Cal football entered the 2016 season with some undeserved optimism. But, that was mostly because Cal fans got a surprise steal with the graduate transfer of QB Davis Webb from Texas Tech. In the midst of confusion around who would replace NFL #1 pick Jared Goff at the quarterback position, we got that settled with some miracle recruiting by then-Offensive Coordinator Jake Spavital. But, what about Cal’s defense?
Well, that was a whole other story. Defense was a glaring hole (figuratively and literally) for Cal football heading into 2016 - one that Dykes & Co. were hoping would be overcompensated by a high-octane offense. As it turned out, that wide-open gap never went away during the season. In 2015, Cal’s scoring defense was #8 in the Pac-12, allowing 30.7 points per game. In 2016, Cal dropped to dead last in the conference, allowing 42.6 points per game. No booming offense was ever going to consistently outscore opponents enough to win games with a defense dragging the team down like that.
A particularly sore spot on Cal’s 2016 defense was its linebacking corps. Hardy Nickerson was expected to have a great senior campaign, but he grad transferred to Illinois during the offseason. In Nickerson’s absence, no one stepped-up to fill the leadership void in the center of the defense. Junior DL James Looney became the focal point of Cal’s defense as the injury bug decimated the rest of his side all season long. In particular, Cal’s defensive backs were a revolving door in 2016 as young and inexperienced players rolled in and out all season long, much like the story of previous seasons. Couple that with a very short pipeline of linebacking talent and game-ready players, and Cal’s secondary became the worst defense in the conference.
Only three linebackers played all 12 games for the Golden Bears in 2016:
Devante Downs: Downs was the one shining spot in Cal’s secondary. The junior linebacker averaged 7.0 tackles per game across the season, leading the entire team. He had 40 solo tackles and 44 assisted tackles. The former 3-star recruit from Mountlake Terrace, Washington (near Seattle) has grown into a solid defensive player for Cal. His hard hits are well-chronicled as well as his ability to be vocal and lead with few words.
Raymond Davison: Along with Downs, the multi-talented Davison was a bright spot for Cal’s defense in 2016. The junior outside linebacker from Los Angeles averaged 5.8 tackles per game, including 37 solo tackles and 32 assisted tackles. Davison and Downs will be the leaders in the center of Cal’s defense heading into 2017, their senior campaigns. Expect Davison to continue improving in his contributions, which is really evident in his yearly increases in average tackles per game (0.9 tackles/game in 2014, 2.7 tackles/game in 2015, and then 5.8 tackles/game in 2016).
Jordan Kunaszyk: Kunaszyk was the last solid contributor for Cal at the linebacker position in 2016. The redshirt sophomore averaged 4.3 tackles per game, including 16 solo tackles and 36 assisted tackles. Kunaszyk was in his year for Cal last season, after transferring from American River College (where he was a Freshman All-American and Defensive Player of the Year in the NorCal Division of community colleges. The former Cal coaching staff had high praise for Kunaszyk coming into Cal before last season, and he certainly followed-up that praise with a very solid season.
After Downs, Davison, and Kunaszyk, only junior Hamilton Anoa’i played meaningful time at the linebacker position for Cal last season (9 games, averaging 1.7 tackles per game).
2016 didn’t turn out to be a special season for Cal, particularly because the defensive side of the ball lost significant talent due to transfers and injuries. While the linebacking corps stayed steady throughout the season, it wasn’t able to overcome the massive losses of game-ready talent in the other defensive positions.
Here’s to hoping 2017 will provide improvements….