2021 College Football Season Preview: The Defense

How will the Cal coaching staff balance the return of so many familiar faces with a growth of a new generation of underclassmen defenders?

Part 1Will the real Golden Bears please stand up?
Part 2: Special Teams

Practice ReportsNotebook 1Notebook 2Notebook 3Notebook 4Notebook 5Notebook 6, Notebook 7

Ahh, the Wilcox defense. Steady, reliable, consistent - at least as it goes in the unstable world of college football. For two years now we’ve been wondering whether or not the Cal defense can take a step forward from the 2018 vintage that all but won games singlehandedly. Combining Wilcox’s coaching with higher end recruiting might lead to a more disruptive, aggressive defense. Or so the theory goes. Is this that year?

2020 Defense, revisited

In prior years, I’ve divided this section into strengths and weaknesses, but that’s nigh impossible to do this year for two reasons:

  1. Last year was just four games and those games ranged from questionably meaningful to downright silly.

  2. Even in the context of just four games of data, Cal’s defense appeared to be very, very average in every regard.

Yards allowed/play? 7th in the Pac-12. Yards/run allowed? 5th. Yards/passing attempt allowed? 8th. 3rd down conversion %? 4th.

The defense turned in one awful performance (vs. UCLA), one epic performance (vs. Oregon) and two OK performances (vs. OSU and Stanford) and it all kinda averaged out to average.

There were of course some standard Wilcoxian hallmarks - Cal was still pretty good about preventing big plays (Jermar Jefferson notwithstanding) but struggled at times to create disruptive plays and get opponents off the field.

It’s also worth noting that Cal only forced five turnovers in four games. Of course, you could pick any random team from any random season and probably find a four game stretch where they had 4-6 turnovers, so it’s really really hard to say if that means anything or not.

Unit Summaries

Defensive line

Presumed starters:

Defensive End: junior JH Tevis
Nose Guard: sophomore Stanley McKenzie/sophomore Ricky Correia
Defensive End: senior Luc Bequette

Depth: sophomore Ethan Saunders, sophomore Jaedon Roberts, senior Aaron Maldonado, maybe junior Brett Johnson?

The good news: Luc Bequette is back after a quiet year out east that we can all just pretend never happened. The bad news: Brett Johnson is out for some amount of time, although there are reasons to hope that his injury won’t cost him the entire season.

Last year, Cal only played three defensive linemen for the entire season, which they were sorta able to get away with since the season was just four games long. Zeandae Johnson has moved on, and Johnson may or may not be able to play, so that leaves Tevis and Bequette to hold things down, at least initially.

Tevis emerged last year as a surprisingly successful starter despite being very lightly recruited out of Menlo, and he helped stabilize a line that would have had to turn to true freshman otherwise. Would you believe that he actually finished the season with more tackles for loss than Johnson? (Though Johnson was playing slightly out of position at nose guard and was regularly double teamed).

It’s those former true freshmen who will be fighting it out at nose guard and for rotational snaps. Stanley McKenzie and Ricky Correia will battle with Aaron Maldonado at nose guard, and Ethan Saunders and Jaedon Roberts will try to force is way onto the field at either end position. The hope is that while Johnson is out, Cal makes up for in depth what they lack in a singular star impact player.

Linebackers

Presumed starters:

Outside linebacker: senior Cameron Goode
Inside linebacker: junior Evan Tattersall
Inside linebacker: sophomore Muelu Iosefa
Outside linebacker: senior Kuony Deng

Depth: junior Braxten Croteau, sophomore Trey Paster, sophomore Orin Patu, sophomore Blake Antzoulatos

While every linebacker who contributed last year back, there is one big change - the presumed switch of Kuony Deng from inside to outside linebacker. How much of this is driven by lack of depth at outside linebacker vs. more depth at inside linebacker isn’t entirely clear, and it’s also possible that Deng will move around a bit positionally depending on what Cal needs on any given play.

Still, how much the linebacking unit improves will likely tie in closely with how much improvement Cal gets from younger players like Evan Tattersall and Muelu Iosefa, who, like so many on the roster, are experienced in terms of time on campus but less experienced in terms of total snaps played. As noted above, I’m giving the incumbency nod to Tattersall and Iosefa due to the playing time they got this year, but I’d expect Paster and Antzoulatos to push both of them and get plenty of rotation snaps.

