On Monday the Golden Bears took to the field under the warm Californian sun in one of their routine spring practices.
As a team plagued with injuries, the Bears are eagerly awaiting the return of some of their fellow teammates, who they hope can fill in some of the gaps that have opened up in their absence.
"We're a little thin in some spots, that's pretty typical of spring football," commented Cal head coach Sonny Dykes. "You start to get an injury here or there and guys got to double up. You've got to be careful and you don't want to look up and run out of linebackers or receivers or running backs or whatever, so we've got to do a good job of getting work done but making sure we take care of those guys." With several players out on injuries, it makes the team thin in some aspects, specifically in running backs, as Dykes admitted in his interview.
While the team is hoping for the timely recoveries of their teammates, some of the afflicted players have begun to make their way back onto the field. Walk-on running back Austin Harper, who impressed the team with his performance in practice a few days ago, participated in some non-contact activities on Monday after having surgery on his shoulder. Dykes hopes to make further progress with Harper, but he doubts that he will be active for the spring game that is rapidly approaching.
Running back Daniel Lasco also made an appearance at practice, where he "did a little bit of team stuff but not much," Dykes told reporters. Wide receiver Bryce Treggs similarly saw little work today due to injury. Darius Allensworth, a red-shirt freshman at corner back, was seen heading back to the locker room nursing an injured shoulder, but Dykes speculates that it shouldn't be too serious. The team is still waiting on an evaluation on Allensworth's injury.
Regarding Maximo Espitia, who is making the transition to outside linebacker from inside receiver and safety, Dykes said, "He's surpassed my expectations because that's a tough move sometimes. He's played a lot of different positions. He was a receiver, then he was a safety, now he's playing outside linebacker. The good thing is he's got the body to do it. He can carry weight, he's long. I had concerns about how physical he was going to be, and he's answered those concerns so far. He's been more physical, he's done a good job getting off blocks, and he's tackling pretty well. He's not ready to go by any stretch of the imagination, but he's making progress and I think ahead of schedule." With all of the attention that will be focused on the Bears' defense this year, having additional depth, which can in part be provided by players like Espitia making the change to defensive positions, is of the utmost importance.
Jason Gibson, who was one of the highest ranked recruits at linebacker when he joined the team in 2011, has had a career that's been bogged down with injuries. Despite these setbacks, he played safety for the Cal Bears last season and is making the transition back to outside linebacker where he should be more comfortable. While Dykes waits for Gibson to be acclimated with his old position, he gave praise to Ray Davison. "He's been a lot like Max [Espitia]. He's been a very pleasant surprise," Dykes commented. Davison played defensive end last season, but he was moved to linebacker to add depth at that position.
Another hurdle for the team this season, in addition to the issue of injuries, is adjusting to the new defensive scheme. While Dykes is happy overall with his team's progress picking up the new defense, there's still things they must improve on this offseason. "We're still learning how to run to the football. I don't think we're there yet, but I think we're learning how to do that," explained coach Dykes. Other than this point, Dykes had nothing but praise for his team learning the scheme of the new defensive coordinator Art Kaufman.
Linebacker Jalen Jefferson gave some insight into how the addition of Kaufman to the coaching staff is affecting the team. "From last year people think it was simplified but this year it's way more simplified. We don't have to think out there, we can just react and just play and make the plays that we need to do as a defense. Coach Kaufman, he's probably one of the best d. coordinators I've been with. He definitely knows his X's and O's, he knows things down to a point, and he gets guys where they need to be."
With a new body at defensive coordinator, it can make or break a defense. If a team is slow to adapt to new schemes, then sloppy play can sneak its way into the next season. From what we've heard, though, it sounds like the defense is learning quickly from Kaufman and that they will be ready for next season.
A new defensive coordinator can also act as a figurehead to bring the team together. "He [Kaufman] oversees the defense and he actually cares about us as people too," said Jefferson. "Last year I think that was one of our main problems. We didn't get together as a group and we didn't communicate as we needed to, but this year communication is a lot better."
These comments come as both praise for Kaufman as the new defensive coordinator, but also as a look into the defense's perception of the previous defensive coordinator Andy Buh. Last season, in Buh's first year as the defensive coordinator, the defense allowed the most points in a season in school history and ranked 125th out of 125 division 1 teams in points against with a staggering 45.9 points per game.
Despite challenges being faced by the team, including adapting to a new defensive scheme as well as trying to fill in gaps created by a high amount of injuries, the team appears to be making progress in the right direction and should be well-prepared for the upcoming season.
To view post practice interviews as well as highlight video from today's practice with new DL coach Fred Tate mic'd up, use the embedded viewers below:
Linebacker Jalen Jefferson:
Defensive line coach Fred Tate mic'd up: