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2018 Cal Football Preview: Linebackers

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This unit performed well last year and the starting cast is poised for a breakthrough in 2018

The Linebackers

Following the disastrous 2016 season on defense for the California Golden Bears, a new coaching staff and a move to a 3-4 defensive front—along with many returning players—sparked a massive turnaround in 2017. The linebackers were perhaps the top unit on defense last season, but we will need to replace a few key players in 2018. The starters look very good, but depth behind them is a concern.

The Starters

OLB Cameron Goode rSO 6-3 225

ILB Jordan Kunaszyk rSR 6-3 235

ILB Evan Weaver JR 6-3 235

OLB Alex Funches SR 6-2 240

Rotation

ILB Gerran Brown rJR 6-2 215

OLB Malik Psalms rJR 6-1 195

OLB Joseph Ogunbanjo FR 6-3 225

OLB Ben Moos rFR 6-4 230

ILB Evan Tattersall FR 6-2 225

ILB Colt Doughty JR 6-1 235

Others in Consideration

ILB Derron Brown rSR 6-1 210

OLB Deon White JR 6-4 205

OLB Nick Alftin FR 6-5 240

Coaching

This season Tony Tuioti will shift from OLB to DL coach following Jerry Azzinaro’s move down south to UCLA. Defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter will shift from coaching ILB to OLB and Peter Sirmon (former defensive coordinator at Louisville) was aded to the staff to coach ILBs.

OLB

This unit must replace solid starter Raymond Davison III, but its two starters this year look to form a very strong duo. Cameron Goode showed serious potential last season starting as a redshirt freshman before being sidelined for the season after nine games. He showed up healthy in the spring and has been as impressive as anyone on this side of the ball. He has plus-speed and is excellent in coverage, he is physical enough to hold the edge versus the run, and he has become an explosive edge rusher. He is a sure-fire candidate for postseason accolades. Meanwhile, Alex Funches returns as the primary pass rusher of the two. Funches was a great JUCO pickup last offseason and emerged as a dynamic pass rusher and backfield playmaker. Funches is still improving in coverage to enable Cal to be more versatile in its blitz packages. Both will be more instinctual and play faster as more experienced players this season.

The question about this unit, however, is the depth behind them. Malik Psalms is very intriguing situational player who will be used primarily on passing-downs as a hybrid Linebacker-Safety. He flashed his athletic ability last season, but still had much to learn mentally. He had a great offseason, but is not big enough to be an every-down player. Cal fans are excited about the incoming freshman Joseph Ogunbanjo. He appears to be everything Cal hoped for and should be a capable pass rusher in year one. I would expect to see him used primarily on passing downs as an edge rusher, but would not expect him to be very stout holding the edge this early in his career. Ben Moos is another player in the hunt for playing time. He moved to OLB from TE and has demonstrated the ability to become a solid player here. He has plenty of size and may be needed as a depth player against power-running teams. His development mentally and physically will be important this season, especially if Goode or Funches get injured. Deon White is a similar player as Psalms and looks groomed for the hybrid OLB-Safety role. He has more size than Psalms, but is a converted Safety, so I would not expect him to be a capable every-down player this season. Nick Alftin is another player the coaching staff wants to develop this season. He has a lot of size and may eventually move to DE later in his career. This year, Cal wants him to provide depth holding the edge and pass-rushing against power-running teams, but it may take more time to get him where they need him to be.

ILB

This unit will need to replace one the best defensive players Cal has had in a longtime in Devante Downs. Downs, however, was out for the year after seven games, so the defense has already adjusted to life without him. Jordan Kunaszyk emerged in the second half of the season becoming a very solid player poised for postseason accolades this year as a Senior. He is a very smart, instinctual player who is very physical defending the run. He excels at shedding blocks and making tackles in the box and can drop back in coverage. He is also a solid pass rusher, though he sometimes struggles making open-field tackles. Evan Weaver and Gerran Brown will likely split playing time alongside Kunaszyk. Both had quality seasons and will improve as Juniors. Weaver is an incredibly physical LB and forceful tackler. As his mental instincts improve he will be a very good run stopper and should show more as a pass-rusher this year. His lateral quickness and coverage ability are still improving, but he had an excellent offseason and may be able to supplant Brown as the starter. Gerran Brown was an awesome find by the coaching staff. He was a walk-on at Washington before leaving to Berkeley last season to play on scholarship. He is a bit undersized and not incredibly athletic, but makes up for it with great technique, instincts, and toughness. He plays as hard as anyone and gets the most out of his physical ability.

True freshman Evan Tattersall has emerged this fall and may have earned a spot in the two-deep. He is a heady player who looks much more seasoned than one would expect this early in his career. He also has enough size to be a factor early on and will be a future starter in years to come. Colt Doughty looks to be another rotational player. The JUCO product is improving throughout practice as he adjusts to the speed of Division One football. He should turn in a decent season and be good enough for backup duties. Derron Brown is another guy capable of earning playing time as he moves over from Safety. Brown, however, has not participated in fall camp yet, making him a difficult player to project.

Conclusion

There is a lot to like about the starting LBs this year and it could be as good of a first-string as Cal has had in a long time. There are depth questions, however—primarily at OLB. On the outside, there are plenty of options after Goode and Funches, but none look to be complete every-down players. Health will be critical here; if the injury bug does not hit this unit hard, Cal will improve on last season’s solid performance in year two of the Wilcox/DeRuyter era.