Cal 2022 Position Preview: Inside Linebacker
With a ton of returning production and a key transfer, Cal's coaches have some tough choices at Cal's deepest position
Likely starters: Senior Jackson Sirmon (594 snaps in 2022), Sophomore Oluwafemi Oladejo (280 snaps)
In the Rotation: Junior Trey Paster (249 snaps), Sophomore Nate Rutchena (307 snaps), Junior Muelu Iosefa (497 snaps),
Waiting in the wings: Junior Ryan Puskas (41 snaps), Junior Blake Antzoulatos (18 snaps in 2021), Junior Kyle Smith, Freshman Kaleb Elarms-Orr
Walk-ons: Freshman Malcolm McClure, Freshman McKyle So’oto
It's an interesting roster building conundrum: Which scenario would you prefer?
1. High production starters, but unproven/iffy depth
2. Tons of depth, but no proven stars
If you can guarantee good injury luck, you take scenario 1 every time. A few years ago, Cal had high production starters in Evan Weaver and Jordan Kunaszyk, and they stayed healthy over an entire season, and Cal fielded their best defense in years. Maybe even the best defense in modern Cal history!
But good injury luck is far from guaranteed. Last year Cal came into the season with two established players at OLB in Cam Goode and Kouny Deng. Goode finished out his Cal career with another strong season, but Kouny Deng went out in the second game of the year and Cal struggled with OLB depth the rest of the season.
This year, Cal will be testing that second scenario, and perhaps hoping that two or three players will emerge as every down stars.
Jackson Sirmon, Trey Paster, Nate Rutchena, Femi Oladejo, and Muelu Iosefa all got plenty of playing time last year, and Blake Antzoulatos probably would have played had he not suffered an injury that kept him out for the entirety of the 2022 season. That's six players who are hypothetically competing for playing time for just two positions.
On one hand, Cal is well prepared to weather potential injuries. On the other hand, with the possible exception of Jackson Sirmon, none of these players have yet established themselves as above average Pac-12 contributors.
There are plenty of reasons for why not. Nate Rutchena and Femi Oladejo were both in their first years in the program last year. Muelu Iosefa and Trey Paster were in their 2nd seasons, meaning their first season was the shortened COVID season. As mentioned above, Blake Antzoulatos was injured. These are all younger players who wouldn't typically be expected to immediately walk onto the field and dominate.
So I again refer you to the question posed at the top. Would you rather have one all-conference level starter, or a bunch of solid contributors, any of whom might grow into an all-conference level performer?
Cal thinks they for sure have at least one. Jackson Sirmon received All Pac-12 honorable mention last year for his performance at UW, and he has already received pre-season all conference honors this year. I'd be very surprised if he isn't starting and getting the bulk of available snaps at one ILB position. There are some questions with his skills in coverage but he’s a rugged run defender and excellent tackler, which was an issue across the board at ILB last year.
And if we assume that Sirmon will be more or less and every down player, it will make for a very crowded competition for the other starting spot, and a crowded field to get rotational reps. With so many options at ILB for just two spots, is there any chance that Cal's coaching staff will consider shifting any of the current ILBs over to OLB, a position that appears much thinner ahead of the season?
If you asked me to handicap the race to start alongside Sirmon, based on last season's evidence, I'd give a slight nod towards Femi Oladejo. I tend to stand up and take notice whenever a true freshman forces his way onto the field, knowing they were able to do so without even a full season of college level strength and conditioning. But ultimately I'd expect at least four player to get into the ILB rotation at some level, with the strong possibility of a platoon at one spot based on situational strengths and weaknesses.
Hell, Ryan Puskas played really solid against Arizona and Stanford when injuries and COVID ravaged the ILB depth chart. There’s an embarrassment of solid options here.
If things go well, Sirmon slides in seamlessly into the defense and one of the younger players makes a developmental leap alongside him. Meanwhile, Cal will be able to substitute liberally and everybody stays fresh and healthy all season long.
In a worst case scenario, the question marks about Sirmon’s coverage skills aren’t really answered, none of the younger players develop beyond what they showed last year, and the ILB core is solid but doesn’t make a ton of plays. Racking up lots of tackles is good when the ball carrier has gained a yard or two; less so when the tackle is made 8 yards past the line of scrimmage.
Ultimately, there are too many solid contributors to not find the right combination. Particularly when you look at the track record Wilcox has on defense generally and at ILB specifically. This should be a position of strength.