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Cal Football 2019 Preview: The Defense

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A deep dive into what could be the best defense at Cal in at least 50 years

NCAA Football: California at Southern California Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

We’re starting with the defense this year. Not because they are the better unit, but because they are the more stable unit, so I can project depth charts and key players with much more confidence despite the fact that fall camp is far from over. Questions about Cal’s defense are much more subtle: What’s the situation at nose guard if the two returning contributors are absent for any significant period? Does hybrid DE/OLB see more time at the former or the latter position, and how much does the distinction matter anyway?

2018 Defense, revisited

Strengths

Big Play prevention

Running, passing, standard downs, passing downs – the situation or play style didn’t matter, Cal’s defense was great at preventing big plays all season long. And considering the positions most related to big play prevention (The secondary generally, safeties and inside linebackers specifically) are almost all back, there’s zero reason to expect this to change.

Forcing turnovers

Boy oh boy did Ashtyn Davis and Jaylinn Hawkins feast on a whole bunch of overthrown passes over the middle. Will teams keep challenging Cal’s secondary? Was last year’s performance sustainable? More on that below.

Weaknesses

Consistently stuffing running plays

The only time Cal’s defense looked mortal last year was when the opponent chipped their way down the field with 4 and 5 yard runs. That was UCLA’s formula, and it was TCU’s formula to score their only touchdown of the game in that one bowl game last year.

Unit Summaries

Defensive Line

Starters: DE Luc Bequette, NG Aaron Maldonado, DE Tevin Paul

Depth: DE Lone Toailoa, DE Zeandae Johnson, NG Siulagisipai Fuimaono

For the purposes of this exercise I’ve decided to list hybrid DE/OLB Tevin Paul as a defensive end. In passing situations, Cal will often play a sort of 2-4-5/3-3-5 with Paul creating havoc as the 3rd defensive linemen/4th rush linebacker. The precise position isn’t as important as the specifics what each player can do.

For my money this unit is the most intriguing unit on the defense, if only because we already have a pretty good idea of what Cal’s linebackers and defensive backs are going to do. But while Cal’s line won’t get the same amount of hype as the more glamorous units behind them, their improvement in 2018 and likely improvement in 2019 is the key to raising the ceiling on a defense that was already so good last year.

Luc Bequette was the star performer, nearly doubling his production from 2017 to 2018. It was basically the best season from a lineman since the Tedford era. Now, as a senior, he will be the anchor that the rest of Cal’s line is built around. And the big question Cal fans have been asking themselves during fall camp is how much Bequette will be asked to handle by himself.

That’s because the rest of Cal’s line is somewhat in flux after the graduation of Chris Palmer and Rusty Becker, and the camp absences of nose guards Aaron Maldonado and Siulagisipai Fuimaono. For now, Bequette has been deputizing at NG, with a bunch of guys vying for playing time at DE.

If Maldonado and Fuimaono come back shortly, this is a non event. Heck, if one of them comes back shortly, this is a non event. If they don’t . . . well, then Cal will need somebody to step up, whether it’s Bequette in a less glamorous role, some of the more veteran DEs like Zeandae Johnson, or a new comer like Brett Johnson. I’m personally guessing that this is figured out, one way or another.

What will this line look like against UC Davis? A week later against Washington? That’s hard to project right now. Stayed tuned for more news as camp progresses.

Linebackers

Starters: Cam Goode, Evan Weaver, Kuony Deng, Camp Battle Evan Rambo

Depth: Tevin Paul, Evan Tattersall, Joseph Ogunbanjo, Deon White, Chinedu Udeogu

There are two fun questions to answer at linebacker. 1) What’s the best way to use the talents of Kuony Deng? 2) Which younger players are ready for bigger roles?

That’s not too bad considering that Cal graduated a first team all-conference performer in Jordan Kunaszyk, plus the reliable Alex Funches. But I think concerns are low, such is everybody’s faith in #1 JC LB recruit Deng and the ability of Cal’s coaching staff to develop linebackers.

Funches’ departure is mitigated greatly by the healthy return of Cam Goode, who murdered UNC’s backfield for 3 quarters before suffering a season ending injury. If Deng is indeed destined to mostly play ILB, then the biggest question is who lines up on the opposite side of Goode as the other rush linebacker.

The answer to that question is probably going to change frequently, depending on the situation. Evan Rambo was solid in limited duty as a backup OLB last year and will certainly get some run. Evan Rambo would’ve been an option, but he transferred to Texas Tech, which is probably something I should remember. But there’s a decent chance that Tevin Paul and other DE/OLB hybrids get lots of time in Cal’s 2-4-5 formation that get Traveon Beck on the field as a nickleback. This defense contains multitudes.

Secondary

Starters: Cam Bynum, Elijah Hicks, Ashtyn Davis, Jaylinn Hawkins

Depth: Traveon Beck, Trey Turner, Josh Drayden,

Can we sit back and marvel at the production Cal got in the secondary last year without a single senior starter? The only loss from last year’s rotation was backup safety Quentin Tartabull, who totaled 17 tackles in 11 games played.

The top five (the four starters plus virtual starter/slot nickelback Traveon Beck) are set in stone, with Drayden and Turner back as depth. Maybe the only question is whether or not there will even be snaps available if younger players are ready. Redshirt freshmen like CB Chigozie Anusiem or S Isaiah Humphries could be perfectly valuable players but only get time on special teams because the secondary is so stacked with proven talent.

I feel like I should say more, but this is a settled unit because every single player was excellent and they’re all back.

