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How great could the 2019 Cal defense be?

A look back at the 2018 defense, and a look at how the depth chart will change next year

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

Cal family, I’ve been feeling too negative lately. The Cheez-it Bowl, some rough, close WBB losses, the ongoing MBB situation . . . it’s been a bit of a bummer lately, and it’s made me more sarcastic and pessimistic than I want to be.

So this week, let’s talk about the most unambiguously good news we’ve gotten over the last month: the decisions of every single draft-eligible Cal defender to stay in school. Almost everybody is back who was a major contributor to the historically good 2018 defense, which means it’s never too early (even 8 months in advance!) to build hype for the 2019 season.

First, let’s talk about just how historically good the 2018 Cal defense was. By pretty much every statistical measure, the Bears had a borderline top 10 defense. Cal finished 9th in yards/play allowed, 9th in points/drive allowed, 11th in QB rating allowed, 6th in turnovers forced, 9th in S&P+, and 15th in FEI.

It’s difficult to compare this defense to previously great Cal defenses in part because it’s been more than a decade since the last great Cal defense. None of the typical advanced stats are easily available for most of those season, and it takes some digging to even get basic stuff like total yards allowed and turnovers. But here’s a quick chart comparing 2018 to the height of the Tedford era defenses, which is by far the best stretch of Cal football since the 50s:

Points in favor of 2018: We’re generally in a more offensive-friendly environment, both in terms of rules and offensive strategy/innovation. Points in favor of 2004-2008: The Bears typically played a tougher schedule and the Pac was probably on average stronger than it was in 2018. Also, boy did we not appreciate that 2008 defense at the time. Just about every loss that year featured Cal allowing a non-defensive touchdown.

Anyway, the obvious takeaway here is that the 2018 defense was, statistically, on par with some of the best Cal defenses produced in the post-Waldorf era of Cal football*.

So, let’s take a look at the 2018 depth chart and look at who’s coming back. I defined ‘in the rotation’ as players who participated on defense in at least 9 games, or would have without injury. In all listings below, strikethrough = player that has exhausted eligibility or has announced a transfer.


Starters: Luc Bequette, Chris Palmer, Tevin Paul
In the rotation: Rusty Becker, Zeandae Johnson, Chinedu Udeogu, Lone Toailoa, Aaron Maldonado, Siulagisipai Fuimaono


Starters: Cam Goode, Jordan Kunaszyk, Evan Weaver, Alex Funches
In the rotation: Evan Rambo, Malik Psalms, Deon White


Starters: Cam Bynum, Ashtyn Davis, Jaylinn Hawkins, Elijah Hicks
In the rotation: Traveon Beck, Josh Drayden, Quentin Tartabull, Trey Turner

Since this is the 2018 depth chart, it doesn’t include players who would reasonably be expected to contribute in 2019. That would be guys who either redshirted or played in limited capacity like Evan Tattersall and Joseph Ogunbanjo, plus new recruits like Kuony Deng. But with 8 starters (and Traveon Beck, who basically played starter’s minutes) and 10 guys who got significant run as back-ups returning, there probably won’t be a ton of snaps available unless somebody forces their way into the rotation by sheer force of talent.

Reasons why the Cal defense will be even better in 2019

(Well, more specific reasons than ‘almost everybody is back’)

A deep, veteran defensive line

Of Cal’s seven returning defensive linemen, five will be juniors or seniors. Defensive line, more than most positions, tends to be a position that requires time and experience to develop impact players because of the time needed to develop size and strength in the weight room. Luckily, Cal is in a position where they’ve already developed a solid stable of linemen. And while one could reasonably worry about nose guard in the wake of Chris Palmer’s graduation, Aaron Maldonado showed flashes of impressive talent considering he was contributing spot duty as a true freshmen, a rarity at one of the most physically demanding positions on the field.

More edge disruption

Otherwise known as: Cam Goode is back! While Tevin Paul and Alex Funches were more than solid players, Cal was lacking a truly terrifying edge rusher from the OLB position. For one half, Cam Goode looked like perhaps the very best player on the field as he terrorized UNC’s overwhelmed tackles.

Goode should be 100%, but will have a partner with #1 JC OLB recruit Kuony Deng. Deng may well play ILB as well, but will almost certainly be a factor as a pass rusher.

*I did try to run some numbers from the fragmented records available on the famous 1968 ‘Bear Minimum’ defense, and if I did my math right they allowed roughly 3.6 yards/play, in part because teams ran almost twice as much as they passed against Cal’s defense despite the fact that passes were more than twice as effective. Suffice to say that college football is different enough 50 years later that I’m not sure the comparison is particularly useful. Then again, the ‘68 Bears lost one game 10-7, and another ended in a 7-7 tie, so maybe we should be drawing more parallels to a team that came exactly 50 years ago!

Reasons why Cal’s defense may not be better in 2019

Replacing Jordan Kunaszyk is easier said than done

Jordan Kunaszyk (and Evan Weaver) played basically every defensive snap of consequence this year. For that reason we haven’t seen anybody else on the roster play ILB, and so we have no idea if anybody is ready to step up to fill his shoes. As mentioned above, there are certainly viable candidates. Evan Tattersall and Kuony Deng, among others, will have plenty of hype. But until we see the production with our eyes there will be reasonable doubt.

Near inevitable regression in turnovers forced

It’s just an inherent reality of football that turnovers can be pretty random. The good news is that Cal’s defense wasn’t reliant on forced and recovered fumbles, which tends to be particularly volatile. But there’s a decent chance that Cal won’t face nearly as many bad quarterbacks (UNC and TCU jumping straight to mind) who will air mail bad throws straight to Cal’s safeties.

The expectation

Within the Pac-12, Cal’s defense was roughly on par with the similarly excellent defenses produced by Washington and Utah at the top of the conference (UW was probably a touch better, Utah probably a touch worse, but we’re splitting hairs.)

Washington is losing six all-conference level performers from their defense. Utah is losing three. Cal is losing just one.

The expectation in 2019: to have the undisputed best defense in the Pac-12. A defense so good that it will keep you competitive in any game regardless of the other units on the field.