Cal Football Season Preview Part 3: The Defense
Will improved health and portal additions allow Cal to stand up to a brutal schedule of opposing offenses?
Photo via @calfootball twitter
The eternal plight of Cal’s defense under Justin Wilcox - to be the better unit, but only occasionally good enough to make up for a low-scoring offense, so that every mistake, every score allowed, is made to feel all the more fatal.
Can this be the defense that takes a big step forward and gives Cal just enough to turn all of those close losses into close wins? There are enough new arrivals to give you hope!
2022 Defense, revisited
5.8 yards/play allowed, 93rd in the nation and 6th in the Pac-12
4.2 yards/run allowed, 77th in the nation and 7th in the Pac-12
7.3 yards/pass attempt allowed, 75th in the nation and 5th in the Pac-12
18 forced turnovers, 66th in the nation and 5th in the Pac-12
The good news: Cal’s national defensive rankings look pretty rough, and if you look at the raw numbers it would probably constitute the worst defense of the Justin Wilcox era, but that was because the Pac-12 was absolutely stacked with loaded offenses last year. It’s for that reason that advanced stats like SP+ (59th) and FEI (60th) both ranked Cal’s defense much higher than their raw yards/play allowed.
The bad news: If anything, Pac-12 offenses are probably going to be better this year, and Cal’s schedule is even more brutal. Cal’s defense was OK last year, and there’s reason to expect this year’s unit to be better, but a small amount of improvement isn’t going to be enough against the talent stacked up in the schedule.
Big play prevention: I could probably just copy and paste what I wrote in 2022, or 2021, or . . . you get the idea. A Justin Wilcox defense ALWAYS supresses big plays, and Cal again forced teams to dink and dunk their way down the field. That wasn’t always fun to watch, as Cal’s lack of line disruption led to constant long drives against better offenses like USC and Oregon, but it was probably the only option available due to the primary weakness of the defense, which was . . .
Pressure: For the entirety of the Justin Wilcox era, Cal has generally been bad at getting sacks on standard downs, but pretty good at getting sacks on passing downs. But last year, for the first time, Cal just wasn’t good at getting sacks in ANY situation. 111th in the country in total sacks, 131st in standard down sack rate, and 109th in passing down sack rate.
Some of that was the lack of a strong interior lineman (i.e. Brett Johnson) to occupy interior blockers. Some of it was the loss of OLBs Cam Goode and Marqez Bimage to graduation. Some of it was inconsistency at the ILB position across from Jackson Sirmon. Cal cycled through every outside linebacker on the roster in an attempt to find edge pressure, but never found a solution, and it was a fatal weakness that undermined the rest of the defense.
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. All presumed starters are semi-educated guesses from me and you are encouraged to throw it back in my face when I’m inevitably wrong.
Defensive Tackle: Junior Brett Johnson
Defensive Tackle: Sophomore Stanley Saole-McKenzie
Depth: Junior Ricky Correia, Junior Ethan Saunders, Junior Jaedon Roberts, Senior Darius Long, Sophomore Akili Calhoun,
OK, I’m done pretending that Cal is still running a 3-4-4 defense, when for the last few years Cal has almost exclusively run a 2-4-5 nickel. So let’s talk about who is going to start alongside BRETT JOHNSON!
It could be a bunch of different dudes. Correia, Saunders, Roberts, Long, and Burrell all got at least 194 snaps on the line last year, and Akili Calhoun was on pace to get that many before a season ending injury after 4 games. And one (or all!) of them might get rotational minutes alongside Brett this season.
But my money is on Stanley Saole-McKenzie, who missed last season for personal reasons. He got spot time in 4 games in 2021 as a freshman and played well in limited snaps, and nobody who got playing time in his absence flashed enough production that they can be assumed to have any incumbency advantage.
Outside linebacker: Junior Xavier Carlton
Inside linebacker: Senior Jackson Sirmon
Inside linebacker: Sophomore Sergio Allen
Outside linebacker: Junior Myles Jernigan
Depth: Senior David Reese, Sophomore Myles Williams, Freshman Moso’oipala Tuitele, Sophomore Nate Rutchena, Junior Blake Antzoulatos, Junior Muelu Iosefa
Linebacker is likely the most unsettled position group on the defense, with open competitions at every spot other than the ILB position held by all-conference favorite Jackson Sirmon.
Jernigan and Carlton got the most snaps last year, so my best guess is that they are joined by transfer David Reese (Florida) in what ends up largely being a three man rotation at the edge spot, unless a younger player like Tuitele or CC transfer Tidiane Jalloh can make a surprise splash.
At the spot next to Sirmon, my assumption is that Clemson transfer Sergio Allen will beat out the group of returners who got rotational snaps alongside Sirmon last year, but Rutchena, Antzoulatos, and Iosefa will all get a chance to show whether they’re ready for a more prominent role in fall camp.
Cornerback: Sophomore Lu-Magia Hearns
Cornerback: Junior Nohl Williams
Cornerback: Sophomore Jeremiah Earby
Safety: Senior Patrick McMorris
Safety: Junior Craig Woodson
Depth: Junior Kaylin Moore, Senior Raymond Woodie, Junior Isaiah Young, Junior Collin Gamble, Junior Miles Williams, Junior Matthew Littlejohn
The deepest position group on the entire team, and by a wide margin. My list of depth didn’t even include players like Tyson McWilliams and Dejuan Butler who got back end rotational minutes last year. This is what happens when young players like Earby and Hearns immediately demand playing time AND you bring in strong transfers like Nohl Williams, Patrick McMorris, and Kaylin Moore.
