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2018 Preview: Cal Defense

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After improving leaps and bounds in 2017, can Wilcox and company keep Cal’s defense moving in the right direction?

NCAA Football: California at North Carolina Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

Previously in our Cal Football 2018 Preview:

Offense | Quarterback | Running Back | Wide Receiver | Offensive Line |

Defensive Line | Linebackers | Secondary | Special Teams | The Bearcast

In 2017, Justin Wilcox and the Cal defensive brain trust provided a remarkably stark illustration of how much coaching matters in football.

Cal’s defense improved across the board—in every conceivable way that defensive performance can be measured. It was done with largely the same players and talent level as produced by the previous coaching staff. And the turnaround was almost immediate. Cal’s defense was the primary reason that the Bears won the third game of the season against Ole Miss. And save for a few understandable hiccups, the defense was consistently solid throughout the season despite some pretty significant injuries.

Which will inevitably get any reasonable person excited about what the same group of coaches can engineer as an encore. And it’s also worth nothing that Cal’s defense improved from one of the worst in the nation to merely average last year, meaning that there’s still a ton of room for improvement. A similar leap in production would put Cal at a borderline top-25 level. That might be a bit overoptimistic, but with a bunch of players entering their second or third years in the program, more improvement should be the expectation.

Cal’s 2017 defense, revisited

Strengths

Preventing the big play - Cal finished 36th in the nation in S&P defensive explosiveness—and this was particularly seen in Cal’s rushing defense. One example? In 2016, Cal allowed 30 runs of 20 yards or more. In 2017, with largely identical personnel, Cal allowed 12. The type of teams that allowed fewer big runs were either nationally elite teams (Alabama, Washington) or teams that played awful schedules (Texas St., Troy).

In one year, Cal’s tackling and defensive positioning improved massively and the result was a team that didn’t allow short gains to turn into defensive busts. The passing defense wasn’t quite as stingy on the big-play front, but the general point remains: You’re probably going to need to chip your way down the field on Cal’s defense.

Creating pressure with linebackers

Cal collected 28 sacks in 2017, a solid +10 improvement on the year before. 28 sacks isn’t exactly a crazy number—in fact it’s pretty close to the national average. What was interesting was where those sacks came from—19 were recorded by linebackers (and another 1.5 from the secondary), an indication of how quickly Cal’s players learned their blitzing 3-4 scheme from the coaching staff. Cal’s linebacker havoc rate (the defense’s overall havoc rate probably needs to be better) was 11th in the country.

Weaknesses

Stuffing run plays

The flip side to Cal’s great ability to prevent big run plays was their inability to consistently stop runs at or behind the line of scrimmage. By most any measure (opportunity rate, stuff rate, success rate) Cal’s defense struggled badly to stop opposing running games from reeling off 5-yard run after 5-yard run. This weakness was a primary driver in struggles against Oregon, Arizona, and that final soul killing drive against Stanford.

This is likely a reflection of a defensive line that generally struggled to make disruptive plays. As discussed above, Cal’s havoc rate is very driven by their linebackers. And with Cal’s most disruptive lineman (James Looney) gone, this will be something to watch for 2018 (more below).

Standard-downs success rate

This is so closely related to the “stuffing run plays” weakness that I was tempted to skip it, but there is an important distinction. Cal struggles to stop teams for no or short gains on standard downs, which means that they struggle to force passing downs. Not stuffing runs is a big part of this, but it goes for the short passing game as well. And it gets into a larger strategic question for how Cal sets up the defense that will be discussed below.

Cal was pretty good in passing downs—their linebackers are solid in pass coverage and their strength is blitzing linebackers. But Cal struggled to force passing downs—and so most teams were able to chip their way down the field without too much trouble.

Potential new contributors

Defensive linemen Zeandae Johnson (rJr), Chinedu Udeogu (rSo), Gabe Cherry (rFr), and Siulagisipai Fuimaono (rFr)

Gone are Tony Mekari and James Looney, which means that a huge number of d-line snaps are available for newcomers. Most will likely go to guys like Tevin Paul and Rusty Becker, who were in the rotation last year in back-up roles. But the possibility exists that any of the guys above (particularly Johnson) will break through with major production when they get their first chance.

