Rebuilding the Cal Defense a Bear of a Job

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By David Bush, Staff Writer
Posted Mar 29, 2017
If by BearInsider Staff or Contributor, this article is Copyright © 2017 BearInsider.com


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Defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter -Photo by Norman Mo
The biggest task facing Cal's new coaching staff is taking one of the worst defenses in the country and making it at least respectable.

That won't be easy. Cal ranked near the bottom nationally in most defensive numbers including total yards allowed per game (518.3, 125th out of 128), points allowed per game (42.6, 127th) and first downs allowed (24.6, 123rd). No one disputes those numbers, there can be no argument.

But as to a cause, opinions vary, and therefore no one can be quite certain exactly how to fix it.

Injuries certainly played a part as inexperienced replacements were thrust into games and the Bears paid the price. Missed assignments became the norm.

"Guys weren't in gaps during games in certain parts. We had a lot of young guys who had step up and that was kind of a learning curve for them as well," said outside linebacker Cameron Saffle after a spring practice session last week.

Obviously there was more to it. "It was a combination," linebacker DaVante Downs said. "We had a lot of missed tackles and we had bad communication at some times."

And it seemed to build on itself. "Anytime you don't have success and you have a bunch of new guys in because of a real rash of injuries, it's tough to build some confidence," said new defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter, who is responsible for improving the unit. And I think that was a big thing. Guys played hard, they chased the ball, but when you're not playing with a swagger on defense, it's difficult.

One outside observer said he felt the problems could be traced to personnel. "I think that there was element of size up front that was dramatically different from what they needed to have," said a former college and pro defensive coordinator. "I think they have pretty good DBs. But they didn't have a dominant guy up front, in the down guys or in the linebacker position either."

The Bears certainly did not have a disruptive player such as Stanford's Solomon Thomas or Utah's Hunter Dimick. "There just wasn't a guy you really had to worry about," the ex-assistant said.

DeRuyter is switching the basic alignment from 4-3 to 3-4. That not only suits Cal's personnel, but it has always been his preferred formation.

"In my opinion you are putting a more athletic guy on the field and you can adjust to anything an offense does," DeRuyter said, explaining his preference. It's something that's a little bit different. More and more teams went to it extensively in the National Football League. It's something that matches up with the modern offenses."

"It can work against the spread because you've got more (defensive) guys on their feet," the ex-assistant said.

DeRuyter has something going for him that his immediate predecessors did not, a head coach with a background on defense. Both Sonny Dykes and Jeff Tedford before him were offensive specialists. Justin Wilcox played defensive back and Oregon and all 16 years of his coaching experience, including three at Cal (2003-2005) have been on defense. That certainly helps smooth the transition.

"The biggest thing for him is changing the defenses," Saffle said. "He does a good job of relating it to what we used to know and what we know now. He's done a good job of picking up the intensity."

Wilcox is not afraid to get down and dirty with his players, all the while never losing sight of his responsibilities as a coach.

"Coach Wilcox was the scout team quarterback for the defense yesterday, just pressing everyone to get in their keys and everything like that," Saffle said. "The biggest point that Coach Wilcox made since the beginning. "You mess up once, the coaches will fix it. The second time, it's on you guys."

DeRuyter and Wilcox wouldn't say as much, but their early points of emphasis indicated they saw the defense lacking in certain skills. They had the players working on tackling from Day One of spring practice.

Tackling is a problem all over the country, "DeRuyter said. "And when you bring these guys in you talk to them about where their eyes need to be, talk to them about leverage. We are going to be a shoulder level tackling team, that's what we believe in.

"I don't know if they were taught in those terms, everyone teaches a little bit differently. We believe in it strongly. It's a safe tackle, it's a physical tackle. It's just teaching guys proper eyes, proper angles, and then proper leverage.

"In this game, offenses are really good at spreading defenses out and playing with tempo. If you don't understand the basics of tackling and leverage points you can become a poor defense very quickly. Coach Wilcox had a great plan the first three days for having extreme fundamental practices. We had a chance to really drill things down to studs level, where guys learned the absolute basics of tackling. We started on our knees, moved up to a four-point stance and progressed from there."

Another factor that worked against the Cal defense was the Cal offense. Offenses such as Dykes' did not attract many of the types of players the defense would confront in run-oriented teams like USC and Stanford. As a result the Bears were practicing against the types of players they wouldn't see every weekend. Preparing for a team that emphasizes the run is difficult when most of what you see in practice is pass plays.

"I'm not sure what kind of offense Cal is going to run," the former defensive coordinator said. "But it might give them an opportunity to practice against teams that run the ball."

The Bears have been hampered somewhat by some players unavailability. No fewer than seven defensive players, including defensive line stalwart James Looney are out for all of spring practice because of injury. That is not making things easier.

"Like everywhere, you'd like to have more guys," DeRuyter said. "We're down numbers-wise particularly up front."

Although the players tried to put up a brave front last season, the continued struggles and constantly hearing about how bad they were had to take its toll. But DeRuyter said that sometimes what went wrong in a former season can turn into an advantage in the new one.

"When teams don't have success the year before, they're looking for something new," DeRuyter said. "It's easy to brush that aside, but if you doubt yourself you're not going to play as well as you can. So our big challenge is getting these guys in position to make plays so they can gain confidence and then that multiplies.

"I have been fortunate. In the last couple of stops I've taken over defenses that were in similar situations. When you bring guys back that have played and are a little bit scarred, they also have a chip on their shoulder. They are ready to attack this thing get better and really challenge an offense. That's where we want to get them to, were they think they are not reacting to an offense but really attacking an offense."

The message might be getting through. "One thing about this team is just the resilience of us," Saffle said. "Last year, obviously we made a lot of mistakes, but we came back and tried to learn from those mistakes. With the season we had last year, with the amount of yards we were giving up, we were just looking to fix stuff. This year with the new staff with the fresh start, we are not going to think about last year, we're looking forward.

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