2012 Cal Football Part 2: The Defenseby Nam Le on Aug, 17 2012
The California Golden Bears will return home to Memorial Stadium in the next couple weeks, kicking off the 2012 season against Nevada. What can we expect this year? Will the Rose drought finally end? Find out in the second of our 3 in-depth preview articles – today’s focus is the defense, with a column on season expectations to come over later this week. Part one can be found here.
The Secondary: As the Bears attempt to navigate the loss of 6 senior starters on defense, they are aided by some stability at cornerback, at least – there, they return last season’s starting tandem of Marc Anthony and Steve Williams. Both are good players and should be key pieces in the defense.
Behind them, though, the pecking order is a little less clear. Many figured that the nickel back position would belong to ultra-talented sophomore Stefan McClure, but his recovery from an ACL tear has been slow, and his availability for this year uncertain. Kameron Jackson seems likely to take over in his absence. Although Jackson’s performance in mop-up duty last year was fairly spotty, throughout the open fall camps, he has played extremely well, displaying nice physicality and aggression to go along with solid coverage skills. The Bears should be just fine with Jackson working in the slot, with redshirt freshman Joel Willis likely behind him.
Equally uncertain is the safety position, where neither of last year’s starters return. Filling Sean Cattouse and D.J. Campbell’s shoes will be converted nickel back Josh Hill, and whoever ends up winning the position battle between Alex Logan and Avery Sebastian . Hill, who played well last year, faces two major responsibilities this season – guiding the development of his less-experienced running mate, as well as steadying the back of the defense, which left something to be desired at times in 2011.
Against UCLA, for example, the Bears faced the zone-read option repeatedly, each time having to make a very simple choice: allowing the quarterback to run, or allowing the running back to run.
One of the ways to defend this play is to use a safety to mark the quarterback; if done successfully, this tactic forces the ball to be run inside, and back toward the front seven. Considering the linebackers were a strength of the 2011 team, it would serve to reason that using a safety spy would be the preferred strategy. 
But a look at the stat sheet reveals that Kevin Prince ran for 163 yards on the Bears last year.
That is not a typo.
Again and again, Prince eluded Cattouse, evaded Campbell, and otherwise escaped his would-be tacklers. The blame does not fall on the safeties alone, of course (UCLA eventually won that game behind four Zach Maynard turnovers), but their inability to corral Kevin Prince certainly didn’t help.
At Arizona State, the struggles of this unit swung in the opposite direction. Rather than failing to stop the run, here, the Bears gave up far too many deep balls, the kinds of passes that safeties are there to help prevent. Often times, they were a step too slow, or out of position altogether, although Cal did escape with a 47-38 win.
Games like these – where one unit melts down entirely – must become rarities if the Golden Bears intend to win a weakened Pac-12 North. Considering the pass-happy environment that the conference has evolved into, the development of Jackson and the safeties will be one of the keys to the season. There will be no shortage of tests for the secondary, as they square off against Heisman contenders Matt Barkley and Keith Price later this year – to say nothing of the new Air Raid offense at Washington State. Each of those games could spell disaster if the unit does not gel quickly.
The Verdict: Despite some question marks, led by the experience of veterans Williams, Anthony and Hill, this secondary should be just fine. Things looked more much uncertain before fall camp, but stand in decent-enough shape going into the season.Linebackers: Besides the offensive line and the wide receivers, the linebacking core has to be the biggest uncertainty facing California this season.
The first concern is finding replacements for last year’s starters in the middle – including 2011 Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Mychal Kendricks. The loss of athleticism, experience and leadership here could prove problematic throughout the season, simply because the defensive system Cal uses demands so much from its linebackers .
As of now, the frontrunners to take over for Kendricks and DJ Holt appear to be David Wilkerson and Nick Forbes. The former moved to the middle after playing mostly outside linebacker last season, while the latter is stepping into a starting role for the first time.
The second issue is the play of the outside linebackers. Though the Golden Bears were near the top of the country in sacks last year, their leaders in that category were the now NFL bound linemen Trevor Guyton and Ernest Owusu (4.5 and 5.5, respectively). Make no mistake: their contributions were much needed and highly valued, such an occurrence can only mean indicate ineffective linebacker play .
In fact, the outside linebackers struggled to fight off blocks far too often, leading to an inconsistent pass rush overall. Option teams in particular gave them fits .
Cecil Whiteside was tabbed by many to become a factor after an outstanding spring, but after being reinstated following an “unspecified violation of team rules”, he has been passed up on the depth chart by several others.
