2022 Season Preview: The Defense
Led by Daniel Scott and with key additions along the line, the 2022 defense should be one of the best of the Wilcox era.
Part 1: How badly does Cal need Justin Wilcox to turn the corner?
Predict the Season: You have til August 19 to get your predictions in!
Practice Reports: Notebook 1; Notebook 2
Why defense first? Because relatively speaking, the defense is settled. I know what to expect from a Wilcox defense. You know what to expect from a Wilcox defense. I don’t need weeks of camp reports to make a solid projection of the defense.
Is there anything new to say this year? I think Cal enters the 2022 season with the deepest defense of the Wilcox era. Perhaps the key question is whether the star talent is there to push this unit to the level of the elite 2018 unit.
2021 Defense, revisited
5.3 yards/play allowed, 41st in the nation and 4th in the Pac-12
3.9 yards/run allowed, 51st in the nation and 4th in the Pac-12
6.7 yards/pass attempt allowed, 26th in the nation and 4th in the Pac-12
20 forced turnovers, 36th in the nation and 4th in the Pac-12
I kinda feel like Cal may have had the 4th best defense in the Pac-12 last year.
Big play prevention: I hesitate to bring this up because big play prevention has been a constant strength under Justin Wilcox, but it was even more true than ever in 2021. When the strength of your defense is at safety, you’re not going to give up many big plays, and sure enough Cal only allowed an average of 4 plays of 20+ yards/game, and only ONE play of 50+ yards all year long.
Passing downs, generally: Again, another consistent Wilcox hallmark. When Cal was able to get a team into clear passing downs, Cal could rely on their veteran 5 man secondary and dial up exotic blitz packages. Cal got significantly more pressure in passing down situations,
3rd down conversion percentage: This is a bit of a paradox - didn’t I just say Cal was good in passing downs, which are often 3rd and long? Yes, but the problem is that Cal didn’t force a ton of 3rd and longs, instead often facing shorter 3rd downs when they couldn’t assume a pass. The result? Cal finished 120th in the nation in 3rd down conversion percentage allowed.
Again, this is to a certain extent a scheme choice; Cal has only finished in the top half of the country in 3rd down percentage once in the Wilcox era (the dominant 2018 defense). When you choose to play softer to prevent big plays, that opens up shorter gains underneath and leads to lots of short 3rd down attempts.
Standard down sack rate: Cal finished 120th in the country in standard down sack rate, a reflection of Cal’s relative weakness at OLB and along the line after injuries to presumed starters Brett Johnson and Kuony Deng. This is at the heart of talent vs. scheme. When it’s 3rd and 10 and you know your opponent is passing, you can run some stunts or maybe get a coverage sack. When it’s 1st and 10, if you want to get a sack you need an individual player who can consistently best his blocker, and Cal just didn’t have a guy like that along the front 5.
Note: All class designations are based on what Cal’s roster says and may have little if anything to do with how much eligibility a player has left, which is now a nightmare to track thanks to COVID.
Defensive End: Junior Brett Johnson
Nose Guard: Junior Ricky Correia
Defensive End: Junior Xavier Carlton
Depth: Junior Ethan Saunders, Junior Jaedon Roberts, Senior Darius Long, Junior Gunnar Rask, Freshman Akili Calhoun
Depth at this unit took an early hit with the announcement that Derek Wilkins sustained a season ending injury and that Stanley McKenzie won’t be with the team for the fall.
Even then, this is a unit with five guys who have received significant snaps at the Pac-12 level, obviously highlighted by Brett Johnson’s long awaited return from injury.
There will probably be a fall camp battle between Saunders and Carlton for one of the starting DE slots, but both will certainly get plenty of rotational snaps regardless. McKenzie’s absence makes me slightly nervous about nose guard, but we know that Brett Johnson can slide over into that spot if needed, and Jaedon Roberts may be able to do the same.
Outside linebacker: Senior Odua Isibor
Inside linebacker: Senior Jackson Sirmon
Inside linebacker: Sophomore Femi Oladejo
Outside linebacker: Senior Braxten Croteau
Depth: Junior Orin Patu, Junior Trey Paster, Sophomore Nate Rutchena, Junior Blake Antzoulatos, Junior Muelu Iosefa, Junior Henry Ikahihifo.
The good news: Cal has six dudes ready to compete for playing time at inside linebacker. The bad news: Cal only has three dudes who have received meaningful snaps at outside linebacker, which is honestly the only position of concern across the entire defense.
At the ILB position it’s a question of how many players get thrown into the rotation. Will Cal lean on the two players they think are best, or try to take advantage of potential depth with frequent rotation and fresh legs? And which players have taken a step forward over the off-season as tacklers and in pass coverage, two issues that popped up throughout the season?
Meanwhile, starting spots are very up for grabs at OLB. My guess is that veteran UCLA transfer Odua Isibor ends up winning a starting spot at fall camp, but I don’t think he’s a shoe in to grab the spot or hold it the entire season, as he was largely a rotational back-up at UCLA. If Orin Patu ends up earning the bulk of the playing time on one edge that’s a good developmental sign for a younger player who probably has more upside. Meanwhile, 3 star Juco transfer Henry Ikahihifo may be this year’s Marqez Bimage - an under the radar edge addition who ends up getting plenty of playing time.
