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2022 End of Season Review: The Cal Football Defense
Jackson Sirmon and Daniel Scott paced the Bears in 2022, but limitations on the defensive front impacted Cal's ability to slow down elite Pac-12 offenses.
This is part one of what will be at least a three part series reviewing the 2022 season, as well as my pre-season predictions entering the fall. We’re going to start with the defense, where we’re not waiting on new coaching hires that will impact how we view the off-season path.
This is a little complicated due to the timing of Brett Johnson’s season ending injury. I wrote my preview of the Cal defense prior to that event, and said this at the time:
Put me down for an improvement. Cal’s 2022 defense is a clear top 25 unit nationally and there won’t be a Pac-12 defense that’s clearly better, though units at Utah, ASU, and Washington may end up just as good.
A few weeks later, with Johnson’s injury announced, I revised down my expectations accordingly:
A defense that’s above average, but not the best in the conference.
Rate stat rankings:
Yards/play allowed: 5.8 yards, 93rd in the nation, 6th in the Pac-12
Points/drive allowed: 2.46, 91st in the nation, 4th in the Pac-12
Advanced Stat rankings:
You will immediately notice a big gap between Cal’s rate stat rankings (in the 90s nationally) and Cal’s advanced stat rankings (in the 60s). Why the gap? Because Pac-12 offenses were awesome in 2022, and the advanced stats adjust for strength of schedule. UCLA, USC, Oregon, and Washington all had top 10 level offenses, and Cal had to play all of them. Arizona and Oregon State were also pretty good, and Wazzu/Stanford/Notre Dame were middling. In short, Cal’s defense faced one of the toughest slates of offenses in the country.
Unfortunately, Cal did not end up performing at an above average level nationally as I predicted, or even really within the Pac-12. You can roughly split Pac-12 defenses into the follow tiers:
Actually good: Utah, Washington State, Oregon State
Not great, not bad: Oregon, Cal Washington, UCLA, USC when they force turnovers
Somewhere between bad and terrible: USC when they don’t force turnovers, Stanford, Arizona State, Arizona, Colorado
Sadly, I’d say that Cal’s defensive performance most closely matched my worst-case scenario write-up:
[W]hile the defense certainly isn’t the problem, neither is it the clear strength fans expected. Cal never finds a way to replace Cam Goode and Marqez Bimage at outside linebacker, and Brett Johnson’s absence is glaring. Cal’s defensive line and OLBs struggle both against the run and rushing the passer, and the result is a defense that can’t get off the field. Meanwhile Cal boasts a bevy of solid players at inside linebacker and in the secondary, but nobody individually steps up to become a big time playmaker, and opposing offenses find ways to dink and dunk their way down the field.
This is pretty close to what happened. Cal’s defense was actually a little more prone to the big play than usual, and as a result teams didn’t have to dink and dunk as much as you might expect, but the larger point stands. This was probably the worst Cal defense of the Wilcox era, even adjusting for how good Pac-12 offenses were in 2022.
The good news? The worst Cal defense under Wilcox isn’t a disaster, and is still roughly league average. The bad news? A bad-by-Wilcox-standards defense, paired with a typical Wilcox offense leads to a 4-8 season.
How did Cal answer key pre-season questions?
Will a revamped front 5 allow Cal to play more aggressively?
A decided no. This question was written under the presumption that Brett Johnson would be healthy and available, but also before Cal announced season ending injuries to Derek Wilkins and Akili Calhoun, as well as the season long absence of Stanley McKenzie.
The latter three linemen weren’t guaranteed to be impact players this year, but their loss impacted Cal depth. Hell, the way I phrased the question (“front 5”) implies a level of depth that Cal didn’t have, and the Bears defensive formation all season long was almost entirely a front 4 consisting of two down linemen and two standup OLB.
Regardless of the formation, Cal went the entire season without getting impact play along the defensive front, either from their defensive linemen or their outside linebackers/edge rushers. The result was a rotation of 15 different players who got time along Cal’s front.
To the extent that anybody emerged, you would point at Utah transfer Xavier Carlton and Myles Jernigan, who ended up getting the most run at OLB, particularly later in the season. Both players still have two years of eligibility remaining and Cal will be hoping that each take another step forward next year.
But what Cal willing really be hoping for is to finally get a full, healthy season from Brett Johnson, who may or may not be the solution to all that ails Cal’s defensive line.
Is there star power on this defense?
The basis for this question was that Cal would likely have a ton of guys who could be solid, capable contributors . . . but would there be any plus contributors, any All Conference level contributors?
The Pac-12 hasn’t released their post-season conference honors yet, but PFF has, and lists Jackson Sirmon as a first team linebacker and Daniel Scott as a 3rd team safety, and I’d guess that those two players will get recognition from the official list. Personally, I might bump Sirmon down to 2nd team and bump Scott up to 2nd team, but it’s ultimately quibbling.
To the larger point? I don’t think enough players took significant developmental steps forward, let alone grew into all-conference level contributors. It’s hard to analyze some situations due to Cal’s lack of injury information, but:
Cal’s other ILB spot opposite Sirmon was a revolving door occupied at various points by Oluwafemi Oladejo, Nate Rutchena, and Muelu Iosefa, and none of those three (or the oddly absent Trey Paster) built on promising 2021 campaigns.
In the secondary, Jeremiah Earby and Tyson McWilliams were unexpected, positive contributors. But Lu-Magia Hearns had a lost season due to injury, while Collin Gamble and Isaiah Young performed at about their 2021 level of performance. At safety, Cal was solid with Craig Woodson alongside Daniel Scott, but depth is a concern in 2023 with Scott finally running out of eligibility.
And as described above, nobody ever really stepped up on the entire front 4, despite basically the entire healthy roster getting an opportunity to contribute.
Is BRETT JOHNSON the answer to all of the questions above?
Damn it all to hell.
Off-season status and goals
Departures: S Daniel Scott (graduation), OLB Orin Patu (transfer portal), OLB Odua Isibor (graduation)
The good news? At least as of right now, Cal’s personnel losses on defense are limited. As of right now, Daniel Scott is the only major contributor departing. Cal’s defense was full of players in their 2nd or 3rd year of contributions, and thanks to COVID most have two years of eligibility remaining.
Now the question is of retention. Will Jackson Sirmon decide to use his final year of eligibility in Berkeley? What about Brett Johnson? Will all of Cal’s log-jam of potential ILBs stick around?
If everybody stays, Cal probably enters 2023 reasonably happy about the talent and depth on hand in the secondary and at ILB. But you would have to think that Cal would be looking heavily at defensive linemen and OLBs to add from the portal, even if Brett Johnson stays.
Because to return to the levels of defensive performance Cal managed pre-COVID, Cal will likely need to get key players healthy AND see improved development (plus retention) from players on the roster AND add a key contributor or two via the portal.