Defining questions

Is this the year that the Wilcox defense creates major backfield disruption?

To the extent that the 2018 defense had a weakness, it was making disruptive plays in the offensive backfield. Here are some stats:

2.39 sacks/game: 46th in the country

5.92 tackles for loss/game: 67th in the country

Front 7 havoc rate of 10.4%: 40th in the country

All of those rates are perfectly fine . . . except that Cal was top 10 or top 15 in most everything else. To be fair, this is partly by design. Cal blitzes, but they don’t suicide blitz. This is a defense that wants to prevent big plays more than it wants to get into the backfield. But the very best defenses want to (and can) do both.

And for what it’s worth, this is about much more than just sacks. This is also about stuffing runs. While many are worried about the loss of veteran performers on last year’s defensive line, it’s also worth noting that while last year’s line produced yeoman-like efforts, the 2018 Bears weren’t exactly stonewalling the running game. This is perhaps why Cal can hope for improvement, or at least a maintenance of the status quo, with younger guys like Aaron Maldonado or Brett Johnson potentially getting serious playing time.

Why might this year be different? Well, Luc Bequette is a year older/better. Same for emerging younger linemen like Tevin Paul and Aaron Maldonado. But more than that, Cal gets back their best rush linebacker in Cam Goode, and adds Kuony Deng who made himself quite a reputation as a rush linebacker playing JC ball. This is a team that already has all the personnel necessary to play fundamental defense to prevent big plays . . . and they added personnel/experience that might reasonably allow them to also be more disruptive, to cut down running backs for more losses and make QBs even more miserable.

If Cal’s defense is just as good as last year, nobody will complain. But if this defense wants to unlock the next step, it’s probably going to be by punishing offensive lines at the point of attack.

Can everybody stay healthy?

Last year’s banner performance was fueled in part by excellent health – Cam Goode suffered the only major injury, and Cal wasn’t even beset by the occasional 1 or 2 game absence from key players. 13 different defenders played in all 13 games, and another 4 players participated in 12. That was particularly important at middle linebacker, where Cal lacked depth. But thankfully Evan Weaver and Jordan Kunaszyk were iron men who rarely even missed snaps, let alone game.

This year, depth should be stronger with so few key players graduating and a bunch of younger guys entering their 2nd or 3rd year in the program. But if Cal is going to get better on defense, that means keeping the key guys healthy, because even if Cal’s young guys are solid there’s still almost certainly going to be a drop off of some kind.

Can this defense continue to force a high rate of turnovers?

Cal’s defense is so good that I’m forced to break into a discussion of another factor that is heavily influenced by random chance.

We must acknowledge that a significant portion of Cal’s defensive production last year was turnover based – the Bears were 6th in the nation in forced turnovers last year. 28 total turnovers forced is a lot, and there’s a solid likelihood that we’ll see regression.

Why is it reasonable to expect turnover luck to revert? Because turnovers are really, really random. As a rough-and-dirty illustration: Below I took each team that collected 28+ turnovers over the 2015, 2016, and 2017 seasons (28+ forced turnovers roughly equals top 10 in the nation), then looked up how each defense fared the following season. Here are the averages:

Top turnover forcing defenses, 2017: average of 30 turnovers forced. 2018 average turnovers forced: 22

Top turnover forcing defenses, 2016: average of 30 turnovers forced. 2017 average turnovers forced: 24

Top turnover forcing defenses, 2016: average of 31 turnovers forced. 2017 average turnovers forced: 20

Regression comes for us all, eventually.

Now, if you were feeling argumentative you might posit that teams that tended to be at the top in forced turnovers are probably more likely to be teams filled with seniors and/or players ready to declare for the draft, so it makes sense that there would be average regression due to loss of experience and personnel turnover – two issues that shouldn’t apply to the 2019 Bears.

And I think it’s fair to suppose that while Cal might slightly regress, a massive regression (to, say, below the national average) is unlikely.

Obviously, turnovers are important because they end drives. But they were doubly important for Cal last year because of the frequency with which Cal’s defense went ahead and scored themselves. And the offense was so iffy last year that Cal didn’t just need to force turnovers to win games. They needed to force turnovers and score off of them. And I don’t think I need to convince you that whether or not a defense is in position to return a turnover back for a touchdown is even more subject to chance than the forcing of a turnover in the first place.

It’s absolutely insane to expect a defense to score points by itself every game. But it’s also true that Cal won FOUR games when Cal’s defensive points scored were greater than Cal’s margin of victory, and lost three games by a touchdown or less when the defense dominated but didn’t put up points.

In other words, if Cal’s offense doesn’t get better, and Cal’s turnover luck on defense regresses, Cal could lose more games than last year as a consequence without doing anything else particularly wrong.

Final Outlook

Most of the time whenever I’m asked to predict something, I hem and haw and hedge and otherwise acknowledge that trying to predict anything in this sport is a fool’s errand.

Having said that, it’s hard to conceive of a universe in which the 2019 Cal defense isn’t excellent. When the closest thing you have to a question mark is ‘how will two nose guards who looked OK as back-ups last year hold up?’ and you start the season with maybe 7 guys who are likely to play at an all-conference level, the range of outcomes is unusually narrow.

The reasons that this defense might not be elite mostly fall into the category of ‘college football coaches are control freaks because there are still so many factors that are outside of their full control.’ Maybe a bunch of critical players get hurt. Maybe fewer footballs get thrown into the hands of the secondary.

When the realistic floor a top 20 defense and the ceiling is the best defense in modern program history, you’re cooking with fire.