The good news is that there is a depth of options, with a bunch of young guys entering their second or third years in the program, which is typically when you would expect breakthroughs to happen. Fuimaono might be the key player on the entire defense because Cal is so obviously thin at nose guard. If he can immediately be a solid contributor behind Chris Palmer, Cal will be much better off both this year and next.

There’s always the possibility that younger guys at linebacker or in the secondary break through, but Cal has a depth of returning talent at those positions, so it’s unlikely that any younger players break through for major playing time.

Key Questions

How will the restructured defensive line perform, and will it be more disruptive?

As mentioned above, Cal’s defensive line struggled last year to be a disruptive factor. To be fair, that’s partly a design feature of the 3-4 system, but Cal would really benefit from more consistent point-of-attack success along the defensive line. But is that realistic when two starters must be replaced?

The question is how physically ready the younger guys are. It’s no secret that it takes time for high-school guys to develop the physical size, strength, and technique to hold up as 3-4 defensive linemen. Cal has a bevy of guys who have reached the end of their apprenticeship period and have to be ready to take that next step into live game action. If they are ready to produce, it will help the Cal defense take the next step.

How big of a second year leap will Cal get in the secondary?

For various reasons, Cal’s secondary is full of players that have about a season’s worth of on-field experience.

At cornerback, Cal relied on freshmen Elijah Hicks and Camryn Bynum and while they took occasional lumps, they generally performed excellently in their debut seasons.

Meanwhile, Cal has five safeties who have a bunch of years in the program, but less time on the field thanks to injuries. Jaylinn Hawkins has been the one safety to stay healthy and make a consistent on-field impact at the position. Alongside him, you have Ashtyn Davis, who has bounced around the field contributing at cornerback and special teams before transitioning to safety midway through last year. When you add in the (hopefully healthy) Evan Rambo, Trey Turner, and Quentin Tartabull, you can imagine depth and experience at safety for the first time in years for what has generally been a cursed position at Cal for the last five years or so.

Will the defense transition to a more aggressive play style? Should they?

All of the 2017 stats indicate a defense that played a relatively conservative style. Cal’s basic goal was to keep the offense contained in front of them, hope that the offense made a mistake, and pounce with disguised LB blitzes if they could force a passing down. For a defense that was broken the year prior—full of players that were either previously misused or brand new—that plan made a ton of success. Just focusing on being in the right place and making a tackle counted as meaningful progress.

And I can imagine Cal going with the same strategy, but hoping that experienced players make better/faster reads leading to better results. But it’s also true that Cal might want to take that experience and challenge players to play more aggressively, to take the fight to the opposing offense. That doesn’t necessarily mean more blitzes, but more aggressive linebackers and safeties crashing the line on running plays or cornerbacks who play more press coverage on receivers, trying to disrupt the passing game.

I don’t know what the right answer is, but I’m excited to see which direction the coaches go in year two.

Final Outlook

The good news is that the Cal defense has foundational pieces in place that you don’t need to worry about. The secondary is as strong as it has been in years. Cal’s starting linebackers are vets with upside and there are some intriguing names down the depth chart.

For those reasons, the Cal defense is almost certainly going to take another step forward in 2018.

But there is a football truism that you build from the lines out and that means that the size of that step forward will very much depend on the play Cal gets from their defensive line. Simply matching last year’s production would probably lead to a slight improvement. But you’ll recall that Cal started the season with serious depth questions before younger guys like Luc Bequette and Tevin Paul started to emerge as the year went on.

And if line play improves? If Cal’s line starts stoning inside run plays and pressuring passing plays from three-man rushes? Look out, because Cal’s defense will be the best since Mychal Kendricks, Cameron Jordan, and Mike Mohamed all roamed the field at the same time.