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Cal Football

Bear Insider Video: Inside Linebackers Rutchena & Barth

March 23, 2023

Both junior inside linebacker Nate Rutchena and redshirt soph ILB Hunter Barth have similar stories in their time at Cal, though it took a couple years for their paths to converge.

Rutchena came to Cal as a 6-3/200 athlete who was originally slated for safety but after greyshirting in fall of 2020 and enrolling the next spring, quickly switched to inside linebacker, where he instantly excelled, playing in 7 games and compiling 23 tackles and three interceptions, tied for second in the Pac-12.

“Yeah, that spring, going into that summer was a long transition,” Rutchena said. “I think I came in 200 lbs, 205 and transitioned up to 220.

“Playing inside linebacker, being in the front seven definitely was different. Never experienced that before. But Coach Sirmon and the assistant at the time just really helped me to improve at inside linebacker and learn the basics, like reading your keys and the right assignment and alignment. We had all sorts of playmakers around to really ease up my job , so it was a good transition."

Barth spent his first two seasons at Cal playing safety and this spring made the move to inside linebacker after seeing action in all 12 games last season, compiling 6 tackles for the season in a backup role. With the move, Barth brings a wealth of knowledge in both pass defense and moving up and playing the run, perhaps giving him a bit of an advantage in adapting to his new position more quickly.

"Yeah, I think it was really helpful," Barth noted. "I kind of saw everything from the back end, not only as my kind of knowledge of the game from that end, first passing. And now I see it at linebacker, and it kind of gives me a more holistic perspective of everything that's going on. So I think having that holistic perspective has kind of aided me in knowing where I'm supposed to be at, knowing where the people behind me are supposed to be at. And I kind of see that coming in and how I play the pass in practice or even fitting the run. So yeah, having that background's definitely helped."

Barth has the unusual benefit of playing alongside a teammate who made the same transition two years before, easing his transition in the process of changing positions three years into his collegiate career.

"Yeah, Nate's actually been a really good resource," Barth said. "He knows his stuff pretty good. And also seeing him (make the same transition) has kind of motivated me because if he can move from safety to linebacker, then I can, too. And then we're also roommates, so whenever I have a question or I'm watching film, if I'm not really sure, instead of firing a text to Sirmon, I'll fire a text to Nate, like, 'Hey, come check this out. What have I got on this play?' So yeah, he's been a good resource for me."

"I thought Hunter on Monday and Wednesday -today- I thought he had two really good days,” MLB coach and defensive coordinator Peter Sirmon said after practice Wednesday. “He was around the ball a lot more than he has been. He plays with toughness. I think he's got a real strong desire to get good at the position. So for him, he knows the words, he knows the alignments. Now we've got to give him more reps in the run game and in the pass game. But I'm pleased with how he's coming along. He has a good attitude. And he's a tough kid."

"Nate is another really quality player, and our room is competitive. And I need to try to make it even more competitive. You know, we brought you know brought Serge (MLB Sergio Allen), brought Jack in last year, so that the transfer thing will always be available at really every position. And those guys when the time is offered, when their opportunity is up, and when they get the chance, they have to be ready to go."

With sixth-year senior Jackson Sirmon, Clemson portal transfer Sergio Allen, former starter Mo Iosefa, redshirt junior Blake Antzoulatos and redshirt frosh Kaleb Elarms-Orr pushing Rutchena for reps, the junior from Danville is not spending time looking around him but rather focusing on what he needs to do to improve.

"For me, I'm kind of not really focused on competition," Rutchena said. "I'm kind of focused on seeing day-to-day improvement in myself. But having those guys around me that have experience, being able to learn from them and kind of match what they're doing. So I'm kind of just focusing myself for now."

Seeing Sirmon come in and put up the third most tackles in the conference and how he plays the game was a template for both players as they prepare for the 2023 season.

"For sure, I mean especially last year, watching what he put up on tape and seeing the production that he had. It's a really good teaching tool,” Rutchena said. “So a lot of the calls, a lot of the run fits, a lot of the assignments we have, we're able to learn a lot from Jackson.”

Both ILBs are happy with the progress the defense has been making this spring, battling against a more wide-open offense that should better prepare them for what they usually see from week-to-week in conference play and a renewed emphasis on a more physical style of play, with maximum effort rather than a more reactionary style of play.

"I think right now, we're definitely seeing good production on both sides of the ball,” Rutchena said. “Defensively, I think we're establishing the line of scrimmage, running to the ball with fanatical effort and knockback tackles, which has been a big improvement for us and a main emphasis for us in spring ball. And offensively, they're given us a lot of challenges, a lot of things that we haven't seen before so it's definitely helped and I'm excited for the Spring Game. We'll see what happens."

"Yeah, we made some great additions on defense and we're playing fast,” Barth said. “And we've all adjusted pretty well to Spavital's new offense. So I think it kind of matches more with what the Pac-12 looks like, so going against that in practice I think gives us a pretty good shot of having a pretty good defense in the fall."


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