Look out for creative formations and/or position switches at OLB. Might Cal deploy some DEs at OLB, particularly on passing downs?
Cornerback: Sophomore Lu-Magia Hearns
Safety: Junior Craig Woodson
Safety: Senior Daniel Scott
Cornerback: Junior Collin Gamble
Depth: Junior Isaiah Young, Senior Raymond Woodie, Junior Miles Williams, Freshman Kaleb Higgins
The Cal secondary is largely set, with Daniel Scott back to hold down one safety spot and three well established cornerbacks in Hearns, Gamble, and Young. I haven’t heard which of those three CBs is likely to take over for Josh Drayden at nickel when Cal goes to five DBs, but I presume it would be one of those three.
So the only uncertainty is a camp battle for the other safety spot vacated by Eljiah Hicks. Craig Woodson received 135 snaps at safety in 2020 before an injury kept him out in 2021. Miles Williams and Raymond Woodie got 60 and 52 snaps respectively in 2021. All three will presumably compete both to start alongside Scott, and to get back-up snaps.
Will a revamped front 5 allow Cal to play more aggressively?
Cal is almost entirely remaking their rotation at defensive line and outside linebacker following the departures of JH Tevis, Luc Bequette, Cam Goode, and Marqez Bimage. On the other hand, Cal’s front 5 last year didn’t rack up a ton of tackles for loss or sacks, and often struggled to hold up at the point of attack on interior run plays. In this particular instance, personnel turnover doesn’t necessarily have to mean a decline in production.
Between injury returns, transfers, and potential contributions from younger players.
Is there star power on this defense?
When you look around the 2022 defense (and really, most Wilcox Cal defenses), you see lots of solid, dependable players who limit mistakes and execute their assignments. But for Cal to take a step from a good defense to a great defense, they’re going to need some of those solid players to develop into game changing players.
It’s not a coincidence that Cal’s best defense (2018) featured two such players in Evan Weaver and Jordan Kunaszyk, but the breakthrough doesn’t necessarily have to come at the linebacker level. A consistently disruptive pass rusher, a shut down corner, an edge-setting run stuffer - if Cal can develop a star or two, this defense can take a step forward. Maybe it’s Lu-Magia Hearns. Maybe it’s Xavier Carlton. Maybe it’s . . .
Is BRETT JOHNSON the answer to all of the questions above?
Due to cruel circumstance, there has been a huge gap in Brett Johnson hype, and Brett Johnson appearances. First COVID (while playing out of position on a depleted line) and then a missed season. I have no reason to believe that Johnson won’t be the kind of transformative difference maker on the line that Wilcox’s defense hasn’t ever really had, but it’s also true that we don’t yet know for sure what he’ll do in a full, normal season.
He could be that guy that makes the front 5 work, that gives this defense star power. The kind of guy who creates 3rd and longs through his sheer talent, who disrupts on standard downs. If he’s merely very good, Cal will still have a good defense. But if you’re looking for reasons to think that this defense (and by extension, this team) take a step forward, Brett Johnson delivering on his promise is one possible route.
Last year Cal had the 4th best defense in the conference, behind UW, Utah, and Arizona State. They’re bringing back enough talent, much of it already on-field proven, that the defense should be at least as good as last year. Meanwhile, no other team is so stacked with proven returners that you would say they would clearly be better than the Bears.
Which is to say if everything falls right . . . if Brett Johnson is BRETT JOHNSON, if Xavier Carlton excels, if Cal findings some answers at OLB and the right rotation at ILB, if they can mitigate the loss of Elijah Hicks, this could be the best defense in the conference.
Meanwhile, there’s enough depth of talent that the floor should be pretty high. Cal may be a little thin at nose guard and OLB, but they have enough talent on hand that they should be able to weather a normal amount of injuries. Even in a worst case scenario, this is a defense that should be at least P5 average and 6th best in the Pac-12, which is partly a vote of confidence in Cal’s defense and a statement about the quality of the defenses half the conference is expected to field this year.
I’m optimistic about the defense for a number of reasons. I don’t think the projection systems can account for the potential impact of a player like Johnson, who wouldn’t be considered ‘returning production.’ Transfer portal additions added depth and competition at a few different positions, and the defense is full of younger players who were in the mix last year and should benefit from a year of development.
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.
Wonderful analysis. Makes sense, which means you are persuasive. My biggest concern is NT as we've lacked depth and real skill there for years. Sure hope we don't have to use Brett there much, since plugging up the middle is not a full use of his skill set. Stop the run. Stop the run. Stop the run. Evan Weaver (where is he now?) was a godsend because he could stop so many runs even though he wasn't on the line. With anticipation and brutality, guys would crumble for little gain.
Nice preview and it sounds like that under all circumstances Cal will field at least the 5th or 6th best defense in the conference and possibly excel. Looking forward to the season.