2021 Season Review: The Defense
Cal rode their seniors in the secondary to a solid defensive season; can a surprising group of young starters up their game in 2022?
This is a post I would have preferred to write in January, following a bowl game. Alas, with Cal finishing one game short, it’s time to start a season review now.
In case you’d like to remind yourself, here’s my pre-season preview of the defense. I’d like to retroactively apologize to Pac-12 defensive freshman Lu-Magia Hearns for not even listed him as potential depth in the secondary, though I don’t think I was alone in assuming a redshirt season for Pittsburgh’s finest.
Between Hearns, Nate Rutchena, and Femi Oladejo it was a banner year for unexpected true freshman contributions on Cal’s defense. However, as expected, it was the veteran secondary trio of Elijah Hicks, Daniel Scott, and Josh Drayden who were the beating heart of what went right on this side of the ball.
My Non-Bold Prediction
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.
Yards/play allowed: 5.3, 43rd in the country, 5th in the Pac-12
Points/drive allowed: 1.97, 42nd in the country, 2nd in the Pac-12
SP+ rankings: 55th in the country, 5th in the Pac-12.
Turnovers Gained: 20, 31st in the country, 3rd in the Pac-12
Yeah, that’s solidly above average in the Pac-12. The Bears were a big step behind the defense that Utah fielded, and a smaller step behind defenses at Arizona State, Oregon, and Washington.
Now, you might point out that Cal actually finished 2nd in the Pac-12 in points/drive allowed - doesn’t that mean the Bears had the 2nd best defense in the conference? The object of the game is to prevent scoring, no? Well, yes, but Cal only narrowly finished ahead of a number of other Pac-12 teams in that metric, and the Bears benefitted from bad field goal kicking from their opponents (they made just 12/19 field goals, the 15th worst rate in the nation).
Cal also faced an easier schedule than their conference mates, avoiding Utah and Arizona State from the South and playing zero marquee opponents. Facing 5-7 TCU on the road or 8-4 Nevada at home isn’t a wildly easy schedule, but nearly every Pac-12 team played at least one if not two non-conference games against tougher opponents (Michigan, LSU, BYU, Ohio State, Minnesota, Notre Dame, Texas A&M, SDSU, Fresno State, Kansas State, Purdue).
It’s also worth noting that Cal’s defense clearly got better as the season went along. To a certain extent it’s a reflection of who they played; non-conference opponents Nevada and TCU had offenses that were ahead of their defenses. But Cal allowed 6 yards/play vs. Nevada/TCU/Sac State vs. just 5 yards/play vs. Pac-12 competition. It took some time for a Cal defense forced to mix in an unexpected number of younger or newer players into the rotation.
Pre-Season Defining Questions in Review
How much Brett Johnson will we get, and how much will his absence hurt?
The first part is easy: no Brett Johnson. Despite a late summer rumor that Johnson might be able to unexpectedly return at some point in 2021, he didn’t play a snap.
Without their most dynamic player, Cal’s defensive line was solid but not necessarily noteworthy. Cal finished 72nd in the nation in sacks/game, 80th in tackles for loss/game, and 54th in the nation in yards/run allowed.
Cal’s line was generally capable at holding up at the point of attack and occupying blockers so that linebackers and safeties could make plays, but didn’t make a ton of disruptive plays themselves. Notably, only 10 of 23 sacks and 16.5 of 65 tackles for loss came from down lineman.
To a certain extent that’s reflective of the role Cal had their linemen play this year - Cal ran plenty of 2-4-5 formations, and your defensive linemen aren’t going to rack up as many counting stats when there are only two on the field much of the time. But the fact that Cal chose to run so many two down lineman snaps is also an indication of where Cal’s coaches thought the strength of the defense sat.
Without Brett Johnson, and with most of their other linemen in their 1st or 2nd year in the program, Cal chose to play more linebackers and secondary players. I think it’s hard to argue that wasn’t the right choice, but boy would it be nice if Brett Johnson and all of the young guys on the roster help to create a more disruptive defensive line unit. With Luc Bequette and JH Tevis both moving on, they’ll have to.
Will we get a year two jump from any of Cal’s prospective inside linebackers?
The answer was partial yes, but it took a little while.