Manning one of the outside linebacker spots will be the freakishly athletic 6’6″ Chris “Inspector Gadget” McCain. A lengthy and lanky player who recalls 49ers pass rushing specialist Aldon Smith, McCain certainly has the potential to make offenses miserable. In limited playing time last year, he showed flashes of brilliance, but for now, he remains a bit of a wild card. McCain’s build is also still incredibly slight, something that may work against him on run plays. Indeed, how he holds up in run support will be something to keep an eye on throughout the year – Cal cannot have the success it aims for defensively without improvement there. The other outside linebacker spot will likely belong to sophomore Brennan Scarlett, who Jeff Tedford has raved about throughout fall camp. In the open practices, both he and McCain have looked explosive and fluid, giving hope for a more consistent pass rush this season. Their freakish athleticism will be needed.
After this athletic [but inexperienced] starting quartet, the team boasts several other linebackers who will be in rotation as well: Dan Camporeale, for example, started seven games last year but will likely not be starting. Though he has fallen behind McCain and company, having someone with his experience will be equally valuable. The linebacking core could also be boosted by the arrival of Khairi Fortt at midseason. The transfer from Penn State is currently rehabbing from knee surgery, but he was a key backup for the Nittany Lions, and could certainly be a difference maker when he sees the field for the Bears. Jason Gibson, who broke his foot earlier in fall camp could also be in the mix once he returns.
The Verdict - The talent level is deep here – much deeper than on the offensive line or for the wide receivers. The unit overall is a little bit inexperienced, but certainly athletic and talented. Hopefully as the season gets under way, that becomes an advantage, rather than a disadvantage.
Defensive line – This unit should once again be the deepest on the team, without question; the fact that highly touted nose tackle Villiami Moala remains in the second string should be proof of that. Say what you will about ex-defensive line coach Tosh Lupoi’s betrayal , this much cannot be questioned: he left behind some talent, and certainly coached up some, too. [Cameron Jordan and Tyson Alualu, anybody?]
With the massive group of Kendrick Payne, Aaron Tipoti, Todd Barr, Mustafa Jalil, and DeAndre Coleman holding down the front lines, offensive coordinators should have nightmares trying to protect their backfields. Even with the loss of two NFL quality linemen in the aforementioned Guyton and Owusu, this group could be just as good . Aaron Tipoti is likely to get a look from teams, and Coleman has been whispered in hushed tones as a possible draft pick/breakout player as well.
It is worth noting that good defensive line play can mask many of a defense’s weaknesses, meaning that the more consistently Coleman and company wreak havoc, the less prevalent some of these other concerns will be.
The Verdict – The Bears have one of the most athletic defensive lines around, going at least 6 deep. Of all the position groups on the team, there are the fewest question marks here, and not much to worry about. As long as they continue to occupy blockers and get good push up field. Expect opposing backfields to be Bear territory.In Summation – The Bears have boasted one of the top defenses in the Pac-12 recently, ranking 2nd in yards per game average and 3rd in points allowed last year. Nothing indicates that changing. Defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast is one of the best in the conference, and there is much to like about group overall, especially the 6 or 7 man rotation at defensive line, and the grab bag of young and talented linebackers.
Expect nothing less than another top 3 defensive finish.
But on another note, it tantalizes the imagination to realize how young this unit is: by 2013 or 2014, the Bears could have one of the top defenses in the country. By then, players from the outstanding ’11 and ’12 classes should all be ready to contribute, including 4 star linebacker Michael Barton, defensive tackle Todd Barr, and the aforementioned Viliami Moala. All are still in the process of learning and adjusting to the college game, but the talent is there. The future is bright.
Be patient, Bears fans. You’ve waited over 50 years. Another season or two can’t hurt.
 As of right now, that appears to be Alex Logan.
 Cal will face Nevada’s zone-read heavy Pistol offense to open the 2012 season – hopefully they’ve learned a thing or two since last fall. You may recall Chris Conte played this spy role to great effect in the 2010 Oregon game – even in a losing effort, keeping Darron Thomas bottled up was one of the main reasons we remained in it as long as we did.
 Football defenses generally fall into either a 4-3 or 3-4 defensive scheme, with the former referring to the number of linemen on the field, and the latter, the number of linebackers.
In a 4-3, the defensive tackles are expected to be run-stoppers, and the defensive ends are expected to be pass-rushers.
In a 3-4 scheme, however, all 3 linemen are asked only to occupy blockers. Draw a double team? Good. Triple team? Even better. In theory, this is supposed to free up the linebacking core to make plays, because there will be less opponents to impede them. The advantage of a 3-4 scheme lies in its unpredictability – on any given play, any one of the linebackers could become the fourth pass rusher. Additional pressure could come from any side, angle or player, which is designed to create chaos and indecision in the offense. By comparison, the offense nearly always knows which rushers to expect in a 4-3 set – the four players that line up directly in front of them.
In this sense, Cal was extremely lacking last year – as nice as Guyton’s and Owusu’s contributions were, they are sure signs that this unit underperformed, because they could not get pressure from the players who were supposed to generate it.
 – Watch the Oregon tape and you’ll see Cecil Whiteside and company being juuuuust too far out of position to grab James or Thomas time and time again.
 – And believe me, I will. But that’s a discussion for another day.