Coming into last season, it's fair to say expectations were fairly low on the defensive side of the ball. Arizona hail mary highlights were still a fresh wound and Cal narrowly missed clinching bowl eligibility. Fast forward one year later and things are starting to look at lot, dare I say rosier, on the defensive side of the ball. Perhaps one of the biggest reasons Cal football was able to make the leap to bowl eligible last season was due to their massive improvement in the secondary. The unit in particular played with an opportunistic approach and took advantage of each chance they had to make an impact, with no play bigger than Stefan McClure's fumble return for a touchdown against Washington State.
Darius Allensworth made major strides last year, leading the team in pass deflections and giving Kaufman/Burns the ability to slot him 1:1 with talented Pac-12 wide receivers. Damariay Drew was a major contributor and as long as he makes a healthy recovery from his spring injury, we can expect solid leadership from the safety position. All the while, our lengthy redshirt freshman Malik Psalms and Jaylinn Hawkins expect to factor into the backfield come fall camp.
Let's take a deeper look at the 2016 projected starters and evaluate some younger players who can make a big impact:
Cameron Walker (#3): Cameron leads the defensive backs as one of two senior starters and should be a vocal leader the entire season. Cameron recorded 31 tackles from the nickel back position while also collecting two sacks and one interception which he took back for a touchdown. Each year Cameron has seen his tackles drop (which is a good thing) and he has made more and more dynamic plays. Expect Cameron to set the tone for the younger secondary all season long.
Malik Psalms (#23): Malik may just be the player to watch on defense this year. He possesses incredible length at 6'3 and was fantastic in high school. I personally have Malik rated higher than spring starter Antoine Albert which may or may not come to fruition this fall. I expect Malik to jump Albert on the depth chart as our length at the corner back position starts to become more of a defining feature for this secondary. Psalms was a four star beast out of high school and in case you want a refresher on his tape, you can get your fill below.
Damariay Drew (#27): Damariay makes up the other senior starter for the defensive backs and his presence last season was a boon to our entire defense. His spot does depend on the severity of the knee injury that kept him on the sideline for the remainder of spring ball and there hasn't been much word on the extent of the injury since. If Drew were not able to play this season or even miss the first few months Khari Vanderbilt or Luke Rubenzer may have to step into the starter role. It is hard to understate Damariay's impact on this team, his play last year kept us in many games and he is definitely the other vocal leader of the secondary. Drew had two enormous plays last year intercepting Browning to help seal the Washington game and another big interception against Washington State at home.
Evan Rambo (#21): Rambo is another champion in the length category, measuring in at 6'3. He fills the shoes of Stefan McClure and should be another major contributor to the secondary. Rambo, unlike Psalms, saw time on the field in 11 games last season and figures to be a starter all season long. Rambo also has put on 19 pounds since his freshman year and apparently has former Cal star Thomas Decoud in his camp helping him prepare for the upcoming season. Jaylinn Hawkins could also fill in at this spot.
Darius Allensworth (#2): Allensworth, as mentioned previously, made the biggest jump of any defensive back last season becoming arguably our best corner for the majority of the year. Darius White, now with the Colts, certainly had an impact by helping take on a few opponents #1 wide receivers but Allensworth continually jumped off the screen/field when watching Cal on Saturdays. He is coming into his junior season with a ton of momentum and if he can make another step forward, could be a lockdown corner option in a Pac-12 that is deep at wide receiver. Allensworth led the team in pass deflections, helped force the fumble that McClure took to the house against Washington State and made a couple of big plays in the Armed Forces bowl.
Trey Turner (#5): Turner stands to get plenty of playing time this year and build off his freshman campaign. He was able to play in 13 games and can spell Cameron Walker at the nickel position. Turner started to stand out later in the year and with another year of experience should be another contributor defensively.
Antoine Albert (#15): Albert found his way into eight games last season coming from Diablo Valley college in the east bay. He has also battled adversity and has an amazing story to go with his contributions to the football program. He is definitely a player to root for and should also see a lot of opportunity come fall.
Luke Rubenzer (#17): Luke Skywalker transitioned last spring to defense and didn't seem to miss a beat. He was easily one of the most improved players all season long, seemingly having a knack for the ball. He jumped backed to offense this spring but moved over the defensive side once more before spring concluded. If he stays in the safety position, Luke has the potential to captain this defense in a few years and be a stand out contributor. Most impressively and importantly, Luke showed he had the speed to stay with Pac-12 receivers this past year.
Khari Vanderbilt (#29): Khari saw 11 games last season and is trying to cement his place on the safety depth chart as one of the few older players in the secondary. He would become the presumptive starter should Damariay's injury turn out to be of a serious nature. Khari has solid game experience and contributes to the depth in the secondary.
Griffin Piatt (#26): Griffin recently announced he is medically retiring from college football. Piatt broke out two years ago and was one of the best defensive backs in the interceptions category. Last year he only saw his way into six games and had a bit less of an impact. As one of the few seniors in the secondary, we will certainly miss Griffin and his leadership that is always needed at the safety position.
A.J Greathouse (#14): A.J brings experience at cornerback and should expect to see playing time should anyone get injured. He has shown flashes in the past despite not possessing the vertical advantage of some of our other corners.
Jaylinn Hawkins (#20): Jaylinn moved from a two-way player in high school to safety last season. He has great speed, size and a near perfect body type to be a successful safety. The secondary is one of the richest positions for Cal and I would expect Jaylinn to make his biggest impact next season (2017) but he will definitely have his chances this upcoming year.
Nygel Edmonds: Nygel is a true freshman who made every Cal fans dream come true by de-committing from Stanfurd to join the Bears. I believe he will redshirt this year as Cal finally has depth in the secondary but his talent might be too hard to ignore. Crazier things have happened in fall camp.
There are a few other players like Treveon Beck, transfer Marloshawn Franklin, Ashytn Davis, Jonathan McDonald, Chibuzo Nwokocha, De'Zhon Grace, Quinton Tartabull, Caleb Coleman, Jacob Anderson and David Garner who all could make an impact this season and beyond.
There is a whole lot to like about our secondary for the next few years as the length and depth is a welcomed change. What do you think Cal fans, is this the deepest unit for the Bears this upcoming season? Which defensive back do you think will stand out the most in 2016?