As the football season slowly (so...very...slowly) approaches, our unit previews roll on. This time around we'll discuss the defensive line, under the guidance of third-year Cal coach Fred Tate. The unit, though nowhere near as thin as the linebacking corps, will have to contend with the departure of six major contributors from last season.
Headlining the list of guys that will be missed is DE Kyle Kragen, who signed with the Denver Broncos after being Cal's only defensive lineman to start all 13 games last season. Also gone are defensive ends Jonathan Johnson, Todd Barr, and Puka Lopa, as well as defensive tackles Mustafa Jalil and Trevor Kelly.
The good news is that last year's constant shuffling of the defensive line, as frustrating as the results may have been at the time, leaves the Bears with a solid base of experienced players. And coming up from behind is a collection of younger guys who should give Cal fans reason for hope.
There's plenty of room for improvement; the defense was one of college football's worst against the run in 2015, ranking 107th in rushing yards allowed and 94th in yards per attempt. With the Bears set to face six running backs who had 1,000-yard seasons in 2015, this unit will have to jell quickly. So who should we expect to see fronting the defense this fall?
Based on the most recent depth chart, the starters on the outside will be JR Noah Westerfield and SR DeVante Wilson. Westerfield, who started five games in place of the injured Brennan Scarlett as a freshman, disappeared from radar for most of last season. Though he played in just four games last season, he appears to have earned his spot back and could be the guy to re-energize the Bears' dormant pass rush. Wilson, meanwhile, was one of Cal's consistent contributors in 2015. He started eight games last season after transferring from Riverside CC, and has earned a firm grip on the starting spot.
Not far behind is Cameron Saffle, who made his way into eight games as a true freshman. Westerfield's improvement in the offseason will likely deny him a starting job for now, but Sonny likes the young DE quite a bit. That's the end of the experienced depth, though, as the rest of the depth chart is made up of new faces. Russell Ude, Zeandae Johnson, and Trevor Howard all shed their redshirts and will prepare to play, while true freshmen Evan Weaver and Chinedu Udeogu have a chance to climb the depth chart. Six Cal DEs saw the field last season, so a couple of these young guys—Ude being the most heralded of the bunch—will likely hear their names called.
Mustafa Jalil and Trevor Kelly are no small losses, but Coach Tate has to be confident that he has a pair of proven starters at DT. James Looney started 11 games last season and trailed only Kyle Kragen in productivity, while his partner Tony Mekari recorded six starts of his own.
Behind them are a pair of interesting candidates in Marcus Manley and Luc Bequette. The 305-pound Manley has played in every game over the last two seasons, finally making his first start against Arizona State in November. Bequette, meanwhile, seeks his first game action after redshirting his freshman year. Like Saffle, Bequette has been mentioned as a guy who could compete for playing time thanks to the limited depth ahead of him. Should the Bears need to dig even deeper, JuCo transfer Rusty Becker and true freshman Tevin Paul round out the depth chart.