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Post Spring Unit Breakdowns - The Defensive Line

May 16, 2023
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It all starts up front.   And defensively, that means the big boys in the trenches. For Peter Sirmon’s defense, it will be Andrew Browning’s charges that will set the tone at the line of scrimmage, stuffing the run and disrupting the opponent's offensive line.  A depleted unit took a step back in 2022, giving up more explosive runs and contributing fewer TFLs than at any time in the Wilcox era.  This Spring, most of the unit was on the mend with Brett Johnson, Akili Calhoun, Derek Wilkins, Jaedon Roberts and Darius Long all sitting out to get their bodies ready to go for Fall Camp. Conversely, the Bears welcomed back stalwart NG/DT, Stanley McKenzie-Saole. Given the number of spread-style offenses, the Bears will play a lot of 2-4-5 with only two DL on the field, going to the traditional 3-4 only against power running teams (e.g. Utah) and in obvious run situations.  

Spring Player Evaluations:

Ethan Saunders‍: Ethan took another step forward this Spring as he was consistently disruptive in both the run and passing game. Perhaps the best natural pass rusher in the unit, Saunders has gotten stronger and more explosive each year he’s been in Berkeley.  Peter Sirmon is exceptionally high on Saunders and a lot will be expected of him in 2023.  No one will be rooting more for his injured teammates to get back on the field than Saunders as he played far more snaps (often dinged up) in 2022 than is optimal for a DE/DT

Ricky Correia‍:   The big man up front had his best Spring in a Bears uniform.  While he still needs to work on the consistency of his pad level and his ability to occupy multiple blockers on straight-ahead run plays, Ricky’s a beast when the OL tries to block him 1:1. He’s got naturally heavy hands and has improved his core strength to allow him to shed blocks more easily. His greatest strength is his ability to move at his size and he’s got surprising lateral agility and foot speed. He will also benefit from not having to carry such a heavy load of snaps.

Stanley McKenzie‍:  McKenzie was missed in 2022.   The most natural run-stopper on the team, he’s a prototypical NG/interior DT in his ability to get low and hold his position despite being double-teamed.  Unsurprisingly, McKenzie looked a bit out of shape early this Spring after sitting out all last year and he’s got some work to do to get his fitness level back but he seemed to shed some of those extra pounds as spring ball wore on. That said, he was still impressive with his strength and ability to discard blockers.  He’s going to play a big role in 2023

Nate Burrell‍:  One of the standout freshmen in 2022, Burrell flashed surprising strength and physicality at DE. He’s slippery and surprisingly powerful for his size, adding some pass-rushing upside to his run-stopping ability and he’s added some much-needed weight in the offseason. He was solid this Spring and given the depleted numbers, he got a lot of reps with both the 1’s and 2’s.  Even with the reinforcements arriving in the Fall, Burrell’s in a good spot to be part of the rotation up front.

Ieremia Ieremia:  The former rugby player who came to football late has yet to contribute meaningfully on the field for the Bears. He’s got good size and speed, yet is still learning the necessary techniques to be a contributor.  He’s also a bit of a tweener.  Not long or quick enough to play outside and at 280, not as big or strong as is ideal on the DL

Curlee Thomas‍: The HS sack master had his first Spring practice and showed that he has work to do before he can have an impact.   Originally signed as an OLB, Thomas was moved to the DL after the Fall.  He’s got long arms and had an occasional flash in 11 v 11s this Spring but struggled to show the intensity, power, and strength needed to earn a spot in the rotation.

Outlook for 2023:  Positive (with a chance to be Very Positive)

If everyone’s available, this is as deep a defensive front as we’ve seen at Cal in a long, long time.  It’s all about the health of this unit as there is everything else a staff wants in a group up front.  There’s size, athleticism, and a lot of experience.  Is there star power?  All eyes will be on Brett Johnson, to see if he can not only return but do so with the power and athleticism he showed two seasons ago.  That’s a lot of time off and the injury history isn’t confidence-inspiring but he’s a difference-maker. Saunders is ready to take the next step with more help around him and he has the ability.  And Correia and McKenzie could be as good a 1-2 punch in the middle as anyone in the conference.  Jaedon Roberts, Darius Long and Nate Burrell have all shown they can contribute and each should benefit from their extensive playing time last season.  Then there’s the young talent with the highly touted duo of Akili Calhoun and Derek Wilkins.  Cal’s ability to rotate as many as nine players is in and of itself difference-making.  A fresh DL with average talent is often better than a tired DL with elite talent. It’s worth noting that the Cal staff looked to upgrade every position group on the field via the transfer portal save one - the defensive line.   This group is loaded and if they can stay healthy, they can be the catalyst for one of the nation’s top potential defensive units.

Projected Depth Chart:

These spots are completely interchangeable and likely will see an eight-man rotation to keep folks fresh.  We have not included the incoming class of 2023 recruits as all of them are more likely to project at OLB

2-4-5

Left DT:

Brett Johnson‍ 

Ethan Saunders

Nate Burrell

Akili Calhoun‍ 

Curlee Thomas V

Right DT:

Ricky Correia

Stanley McKenzie

Jaedon Roberts‍ 

Darius Long‍ 

Derek Wilkins‍ 

Ieremia Ieremia

3-4-4

LDE:

Brett Johnson

Jaedon Roberts

Derek Wilkins

Ieremia Ieremia

NG:

Ricky Correia

Stanley McKenzie

Darius Long

RDE:

Ethan Saunders

Nate Burrell

Akili Calhoun

Curlee Thomas V

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