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UC-Davis Defensive Preview: New faces in an effective system

Can the Bears offense shake-off last season?

NCAA Football: UC - Davis at Stanford Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports

This year we’ll be breaking up the defensive preview into four different sections: Defensive line, Linebackers, Defensive backs and Game plan. The first three will be previews on each unit of the opponent. The last section will be the game plan I expect Cal to use. I’m hoping to break down more film with a deeper dive into scheme/personnel matchups against the Cal offense. It was tough to find enough film to break down with UC-Davis, so it’ll be more in that style moving forward with future opponents. With that being said let’s get right to it.

The Bears will look to spark its offense against a reloading UC-Davis Aggies squad, when it kicks off its season this Saturday. The Aggies are replacing quite a bit of talent across the entire team, but the defense has taken a significant hit. Scheme wise it’s almost like playing the current Cal defense. The Aggies look to be aggressive as they can with the defensive line, send linebackers and defensive backs on blitzes, and mask their coverages to mix and match the pressure on each play.

“They go in and out of odd and even fronts. You know, four down and odd structure. They disguise it pretty well. Just so you don’t necessarily get a beat on it exactly. Changes up from game to game. They’re talented. They’re a top 5 team in the country for a reason. It’s not by accident. They were a 10 win team last year. You see smart, tough, athletic football players on the defensive side of the ball. It’s going to be a good challenge for our guys.” - Cal OC Beau Baldwin on the Aggie Defense.

Defensive Line (Coached by Brandon Huppert)

The Aggies Defensive line is easily the most experienced group on the defense. They are anchored by two seniors in Jordan Franklin and Roland Ocansey. The two totaled 70 tackles, 9 tackles for loss and 5 sacks in 2019. The two seniors aren’t their only experienced players as junior Bryce Rodgers and sophomore De’Andre Morgan rejoin the team after spending most or all of the 2018 season off. Rodgers only played in 4 games notching 11 tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss, but in 2017 Rodgers had 35 tackles, 4 tackles for loss and a sack. Morgan redshirted the 2018 season recovering from injury. These four guys have some size across the line as well. Franklin is listed at 6-foot-1 and 285 pounds, Ocansey is listed at 6-foot-4 and 245 pounds, Rodgers is listed at 6-foot-3 and 285 pounds and finally Morgan is listed at 6-foot-2 and 280 pounds. The only issue with their front line is that since they like to be aggressive, they’ll also tire easily with some tempo. Coach Huppert will be looking to the unit for some depth behind the first four guys. Seniors Nick Fehrenbach, Brandon Jamison, and Doug Drakeley look to be some more experienced options to spell the expected starters.

Linebackers (Coached by Jerry Brady and Isaiah Jackson)

This is a unit that is looking for production from their rising seniors. The talented trio of Mason Moe, Anthony Baumgart, and Ryan Parenteau are no longer on the roster. The trio accounted for 182 tackles, 30 tackles for loss and 15.5 sacks. The star of that group was Mason Moe who had 20.5 tackles for loss and 10.5 sacks. The Aggies will be hoping that their crop of upperclassmen can make up for their loss. The biggest names to look out for are seniors Nas Anesi, Eric Flowers, and junior Connor Airey. Anesi, a 3-time captain, is said to be moving from inside to outside linebacker. Flowers started the majority of games last season and brings 49 tackles, one tackle for loss and a fumble recovery from last season. He looks to be a player set for a jump in production. Airey made a huge jump from his freshman to sophomore season doubling his tackling totals from 23 to 51. He also added 6 tackles for loss and 4 sacks. These three will be the key players from this unit but they’ll also have sophomore Montell Bland in the mix as well. Bland was listed as a First Team Freshman All-American by Phil Steele and also listed as a Freshman All-American by Hero Sports. Bland had 78 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks last season. The linebackers lost a good amount of production, and will be hoping that Bland or Flowers can take that step up into the hole left by Mason Moe.

Writer’s note: Bland was ruled ineligible for the season opener against Cal after the writing of this segment.

Defensive Backs (Coached by Cha’pelle Brown)

This group may have been the most talented for the Aggies in 2018. Cornerbacks Vincent White and Isiah Olave were both All-Big-Sky Conference selections, Second and Third respectively. Coach Brown will be looking to replace the two stars with senior Josh Januska, junior Isaiah Thomas and sophomore Devon King. Januska is the reliable senior of the group having played in all games last season as a backup. Thomas also played in all 13 games last season notching 25 tackles and an interception. Thomas will be a player to watch on special teams as he holds the program’s Division 1 record for career punt yards and finished second in punt return average (9.9 yards/return) in the Big Sky last season. Lastly, King may be the biggest x-factor for this group. He was honored as a Hero Sports First Team Freshman All-American and Phil Steele Second Team Freshman All-American. He started 11 games as a redshirt freshman in 2018 and wreaked havoc in 13 games. King ended the season with 49 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, a sack, 2 pass breakups, 2 interceptions (both at Montana), 3 forced fumbles and a fumble recovery. The two starting safeties will bring calming presence to the back end of this defense. Senior Tiger Garcia and sophomore Jordan Perryman had a combined 3 interceptions and 7 pass breakups along with 42 tackles. The defensive backs are an undersized and young group, but talented and well recognized by the conference. The Aggies will be using them across the board just like the Cal defense does as well sending them on blitzes and run defense support. The looming question is if Devon King can cover the different types of wide receivers that Cal will be sending his way all game.

“They’re going to put eleven guys out there. We don’t exactly know who they’re going to be, based on nine months or so since their last game. So we just got to come out ready to, again, understand what we need to do within our system, within our rules and control that.” - OC Beau Baldwin on prepping for a defense replacing star players

Gameplan

The defensive side of the ball for the Aggies is heavily centered around their defensive line. Davis held teams to 185.4 yards a game on the ground, which was good for fourth in the Big Sky. They were also second in the league in sacks with 37. The Cal offensive line will be tested early and often. It looks to be a good test for them to hit the ground running this season and use it as a wake-up call to make up for some of the lackadaisical pre-snap penalties during fall camp.

Behind the defensive line, the group is vastly undersized in comparison to the size that the Bears can lineup. I’m fully expecting OC Beau Baldwin to exploit this part of the defense by working in the tight ends and bigger wide receivers. This game could be the perfect game for QB Chase Garbers to regain his in-game confidence. Quick slants for the tight ends will be and easy safety valve play just because of the physicality differences. I expect McCallan Castles to have his coming out party to the world of college football. The bigger outside wide receivers in the likes of Makai Polk, Trevon Clark and Kekoa Crawford will hopefully take advantage of the inevitable 1-on-1 opportunities that the outside running game will create. If our run game is successful in stretching the front line, you can expect the Aggies defense to shift their corners in or stretch their linebackers too far to the outside allowing for the pass game to find open pockets in the middle of the field. In terms of the run game, I’m expecting us to run stretch plays while using swing and wheel routes to get the ball to our running backs in space. Watch out for Marcel Dancy to get some good play time as the back up to Christopher Brown Jr. in 3rd down situations. Dancy has shown an incredible knack for catching balls out of the backfield and making defenders miss in the open field.

California Rising. Go Bears.