Cal’s two inside linebacker spots were shared among five different players; Mo Iosefa, Evan Tattersall, Nate Rutchena, Femi Oladejo, and Trey Paster all got between 345 and 249 snaps out of 871 total available. All five missed at least two games, though it’s not entirely clear if the missed games were injury, COVID, or coaching decision.
All five struggled earlier in the season; all five had moments of obvious growth as the season went along. Pretty much the entire group struggled badly with tackling and pass coverage to start the year, but the group slowly improved as they gathered more reps.
Evan Tattersall has left for the transfer portal; he played extensively in Cal’s first four games, but appeared to have been passed up in the rotation by younger players and only played in two games the rest of the way. It’s that younger group of four that will be expected to take another step forward. All four just finished their freshmen season by eligibility; all four were 1st or 2nd year players. With four established returners, Cal will be VERY confident in their depth at ILB entering 2022. The hope will be that at least two of the four take the jump from solid starter to impact starter.
Can Cal rediscover their ball hawk instincts, and is there depth in the secondary?
The answer to the first question is a qualified yes. As noted above, Cal had solid turnover numbers, and 13 interceptions isn’t anything to sneeze at. As I’ve described at various points during the season, Cal’s safeties were the best players on the field for the defense and their ability to play center field was a big part of Cal’s ability to prevent big plays and force turnovers. Elijah Hicks earned himself all-Pac-12 first team honors and he should’ve been joined by Scott along side him.
Sadly, Cal didn’t get any chances to return any of their turnovers until a final game scoop-and-score, though that was a gigantic play that swung what would probably have been a close game into a reasonable comfortable Cal win over USC.
As for depth; as it turned out, Cal didn’t need a ton of it. Elijah Hicks, Josh Drayden, and Daniel Scott were iron men who each played 91% or more of Cal’s available snaps. Basically, they only left the game when the outcome was no longer in doubt.
That left just two spots available for everybody else at a secondary position, as Cal spent the majority of the season in a nickel package. Those snaps went to four players. As expected, Collin Gamble got a lot of playing time at cornerback. As expected, Chigozie Anusiem started the year as a starting cornerback.
Unexpectedly, true freshman Lu-Magia Hearns and redshirt freshman Isaiah Young got a ton of snaps. Unexpectedly, both of them acquitted themselves well and moved ahead of Anusiem on the depth chart. Hearns essentially took over as a starter by game three, and Young stepped in when Gamble missed a game due to injury and played so well that he stuck in the rotation for the rest of the season.
As expected, the Cal secondary was the strength of the defense (and by extension, the strength of the team. But the precise personnel who got there went in a direction that few outside (or, I suspect, inside) of the program would have predicted prior to the season.
Questions to ponder as we enter the off season
What’s going to happen at outside linebacker?
Cam Goode is 100% gone. Despite occasional chatter I hear that Cal will be requesting another year of eligibility, I’m going to assume the same for one year cult hero Marqez Bimage and the horribly unlucky Kuony Deng. If all three are indeed departing, that will leave Cal with exactly one outside linebacker (Braxten Croteau) who played significant snaps in 2021.
There are players on the roster with solid recruiting pedigree, guys like Orin Patu and Kaleb Elarms-Orr. But despite a small handful of snaps from Patu, there’s nobody who has proven themselves on the field. With four solid ILBs plus Blake Antzoulatos hopefully returning from a season ending injury, perhaps Cal considers a position transfer from ILB to OLB? None of Cal’s ILBs strike me as obviously gifted pass rush specialists, but Cal may not have a ton of choice unless younger players are ready to step up.
What’s going to happen at safety?
Thanks to the emergence of Gamble, Hearns, and Young, I’d imagine Cal is feeling pretty good about their situation at cornerback. (A low-key interesting question is who takes over at nickelback from Josh Drayden).
But as noted above, Hicks and Scott took up nearly every available snap at safety, and as a result that position will be something of a mystery next year. Raymond Woodie and Miles Williams each got brief snaps as back-ups, and so the presumption is that they will face the unenviable task of replacing Hicks and Scott. Craig Woodson was also expected to be a primary back-up before a season ending injury in fall camp, so I’d expect those three players to be the primary rotation.