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Cal Football Spring Practice Preview 2017: Defense Back In Style?

The Golden Bears set about revamping their defense as spring practice begins.

NCAA Football: Utah at California John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

When football season ended, how did you feel about the future of Cal’s defense? Not too optimistic, I’ll bet. Four years of sub-mediocrity have a way of tempering expectations.

How about in December, when Art Kaufman’s long-rumored departure was made official? I’ll admit to being relieved, though not particularly confident in Sonny’s ability to hire a replacement.

I couldn’t imagine we’d end up where we are now, three months later, guardedly optimistic about how things might go. That’s what you can get for untold millions in coaching salaries (and a few million more in buyouts). Hope.

With spring practice about to begin, Cal fans have reason to be hopeful—or at least curious—about our defensive fortunes in 2017. We’ve got some of college football’s top defensive minds working to cure last season’s ills.

Granted, there will be a steep learning curve. Justin Wilcox is a first-time head coach. Tim DeRuyter is coming off one of the worst seasons of his career. The two of them intend to bring a new scheme to a defense that was having enough trouble executing its old one. Maybe the hope is more of a five-year plan than an immediate turnaround.

But at least there’s the promise of change, freedom from the cycle of missed tackles and blown coverages that characterized the Buh/Kaufman era. Plus, it’s March, when the scouting reports are made up and the stats don’t matter. So let’s indulge our hope and imagine what could be for Cal’s defense in 2017. Let’s preview spring practice.

Defensive Line

Departures: DeVante Wilson, Marcus Manley, Kennedy Emesibe, Chris Yaghi

Arrivals: Alex Funches, Gabe Cherry

The defensive line returns mostly intact, with DeVante Wilson as the only departing starter from 2016. James Looney and Tony Mekari, now seniors, will anchor the middle, while Cameron Saffle holds up one end of the line. At issue is how the depth chart will adjust as Cal moves from the 4-3 to a base 3-4 defense under Wilcox (although it remains to be seen how quickly this transition will be made, in light of roster constraints). Noah Westerfield figures to get more playing time after participating in 10 games last season, particularly when the Bears use a 4-2-5 set.

There should be plenty of competition along the second string, as Marcus Manley and Chris Yaghi—the lasted backups at DT by the end of last season—have departed. The lack of tested backups at either position should create opportunities for young players, perhaps even early-enrollee Gabe Cherry. Also look for JUCO transfer Alex Funches to compete for playing time very soon.


There are very few changes to the depth chart here, which is concerning as an already thin unit will be stretched thinner in hopes of fielding four linebackers at a time. If anything, the group has gotten smaller, as former LBs Derron Brown, Kaodi Dike, and Alex Netherda are now listed at safety.

The good news is that all of last year’s main contributors—headlined by seniors Raymond Davison and Devante Downs—return. Jordan Kunaszyk, Aisea Tongilava, and Hamilton Anoa’i were all frequent contributors last season and should compete for starting jobs. Of course, a new coaching staff often means changes to the established hierarchy, which is good news for rising youngsters like Quentin Tartabull and David Ortega Jr.


Departures: Cameron Walker, Khari Vanderbilt, Antoine Albert

Arrivals: Elijah Hicks

Things should be fairly set at cornerback, with seniors Marloshawn Franklin and Darius Allensworth reclaiming their starting roles in camp. Ashtyn Davis and Josh Drayden will try to defend their spots on the depth chart from a number of challengers including A.J. Greathouse, Traveon Beck, and even early enrollee Elijah Hicks.

Meanwhile, the battle at safety will be straight out of the recovery ward, as Evan Rambo and Luke Rubenzer hope to return from the injuries that hampered them in 2016. With the departure of Khari Vanderbilt, there should be space for upward mobility among last year’s reserves. Look for Malik Psalms and Jaylinn Hawkins to get reps in relief. Pay attention as well to the battle for Cameron Walker’s nickel spot, which could involve senior De’Zhon Grace.

In all, there’s not too much turnover happening among Cal’s defensive starters. With the benefit of added experience a bit better injury luck, that could be a recipe for (relative) success. For now, though, the focus will be on the future, on implementing new schemes, and on developing second string talent—with the amount of upperclassmen on this year’s roster, their time will be coming very soon.