What Wisconsin's 2016 Defense May Tell Us About Cal's 2017 Defense

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By Bear Insider Staff
Posted Jul 12, 2017
If by BearInsider Staff or Contributor, this article is Copyright © 2017 BearInsider.com


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-Photo by Jim Polzin/Wisconsin State Journal
As we begin to evaluate Cal's football prospects in 2017, it seemed relevant to look at what Justin Wilcox has accomplished as a defensive coordinator, in particular his most recent work with the Wisconsin Badgers.
Arriving in Madison in 2016, Wilcox inherited six returning starters on defense. That included three senior starters and two sophomores, the rest were juniors. The defense returned 65% of the tackles from 2015 with one 3rd team All Big 10 performer and one Honorable Mention player to the squad's credit.

A decently-experienced group, but on the whole, below average nationally in returning starters, tackles and honors winners.

The raw talent on the Wisconsin defense in the two deeps as based on aggregated rankings across top 6 national recruiting services was as follows:

Their four defensive back starters were ranked nationally in their class at #256, #104, #166 and #214, the backups were #198, #124, #173 and #33

Their starting linebackers were ranked nationally at #6, #209, #43 and unranked. Their backups were #69, #154, unranked and #137

On the defensive line, the top six were ranked #59, #128, #52, #82, #55 and #64

The 2015 Badgers had been a top notch defense so the culture and attitude Wilcox assumed were excellent. Schematically, they continued to run a 3-4, creating continuity. The raw talent in the defensive line was very solid. Conversely, the seven behind them was average to below average for a Power 5 school.

Given the level of raw returning talent and relative inexperience, the Badgers were expected to take a meaningful step back from the 2015 teams performance which was the very best in the history of the school. Yet under Wilcox's leadership, they actually came close to matching the prior season record-setting levels.

In 2016, they finished the season ranked among the elite defenses in the nation. Top 20 in yards per play allowed. 4th in Scoring defense. 10th in pass defense rating. 5th in opponent's 3rd down conversion.

While no one expects Cal's defense in 2017 to reach anything close to Wisconsin's level last season, it is interesting to compare what Wilcox and his staff have inherited here at Cal to what they saw in Wisconsin.

It starts with eight returning starters, six of whom are seniors, with one likely sophomore starter and one potential redshirt freshman. The defense returns 77% of the tackles from 2016, so they're a far more veteran and experienced group than what Wilcox saw at Wisconsin. Among the returning group is but one honorable mention All-Pac-12 performer, James Looney.

The raw talent in the projected two deeps as based on recruiting rankings is as follows:

The Bears four projected starters in the defensive backfield were ranked #109 (Allensworth), #105 (Franklin), #273 (Rambo) and #36 (Hawkins). Their projected backups were ranked #86 (Hicks), #113 (Beck), #110 (Brown) and #137 (Tartabull)

Cal's linebacker group starts with #30 (Downs), #145 (Davison), #317 (Saffle) and #156 (Funches) with the four likely backups at #146 (Anoa'i), #78 (Weaver), unranked (Kunaszyk) and #210 (Goode)

The defensive line top six were rated #149 (Mekari), #155 (Looney), #232 (Johnson), #247 (Bequette), #112 (Becker), #238 (Udeogu)

Coming off a disastrous defensive performance, the culture needs to be rebuilt and player development requires material augmentation. The flip to the 3-4 and the new scheme and terminology will take time for the team to absorb and master. The raw talent in the defensive line is below average and well below Wisconsin's last year though the back seven are solid and compare favorably to the Badgers.

Interestingly, some of Cal's more proven and promising defensive performers are among the lower rated recruits with Cameron Saffle, Evan Rambo, Zeandae Johnson and Cameron Goode.

The biggest takeaway is that Wilcox's success at Wisconsin was not based on a deep bench of 4 and 5 star recruits nor was it that he inherited a senior-laden experienced bunch with star power. And while the talent on the defensive line and the culture and player development he inherited were all part of 2016 success, it's hard not to believe that Wilcox had a big impact on what they were able to accomplish.

Under Wilcox's leadership, applying a system and teaching methodology he understands well, Cal has a chance to take some of the same elements that worked at Wisconsin and apply it to a very experienced group with strong leadership and decent if not uneven talent. Wisconsin has proven that it does not take elite talent to have an elite defense. Justin Wilcox knows better than most how to apply the Wisconsin model, thus there are reasons for optimism when it comes to improvement on the defensive side of the ball in Berkeley this season.
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