2021 Cal Football Positional Preview: Defensive Line

Rookie(s) and the Seventh-Year Vet

Three days before Cal Football’s rescheduled 2020 season opener against Washington, a member of the defensive line tested positive for COVID-19. 

From there, you know the story. For much of the next few weeks, the entire team played catch-up as it salvaged four games, one of which was played just hours after a portion of the defensive line was cleared to travel to Pasadena. Did I mention the game was at 9 a.m.? 

As one of the more consistent if not breathtaking position groups under Justin Wilcox’s tenure, there’s reason for optimism following a rocky 2020, even if the majority of bumps weren’t anyone’s fault. 

If you’re looking for excuses, third-year position coach Andrew Browning certainly won’t provide any. Still, aside from a couple of players who will be in the starting 11 on Sept. 4, there isn’t a whole lot to take away from the 2020 tape other than experience to be gained and lessons to be learned. 

A pass rush led by undrafted free agent Zeandae Johnson, Brett Johnson and JH Tevis managed seven sacks across those four contests, with three coming from outside linebacker Cameron Goode. Tevis, who began playing the majority of snaps for the first time in his career, introduced himself to the UCLA offense with a bang, securing 10 total tackles and ultimately led the defensive line with 3.0 tackles-for-loss on the year. He saw two more starts and emerged as a reliable pass rusher, returning this fall as the only defensive end with a start to his name. 

Between 2018 and 2019, Tevis jumped from 225 pounds to 275 (shoutout to former S&C coach Torre Becton). With Zeandae Johnson’s departure and Tevin Paul not returning to the team after opting out of 2020, Tevis’ experience in four games (three starts) is critical for setting the edge against the premier playmakers in the Pac-12. With Cam Goode and Kuony Deng returning for one last rodeo behind the defensive ends, the onus falls on Tevis to lead a promising but raw group of underclassmen. 

If there’s one thing Browning did well this past year, it was recruit well. And I mean really well. Collectively, Cal’s 2021 recruiting class ranked No. 3 in the Pac-12, led by the likes of receiver J. Michael Sturdivant and tight end Jermaine Terry, but punctuated by defensive ends Derek Wilkins and Akili Calhoun, both of whom have immediately opened eyes during their first fall camp. 

Hint: catching passes thrown by the quarterback. In day five of fall camp, Wilkins made a one-handed interception after drifting back from his defensive end position. 

Don’t expect a pick every week from Wilkins, arguably the top defender in Cal’s freshmen class. But the athleticism that Wilkins, Calhoun and true sophomores Ethan Saunders and Jaedon Roberts can offer alongside projected starting nose guard Aaron Maldonado (when healthy, more to come) will alleviate the loss of the team’s most talented D-lineman since Cameron Jordan. Throw in JUCO transfer Darius Long and former De La Salle product Gunnar Rask into the mix — Wilcox acknowledged this week that “they’re all going to play,” which for better or worse creates a revolving door of opportunity.

Of course, not everyone will play. Out of the lineup is far-and-away the most talented of this bunch, junior Brett Johnson, who is sidelined for 2021 due to injuries stemming from an offseason accident, and eyeing a return in the spring of 2022. While the offensive line (and the offense as a whole) will have tremendous shoes to fill with Michael Saffell’s medical retirement, it’s tough to argue that Brett Johnson’s absence isn’t the biggest offseason loss for the Bears. 

There admittedly aren’t a plethora of NFL-caliber prospects on the 2021 roster — at least not yet — but Brett is clearly one of the top names when it comes to projecting future professional talent. As he focuses his attention on recovery, mentoring the young studs who will attempt to fill his shoes, and perfecting the mustache that is one of the better ones in recent Cal memory, the Bears plan are re-integrating a pair of veterans into the fold. 

Although Coach Wilcox has always preached position battles all the way to the end, a healthy Maldonado has always had the inside lane to the starting nose guard role. A promising 2018 gave way to back-to-back injury-ridden seasons for one of the most intense and physical players on either side of the ball. 

After missing the start of 2019 and all of 2020, it remains to be seen what type of production Maldonado will bring, but just being on the field is what Cal desperately needs. That won’t be the case for week one against Nevada, with Coach Wilcox acknowledging that Maldonado is still out of the lineup, at least at the start of the season. With talented names like Stanley McKenzie and Ricky Correia part of the mix up front but without experience, I expect Maldonado to see heavy usage and an opportunity to surprise folks as one of the more unexpected stars of Peter Sirmon’s attack. Until he returns, McKenzie is expected to get the first crack at starting NG duties.

“There’s bigger bodies, no doubt,” Wilcox said about the youth up front. “We are very inexperienced. If you look at the defensive line group, Luc Bequette has played a lot, JH has played quite a bit. But the rest of them have played hardly at all. It’s a lot of young guys who are getting their first significant game experience.”

Last, but not certainly not least, a welcome back to the honorary senior citizen of the group. 

When Luc Bequette first stepped foot on campus, the current freshmen on the 2021 roster were in seventh grade. While Jared Goff was the talk of the town on the gridiron, Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb were just about to lead the men’s hoops program to their best season in recent memory. It all feels like ages ago, but Bequette has seen it all. 

If you don’t know Luc’s story by now, returning to Cal was never a sure thing. Originally raised in Arkansas by a Razorback family, Bequette has often described coming to the Bay Area as an adventure. And even after his 11-game stint at Boston College in 2020, Berkeley was ingrained as his home enough to lure him back for one more adventure — his seventh collegiate merry-go-round. 

After playing on a waiver all the way through mid-August, the return was officially completed this past week — No. 93 (and his extra locks of hair) is back. His Cal career spans 42 contests, 12.5 tackles-for-loss and 10 tackles, not to mention an iconic performance in the Bears’ 2018 upset of USC. Eleven games at Boston College, and he now has the rare opportunity to eclipse 60(!) collegiate contests to his name. Cue the grandpa jokes. 

Move over Ray Hudson and Zeandae Johnson. The new “he’s *still* at Cal??” crown belongs to one Luc Bequette. And we couldn’t be happier that he’s back.