A year without Brett Johnson

How much does the defensive lineman's injury hurt Cal's 2021 chances?

I try not to ponder things like injuries, but if you had asked me last week who would be the worst player on the Cal roster to lose to a season long injury, I probably would have said Brett Johnson.

Our best wishes to Brett on a quick and comfortable recovery. A car accident nasty enough to break a hip sounds terrifying, to say nothing of the mending now required. As this is a fan site, we must turn to the less important exercise of determining how this impacts Cal on the field.

Last year, thanks to the transfer of Luc Bequette and an injury to Aaron Maldonado, Cal played the entire season with exactly three scholarship defensive linemen who weren’t true freshmen: Brett Johnson, JH Tevis, and Zeandae Johnson. Not coincidentally, those three players were essentially the only three defensive linemen who got snaps all season long.

With Zeandae Johnson off to the NFL draft and Brett Johnson now out for the season, that means we’re in the scary position of having exactly one returning starter and only two returning players with any meaningful playing experience along the defensive line.

Part of the reason why Brett Johnson is my pick for most irreplaceable Cal player is based off of his obvious talent. As a true sophomore he might have been Cal’s best defender last year despite playing every snap out of position. When you notice a nose guard with any amount of frequency, that guy is good. But the other part is that Cal’s defensive line is clearly a position of uncertainty once you get past penciling Brett into the lineup.

So let’s talk through what Cal will need to avoid a disastrous situation on the d line. Cal needs at least 1 or 2 of these things to happen to prevent Brett Johnson’s injury from being a disaster:

The Kids Are Alright

Sophomores/redshirt freshmen Ethan Saunders, Jaedon Roberts, Ricky Correia, Stanley McKenzie

True freshmen Akili Calhoun, Derek Wilkins, Myles Williams

Cal’s coaching staff was plenty aware of how thin the defensive line was two years ago, and have recruited accordingly. Seven different players who are either already listed on the roster as defensive linemen or are expected to be linemen when they arrive on campus this fall have been brought in since then. Cal needs some of them to be ready to play right away.

I generally assume that true freshmen won’t play unless they absolutely have to. It is worth noting that Ethan Saunders got a few snaps before getting hurt last year, so perhaps he’s got an inside track to playing time. It’s also worth noting that Akili Calhoun enrolled early, which may give him a leg up on the rest of the true freshman class.

The veterans take a step forward AND stay healthy

I wish good health for all Bears, but particularly JH Tevis and Aaron Maldonado, Cal’s only linemen with significant returning snaps on the line.

Tevis was a fairly unheralded 2018 recruit who surprised Cal fans with solid play in the shortened 2020 season, and he’s going to enter the new season as an incumbent starter at one of the DE positions. Aaron Maldonado, also from the class of 2018, impressed when he saw immediate action as a true freshman but has had each of the next two seasons marred by injuries.

But if Maldonado and Tevis are both healthy and take solid steps forward as upperclassmen, then Cal would be in a position of just trying to find one new starter and allowing their younger players to learn in spot duty rather than in a trial by fire.

Help comes through the portal?

I’m not convinced it’s 100% up-to-date and complete, but 247’s transfer portal tracker currently lists ~100 uncommitted defensive linemen, and that list includes plenty of players leaving power conferences. If Cal’s coaching staff suspects that the various true and red-shirt freshmen on the roster aren’t likely to be ready to be major contributors this year, they will find plenty of players in the portal likely eager to jump at playing time in the Pac-12.

So, how bad is it really?

As outlined above, I can absolutely imagine scenarios where Cal ends up with a solid defensive line. With good health and early success from some of the younger players, it wouldn’t be some sort of huge shock if Cal could develop a solid 5 player rotation that performs reasonably well.

The problem is that I have a hard time seeing how the line becomes a strength, which has been a pretty consistent relative weakness for the Wilcox defense. It’s not that the lines have been bad by any stretch, but for the Cal defense to make a leap from good to great, they’ve been crying out for a truly disruptive lineman who can blowup running plays and pressure the quarterback. Brett Johnson was that guy, and I would be pleasantly surprised if Cal found somebody ready to replicate that this year.

And so, in one fell swoop, the ceiling for the 2021 Cal defense was knocked down a peg or two. This defense can absolutely play like a typical Wilcox defense - disciplined, prevents big plays, punishes mistake prone offenses. But there’s a pretty good chance that the Bears struggle to create backfield havoc, and that opponents are able to power run with decent success.

And, unfortunately, losing Johnson also lowers Cal’s floor. Because his absence opens up the possibility that if enough of the younger players aren’t ready, or if any of the veterans miss any time, that the line becomes a clear weakness. If teams can consistently run the ball up the gut for solid gains and/or have all day in the pocket to throw the ball, a solid linebacking core and secondary can struggle to stop the bleeding. While I don’t necessarily see that scenario as likely, it’s on the table.

In short, to the extent that Cal harbored dark-horse Pac-12 North title contention, this is as harsh a blow as you’re likely to experience in April, and you should amend your expectations accordingly. And if you were a fan looking at this year as something of a transition season anyway as the younger recruits learn the ropes . . . well, broken hips heal, and Brett Johnson should be back in 2022.