kaodi Dike. He sat out last season, but has four starts under his belt after two seasons with the Wolfpack. Listed fourth at Will is true freshman Cameron Goode.

MIKE

Goodbye, Hardy Nickerson and your team-leading 82 tackles. Next man up, Devante Downs. The junior contributed 21 tackles and two picks nine games last year before going down with a knee injury, but is on the mend and in line to claim the starting job. Behind Downs is Hamilton Anoa'i, who recorded five tackles in seven games last year. Anoa'i is still recovering from knee surgery and did not practice this spring.

Experienced depth beyond him is virtually nonexistent, coming in the form of redshirt sophomores David Ortega Jr. and Drew Bryant. That's not such a big deal if the Bears consistently field just two LBs, but if Downs goes down (sorry), it could be trouble.

SAM

Aisea Tongilava, a former three-star LB from Garden Grove, is the top guy here based on the spring depth chart. He saw playing time in eight games (one start) in 2014 and made a strong push last spring, but sat out all year with an injury. He may not have much game experience, but seemed to be trending the right way before getting hurt. He only returned to the field recently, but should be ready to contribute come fall.

Tongilava will be backed up by JuCo transfer Jordan Kunaszyk, should be ready contribute immediately if needed. After him are redshirt freshman Harrison Mayo and sophomore Joe Castignani.