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Cal Football Camp Preview - The Secondary

July 30, 2023
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Ashtyn Davis, Jaylin Hawkins, Cam Bynum, Elijah Hicks, Daniel Scott, Traveon Beck, Josh Drayden . . . the names of difference-making players who have patrolled the back end of Cal’s defense during the Wilcox era is a long and impressive one.   The first five on that list are all collecting NFL paychecks and between them, they have numerous AP12 honors.

That legacy helped to set the table for what could easily be the best Bears secondary in memory, and one of the top defensive back rooms nationally.   Cal returns ten of its top eleven players from 2022, including three players who have earned AP12 honors.   That apparently was not enough for the Bears staff as they went out and added the MWC Defensive Player of the Year and another MWC honors winner along with one of the best JC DB recruits in the country as well as Colorado’s starting CB from 2022.  The result is an extremely deep and versatile group

Bear Insider
Lu-Magia Hearns looks to rebound in 2023

Pre-Fall Depth Chart

Outside Cornerback

Nohl Williams‍ 

Lu-Magia Hearns‍ 

Kaylin Moore‍ 

Outside Cornerback

Jeremiah Earby‍ ‍ 

Isaiah Young‍ 

Tyson McWilliams‍ 

Marcus Scott‍ 

Nickelback

Matt Littlejohn‍ 

Collin Gamble‍ 

Cameron Sidney‍ 

Safety

Craig Woodson‍ 

Raymond Woodie III‍ 

Sailasa Vadrawale‍ 

Safety

Patrick McMorris‍ 

Miles Williams‍ 

Dejuan Butler‍ 

Breakout Player

Craig Woodson

While Woodson clearly “broke out” in 2022, with his AP12 Honorable Mention nod, to go along with 75 tackles, 2 interceptions, 3 TFLs, 3 passes defended, and a Forced fumble, the step forward he took this Spring was meaningful enough for him to get the nod here.

Woodson’s always been an explosive athlete, as his 6’5 HS High Jump mark will attest, with great initial burst and quickness as well as a physical hitter.   He always showed up in practice being around the ball and he started last year to translate that to playmaking.   This Spring, he wasn’t just around the ball, he was picking off the ball or knocking it or the receiver out on a regular basis.

The marriage of his natural instincts with his focus on film study and technique “clicked” and make him not only the leader of the secondary but one of the leaders on the team.  Look for him to earn a place on the 1st/2nd team AP12 team and hear his name get called in the NFL Draft

Newcomer to Watch

Bear Insider
UNLV transfer Nohl Williams made a big statement with his play this past Spring

Nohl Williams

Williams narrowly beats out fellow incoming transfer Patrick McMorris, primarily because his play this Spring is so fresh in our minds.   He was a revelation on the outside, nearly impossible to beat in press coverage and showing a physical style of coverage that showed off his length and strength.  Moreover, the UNLV transfer carries himself like a professional.  His demeanor on the field and in the film room is highly reminiscent of former Bear great, Cam Bynum.

Nohl may not be a pure measurables player though he can clearly run, but his technique, ability to read receivers and QBs makes up for not having 4.3 speed.   He’s particularly strong in run support which is not surprising given his 6’1, 195lb frame and his physical style of play.   

Key Questions For the Secondary to Answer During Fall Camp

Can Jeremiah Earby avoid a Sophomore slump?    Earby had a standout true freshman campaign, earning Freshman All-American honors and an AP12 HM nod.   At 6’2, with good ball skills and a safety-like mentality at CB, he proved he could match up with the P12's bigger receivers and still make plays.  

Jeremiah needs to avoid the step backward that his teammate Lu-Magia Hearns experienced after a strong first year.   Can he stay humble and work on correcting the many mental mistakes he made last year?   Can he improve his bump-and-run technique and prove himself to be a reliable coverage corner in man-to-man?  If he can, he gives the Bears a pair of tall, physical, ball-hawking corners that can free up Peter Sirmon to dial up the pressure on opposing QBs.  

How much positional versatility will we see?   There will likely be a lot of position swapping, particularly between the outside CB position and the Nickelback spot.  If Colin Gamble is fully healthy and Isaiah Young can improve his consistency, the Bears will have six CBs who are capable P12 starters on the outside.  Lu-Magia Hearns should be 100% back from his ND hip injury and he’s got a chip on his shoulder to prove his freshman year was not a fluke.  And Kaylin Moore comes in with as much starting experience as anyone in the group.   While Matt Littlejohn made a fast transition from the JC ranks this Spring and likely enters camp as the starter at the NB spot, any of the four players above can move inside and be effective.   And that doesn’t count RS Freshman Cameron Sidney, who looked like one of the most improved Bear defenders on the field this Spring.    Given the depth at CB, you may see some players sliding over to the Safety position.  Kaylin Moore, DeJuan Butler and potentially even Earby have the flexibility to play both spots.

Will the Bears play as much zone in 2023 as they did in 2022?   This will be interesting to watch in Fall Camp.  Given injuries to the secondary last season, Peter Sirmon seemed almost forced to play more zone than we’ve seen in years past.   That said, Williams and Earby and whoever starts at the Nickelback spot are going to have to prove they can hold up on islands against what will be a deep and explosive group of Pac-12 WRs.   The answer is likely a resounding yes as incoming SDSU transfer Patrick McMorris was among the nation’s best safeties in coverage and the competition for snaps at the corner and nickel back is likely to result into a crew of highly confident and capable DBs.   And a defense that can play press-man coverage is always going to be tougher to convert on shorter passes against and one that allows the Bears defense to blitz more often.

Bear Insider
Jeremiah Earby needs to avoid a Sophomore slump

Final thoughts

It says a lot that we can be to this section of the preview and barely have mentioned the two-time 1st Team All-Mountain West Conference transfer Patrick McMorris.  McMorris is big and physical yet has the knack of blanketing TEs, RBs, and WRs in coverage.   His experience, savvy and leadership only add to a room that is already overflowing with veterans.  

Patrick becomes the cherry on top for what should be the Pac-12’s best secondary.  What’s special about this unit is its depth.  Safety Miles Williams played at a high level in 2022, getting a lot of snaps beside departed and now NFL Safety Daniel Scott as well as Woodson.   Ray Woodie’s a proven veteran back there as well.   And the CB room has six players who have started more than 4 games, and four that have started 10+.   Whether they perform that well will in no small part be determined by the pressure the front six/seven can get on opposing QBs and how well a unit with four new additions to the two deeps can gel.   Cal will be looking for this group to take up their run support a notch after a spotty year in tackling and to deliver more interceptions than the eleven they generated in 2022.  If they can do those two things, the likely result is that the Bears will have their best defense in many years.

Related:

Cal Football Fall Camp Preview - The Defensive Line

Cal Football Fall Camp Preview - The Wide Receivers (Free Story)

Discussion from...

Cal Football Camp Preview - The Secondary

2,471 Views | 2 Replies | Last: 4 mo ago by UrsineMaximus
76BearsFly
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WOW! Auburn is in for a rude surpriseā€¦.hope the Offense meets expectations.
UrsineMaximus
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DBs will go as well as the front seven go. Can the DL create pressure? Do the OLBs have the experience and skill to get to the QB? Yes the DBs are talented and have experience but if the QB has all day to throw, he will find an open receiver.
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