There are two main questions I have about the secondary:
Who plays nickel? A somewhat specialized position over the last few years in the Cal defense, Matthew Littlejohn and Kaylinn Moore were listed at the top of the depth chart for spring, but that doesn’t mean a ton come fall with so many players in and out of the lineup (and the roster).
Will be how the coaching staff balances snaps? There are 10+ players who might earn playing time for 5 positions. Will the coaches ID the best 5 players and largely ride with them? Will playing time be match-up dependent? Will anybody excel such that taking them off the field is too risky?
Will Brett Johnson be healthy, and is he the solution to world hunger and/or Cal’s front 4 woes?
Brett Johnson is in his first year in the program, is universally beloved by Cal fans, and has played four games of football. It’s been a weird, frustrating run of bad luck and bad timing.
Cal could get the player who flashed crazy promise as a true freshman during the COVID season, except three years wiser and stronger, meaning that Cal has an all conference level interior lineman for the first time since Tyson Alualu and Cameron Jordan.
But Johnson has also suffered two different season ending injuries, so there’s no guarantee he’s going to be a major impact player. Based on pre-season chatter it sounds like he’s still the same guy who has dominated at practice whenever he’s healthy, but too much has happened over the last few years to automatically pencil him in as a star that you can build your defense around.
Of course, even IF Johnson emerges as the kind of lineman who can knife into the backfield even when facing a double team, there are other issues up front that need to be addressed . . .
Can any of Cal’s OLBs take a big step forward?
Last year, OLB was probably the biggest position of concern for Cal’s defense, as Cal constantly rotated at the position in an attempt to find a spark.
Xavier Carlton and Myles Jernigan were probably the two best, but neither was good enough that they can be assumed starters in 2023. But Cal only added one OLB via the portal, David Reese via Florida. Reese was a rotational piece for a Florida defense that wasn’t dominant, which is to say that he is probably a solid depth addition but not a game-changing talent.
So - is anybody going to make a jump? Is it possible that Carlton or Jernigan will make a 2nd year leap? Will Reese make a bigger impact if he’s given starter minutes outside of the SEC? Will a younger player like Moso’oipala Tuitele be ready to make an instant impact? Will everybody look better simply by virtue of Brett Johnson’s presence as a threat on the line?
Who plays ILB alongside Jackson Sirmon?
Cal never really found a consistent answer at ILB alongside Sirmon last year, and the best option (in this amateur’s humble opinion) was Oluwafemi Oladejo. But Cal spent most of last season bringing Oladejo in and out of the lineup and changing his position, and now he’s at UCLA.
So . . . will it be Blake Antzoulatos? Nate Rutchena? Clemson transfer Sergio Allen? Kaleb Elarms-Orr? Muelu Iosefa? There is no obvious front-runner, no player who has clearly excelled on the field in major reps yet. But the Wilcox defense puts too much responsibility in the hands of its inside linebackers for Cal to get by without finding a strong solution at the position, and another season of constant rotation alongside Sirmon
You’ll notice that none of my defining questions above even go so far as to mention Cal’s secondary. That’s because perhaps the deepest position group on the team last year got even deeper via the portal. The secondary goes at least 10 guys deep with major on-field experience at the college level. It should be the strength of the defense.
But it won’t matter much if Cal isn’t vastly improved in their front six. We all watched last year as opposing QBs could sit in the pocket with impunity and either wait for a receiver to come open or run for yardage, and no secondary can play coverage forever.
There is major reason for optimism at defensive line, where two returning players who missed 2022 mean both added depth AND a higher ceiling.
Which leaves all of the linebacker positions other than the spot occupied by Jackson Sirmon. Cal struggled at all three spots last year, and only added two linebackers from the portal who didn’t start for their prior teams. As a result, significant improvement cannot be assumed at any spot.
Cal’s defense almost certainly should be better than last season. Of the 16 players who got the most snaps last year, only two (Daniel Scott and Oluwafemi Oladejo) are no longer on the roster. Their departures are more than made up for by the return of Brett Johnson, Stanley Saole-McKenzie and all of Cal’s various portal additions.
The question is how much better. The Pac-12 wasn’t a great defensive conference last year - only Oregon State and Utah had defenses that might have threatened top 25 status in the nation. So relative to their conference mates, Cal should have a top half Pac-12 defense, and if some of their transfers mesh and with good injury luck, Cal might even potentially have a top 3 defense in the conference.
But just being good relative to other Pac-12 defenses isn’t going to be enough - this defense has to be good enough to give a still iffy offense a chance to win against a terrifying slate of opposing offenses.
On that score, I don’t think Brett Johnson by himself is enough, and I don’t think Cal added enough depth and top end talent on the edge to truly disrupt the various Heisman candidates that will pop up ever couple of weeks on Cal’s schedule. I’m currently penciling Cal in for the 4th best defense in the conference, and probably somewhere in the 40s nationally once you adjust for schedule strength, which is probably not enough against this schedule, with this Cal offense.
But in the long list of people I might peg to make me look dumb, Brett Johnson is very high on that list . . .