Secondary

Presumed starters:

Cornerback: senior Josh Drayden
Safety: senior Elijah Hicks
Safety: junior Daniel Scott
Cornerback: sophomore Chigozie Anusiem

Depth: senior Branden Smith, sophomore Craig Woodson, junior Raymond Woodie III, sophomore Collin Gamble

With only Cam Bynum gone and off to the NFL, Cal’s secondary is largely in tact. Josh Drayden largely played nickelback last year, but Cal was in nickel so frequently that he was essentially a starter. The nickel position this year is maybe a bit more up in the air. My money would have been on Craig Woodson as the 5th DB, but his injury absence from practice adds a bit more uncertainty to the equation.

There were depth questions last year, and then Cal played a 4 game season in which the veteran starters all stayed healthy and got all the playing time, and thus there are still depth questions. Are players like Smith, Woodie, and Gamble ready to step in if needed?

Defining questions

How much Brett Johnson will we get, and how much will his absence hurt?

While JH Tevis and Luc Bequette are good players, and while Cal’s group of sophomores are intriguing, none of them are likely to be as explosive and impactful as Brett Johnson. And while defensive linemen who can plug gaps and occupy linemen are valuable, guys who can slice through double teams and terrorize single coverage are invaluable.

Maybe Johnson is back earlier than we hope - say, by the Oregon game. If that’s the case, the ceiling of Cal’s defense takes a big step forward. But if the Cal line without him is similar to prior seasons - solid, workmanlike, but not consistently disruptive - then the ceiling for Cal’s defense falls.

Will we get a year two jump from any of Cal’s prospective inside linebackers?

As mentioned above, Cal has a bevy of relatively inexperienced inside linebackers who will have to prove themselves this year. Tattersall and Iosefa had flashes of excellent play last year, but neither would they make you forget about the down-to-down impact play of Evan Weaver or Jordan Kunaszyk.

Is that an unfair expectation? Damn right it is, we’re talking about the two best middle linebackers of the last decade, if not longer. But such is the life of playing ILB for a Justin Wilcox defense, when so much responsibility for run fits and pass coverage over the middle falls on your shoulders.

Can Cal rediscover their ball hawk instincts, and is there depth in the secondary?

For two years in a row (or, I guess, 1.3 years in a row?) Cal hasn’t forced a ton of turnovers. With a bunch of returners back, maybe it’s not realistic to expect those same players to suddenly start grabbing every errant pass.

On the other hand, there might be more than a few errant passes, as Cal’s schedule is littered with new and unproven quarterbacks. The best way to exceed expectations? Force a whole bunch of turnovers and get your offense a bunch of extra possessions.

Meanwhile, I think Cal’s coaching staff and Cal fans have plenty of trust in the likely starting 4 in the secondary, and certainly players like Elijah Hicks and Josh Drayden have a ton of on-field experience. But there are injury concerns at safety and experience concerns behind the first four. We’d all prefer to stay as healthy as possible, but at some point the backups will be called upon.

Final Outlook

The equation seems pretty simple: OUT: Cam Bynum and Zeandae Johnson. IN: Luc Bequette and a new batch of recruits. EVERYBODY ELSE: another year of strength and conditioning and reps of practice. The result: a better defense, right?

The answer, I think, is probably, though not automatically. While Cal’s defense lacked in depth last year, they made up for it in good health and no COVID issues at every position except for nose guard, where Brett Johnson deputized. As a result, with almost everybody back, the main question is how much better all of the underclassmen will be, and whether or not any of them will either demand playing time or help create a deeper team that can play fresher both in game and across the season.

If Cal gets more Brett Johnson than anticipated, the young ILBs step up and stand out, and Cal’s secondary depth isn’t tested, this team should push Oregon and Washington as one of the best defensive units in the conference.

On the other hand, Johnson’s absence is obvious and painful, and Cal doesn’t get impact play from any of their underclassmen, then we’ll probably see a defense very similar to 2020 - great games mixed with head-scratchers mixed with solid-but-unremarkable performances.

As always, it’s wise to split the difference. Cal probably doesn’t have the sheer depth of talent to approach the Oregons and Washingtons of the conference, but the defense will likely be solidly above average in the Pac-12 and not the source of meaningful complaints among Cal fans.