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Preseason Preview Defense: Unit Has More Depth Than 2020

August 31, 2021
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The success Cal has had under head football coach Justin Wilcox has primarily been due to the defense. That is no surprise, given Wilcox’s background, and the unit is likely to lead the way again in 2021.

The Bears will be without some key elements of last year’s defense.  Zeandae Johnson and Camryn Bynum have moved on and lineman Brett Johnson is out indefinitely with an injury, but a lot of talent returns, and some newcomers have shown in practice they are ready to contribute now. If nothing else, the defense is deeper than it was a year ago.

“Overall I think the improvement on defense is more guys have shown they can help us in a game,” Wilcox said. “Ultimately it is going to come down to how well we execute.”

Ah, execution, the coaches’ euphemism for playing well.

When John McKay coached the Tampa Bay Bucs he was asked, “What do you think of your team’s execution?”

Replied McKay, “I’m in favor of it.”

Wilcox undoubtedly has a more kindly disposed to his defense, which will be tested early by Nevada and TCU.

The defensive line has some elements that were missing last year including depth and Luc Bequette.

© Kelley L Cox USA Today
Bears make a stop

The Bears were extremely thin here in 2020, playing just three true defensive linemen all year. One reason was Bequette’s transfer to Boston College, but he is back and lends stability and experience to a unit that is short on both.

Interior stalwart Brett Johnson is out with an injury, likely most if not all of the season.  That position will fall into the talented hands of three second-year players - Stanley McKenzie, Ricky Correia, and Jaedon Roberts.  And once he gets cleared to play, Senior Aaron Maldonado will also have a role.  

“I think those (younger) guys are going to have to help us,” Wilcox said. “To what extent we’ll see. We feel really good about the development. There are going to be a number of guys, which is what we want that rotate through there.”

McKenzie, who missed some fall practice time because of injury and a death in the family, might be the most interesting.

“He is a big, big guy. He’s strong, he’s smart, he is really learning the game,” Wilcox said. “He plays hard. He has instincts for playing blocks. He’s inexperienced. He is 330 or a little more. He’s hard to move, he’s not a sloppy 330.”

Cal Athletics
Luc Bequette

Bequette and JH Tevis figure to start at the end spots. Ethan Saunders will be the primary backup, with some younger players contending for playing time. Most notable among them are Akill Calhoun, Gunnar Rask, Jaedon Roberts and Derek Williams. 

Having more bodies available will not only keep everyone fresher during games, but also loosen things up during practice. It will permit Peter Sirmon’s inventive mind more freedom.

He said a big difference this year is simply, “how much we have been able to practice and what we’ve been able to practice. A big function is the depth of the defensive line.”

The inside linebackers group is certainly not as strong on paper as the other units. Moving Kuony Deng from inside to outside strengthened one group while weakening another. The loss of Blake Antzoultas to an injury didn’t help, but moving Myles Jernigan from outside to inside will in time provide athletic depth.

Although Wilcox said that there has been “competition” for playing time at the ILB position during fall camp, Evan Tattersall and Muelu Iosefa are the starters. Tattersall is very strong against the run, while Iosefa always seems to be in the neighborhood when the opposing team turns the ball over. 

There are a lot of bodies behind them, but not much experience. If Jernigan learns his new job that will help the rotation. When asked about the possible reserves defensive coordinator said the “Kyle Smith has really jumped out. He also mentioned Trey Paster, who can play the hybrid safety/linebacker position, Ryan Puskas, and freshman Nate Rutchena.

Kelly Cox USA Today
Kuony Deng

Outside linebacker is probably the strongest unit on the whole team, and most of that designation is traceable to the presence of  Cameron Goode. 

Goode is a “super senior”, who came back to Cal after briefly considering leaving for the NFL. Wilcox is glad he did. “He’s done a hell of a job — I don’t know if we talk about it enough,” Wilcox said. “He’s made a lot of plays for us for a number of years. His work ethic has been noticeable. His attention to detail playing that position.

“He looks really, really good, physically. He’s stronger than he’s ever been and he’s just as fast as he’s always been. I think Cam is primed for a really, really good season.”

In making the move from inside to out, Deng likely finds his more natural position.  At 6-6, 240, he is built more for the outside. He is a ferocious tackler who can shed blocks. If you want to double team him go ahead, two blockers can flail as easily as one. 

The two of them might not come off the field all that much, but when they do there will be talented replacements. Orin Patu started making plays almost as soon as training camp opened, particularly as a pass rusher and Braxten Croteau has been a stalwart against the run.

The secondary, a strong point since Wilcox arrived, will be stout again. At corner, sixth-year senior Josh Drayden has a ton of experience. Wilcox made it a point to say that “Chiggie (Chigozie Anusiem) and Collin Gamble have done a really nice job. Behind those three Tyson McWilliams and freshmen Lu-Magia Hearns III and Kaleb Higgins could have an impact before the season’s over.

Elijah Hicks, who started his career as a corner, is now an experienced safety. In his fifth season, he knows how to find the ball. Daniel Scott, another fifth-year senior, will start opposite Hicks.

The depth took a hit when Craig Woodson was lost for the year with an injury, but there are plenty of other choices. Raymond Woodie III, the transfer from Florida State, will provide some help as will soph Miles Williams and freshman Hunter Barth.

“Woodie is very instinctual and has been tackling very well,” Sirmon said. “As a newcomer to the system, there are some things that he is continuing to get better at in terms of technique….Miles Williams is a young player we’re really high on, he plays with a lot of energy and has nice range in the deep part of the field. Hunter Barth is a younger player that is continuing to develop.”

The secondary, and the rest of the defense will be tested early by Nevada quarterback Carson Strong in the opener and TCU’s Max Duggan in Week 2. 

Related:

Preseason Preview Offense: Experienced Unit Looking to Bounce Back

 

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Preseason Preview Defense: Unit Has More Depth Than 2020

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