I have a confession to make: I did the bulk of the work for this article prior to the season opener. Of course, at that time, I had a much different idea of how this game was going to go down, and last week’s loss to Nevada had me scrambling to rewrite this. Whereas before I wanted to say that, “TCU is going to be a real test for the Cal offense,” it turns out that Cal just failed its midterm at Nevada last week, and we’ve only got a week to study for the final coming up on Saturday. I was confident that the Cal offense would bully a much less talented Nevada defense (and for the first two drives, they did), but that against TCU they’d face a defense similarly to Cal’s defense. Well, if Cal can’t move the ball against Nevada, I feel awfully queasy about their ability to do so against TCU. Just know that if Cal were to score 17 points against TCU’s defense, it would represent a marked improvement over last week.
Both teams have bled defensive talent to the NFL since the last matchup, but we know that both teams still have plenty of solid defensive players and solid defensive coaching. It’s going to be a struggle.
Let’s take a look at each unit.
On the bright side, at least this time Cal won’t be staring down the barrel of two future early-round NFL draft picks on the defensive ends (1st round pick LJ Collier or 2nd round pick Ben Banogu). That said, their defensive ends are still pretty good, particularly Ochuan Mathis. Mathis lines up on the left side of the line, and thus will likely be Valentino Daltoso’s problem to deal with. Mathis was 5th in the FBS last year in sacks. I think you see where this is going.
The thing that immediately stands out about Mathis is his speed. He has great straight line speed and lateral movement:
Mathis makes good use of his hand placement, and has a variety of counters for linemen that get their hands on him. Here we can see him use a nice swim move to blast right by the offensive lineman:
Mathis does a great job setting the edge, and he has the speed to chase down runners. Here we see he’s just in a higher gear than the players trying to block him:
It’d be remiss of me to not include this sort of play that may not always show up in the box score, but shows his ability to impact the game:
On the opposite end of the line is the Big 12’s 2020 Defensive Freshman of the Year, Khari Coleman. I took a bunch of clips of Coleman as well, but it seems he was injured for the Duquesne game and is not likely to play this Saturday either. I can’t find much detail on his injury, so I think I’ll still mention him here.
He’s also good at setting the edge and defending against the run:
And here he does a couple spin moves to shed his blocker:
In Coleman’s place, we’ll likely see New Mexico transfer Dylan Horton, a former safety that transitioned to defensive end. He forced a fumble in garbage time of their final game against Louisiana Tech last season, but other than that I didn’t notice him, so I don’t have too much to say here.
At defensive tackle are the very experienced Corey Bethley and Terrell Cooper. Bethley (who played in the Cheez-It Bowl!) functions as more of a nose tackle, plugging up gaps and eating blocks. He was the star of the interior defender last season, although he suffered a season-ending knee injury. He did make an impact when he played:
Lining up next to him would normally be Terrell Cooper (and honestly he doesn’t stand out much on tape), but true sophomore Earl Barquet is now listed as the starter. He had limited playing time last season, so I can’t really comment too much on him either.
TCU relies on having a strong pass rush and confusing looks in the secondary, and trying to force the QB into making decisions before they can really evaluate what coverage they’re seeing (e.g. late shifts, pressure from a corner blitz, etc). The fact that TCU is not at full strength on the defensive line might be a blessing, but DE Ochuan Mathis is definitely capable of wreaking havoc all by himself. Keep an eye on the left side of their defensive line.
I don’t have any highlights for this section, as TCU only plays 2 linebackers, and their best linebacker from last year, Garrett Wallow, is off to the Houston Texans. The other linebacker, Dee Winters, returns after a promising season last year, and Wyatt Harris will start opposite of him. Harris had a grand total of 31 snaps last year, so I don’t have much insight to share here either.
TCU runs a 4-2-5 defense, so they certainly love their secondary. The unquestioned star of the secondary this year will be future NFL CB Noah Daniels (barring injury concerns). Daniels is also coming off a season-ending leg injury from last year, and he’s also questionable for the Cal game. But he’s too good not to feature here.
Noah Daniels is an excellent press-man corner, and does a great job of using his physicality to boot. He can absolutely stick to a receiver in order to disrupt the catch:
He does a good job of using the boundary as a defender, and frequently disrupts receivers’ routes:
It doesn’t always make for exciting highlights, but I was impressed by how tightly Daniels could stick to a receiver. You need to be dropping pinpoint perfect passes if you’re going after him, and even that may not be enough.
TCU lost their starting safeties from last year to the NFL, Trevon Moehrig (2nd round, Raiders) and Ar’Darius Washington (UDFA, Ravens). Like Cal, the secondary might not be as strong as in years past, but they still have a bevy of talent there.
Starting at strong safety is La’Kendrick VanZandt. He’s at least decent in coverage. This isn’t the best example, but it obviously stood out how fast he was:
The starting free safety listed is 4-star sophomore Bud Clark, he of 13 total snaps in 2020, backed up by 3-star Michael Onyemaobi (0 snaps).
On the weak side of the field is WS Nook Bradford or Memphis grad transfer TJ Carter. I can’t really comment on Carter, but I did notice Bradford a few times on run defense. Here he is tracking down the running back in the backfield:
There’s really not too much to go on to evaluate the formerly backup safeties, but they have big shoes to fill.
Finally, on the other end is CB Tre’Vius Hodges-Tomlinson (nephew of TCU legend LaDainian Tomlinson). I noticed that Hodges-Tomlimson was picked on a ton in the early season:
However, he showed marked improvement over the course of the season, taking over the top corner role after Noah Daniels’ injury.
Here he sticks to his defender like Daniels would (although he doesn’t turn his head at all):
It’s pretty clear why TCU fans are excited about him.
If Noah Daniels is injured, we are likely to see CB C.J. Ceasar II, who reminds me a lot of Ridwan Issahaku from the last time I covered TCU— let’s just say he’s prone to “boom or bust” play. Ceasar can be overly aggressive when playing defense, which is great if you jump a route and get an interception, but terrible if you’re biting on a fake and your receiver leaves you in the dust. As Hodges-Tomlinson improved, Ceasar became the receiver opposing QBs looked to exploit.
One thing I noticed was that TCU relies on a lot of one-on-one coverages with their defensive backs, and hence the need for a strong pass rush to prevent certain corners from being left on an island for too long.
As the creator of the 4-2-5 defense, coach Gary Patterson will have no shortage of wrinkles to fluster and confuse opposing offenses. TCU loves to confuse QBs with corner blitzes, and try to keep the QB guessing where pressure will come from. However, one thing I noticed about this team last year is that they would play solid defense for 9 out of 10 plays, and then just give up a big play. Cal doesn’t have the most explosive offense, so it’s questionable how well we’d be able to exploit TCU’s mistakes, but perhaps if the stars align, Cal can time their rare explosive plays with the limited number of times TCU busts a coverage. I’m not terribly optimistic, unless Cal can keep this another 10-7 OT slogfest.