2013 California Preview – Defense
CollegeFootballNews.com 2013 Preview - California Golden Bear Defense
Preview 2013 - Defense
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What You Need To Know: The big news on defense this year is that under the direction of coordinator Andy Buh, the Bears are shifting from a 3-4 to a 4-3 alignment. For Cal, it means that a number of last season's outside linebackers, like Chris McCain and Brennan Scarlett, are moving down a level to defensive end. It also means there's a greater need for tackles Deandre Coleman, Mustafa Jalil and Vili Moala to rise up and shut down the gaps that were exploited with such regularity in 2012. The program harbors talent. It often does. But somehow, last fall's results need to be reversed. Cal was clueless down the stretch, allowing 121 points in just the final two games. The D is better than it looked a year ago. It'll be up to Buh and his assistants to prove it with a reworked unit breaking in three new starters in the secondary.
Star of the defense: Senior NT Deandre Coleman
Tackles: Nick Forbes, 85
Sacks: Chris McCain, 3.5
Interceptions: Kameron Jackson, Michael Lowe, 3
Player who has to step up and become a star: Junior CB Kameron Jackson
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore CB Stefan McClure
Best pro prospect: Coleman
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Coleman, 2) Junior DE Chris McCain, 3) Junior LB Nick Forbes
Strength of the defense: Pressure, athleticism
Weakness of the defense: Pass defense, stuffing the run, depth, third-down D, red-zone D
What do you do when you've got a glut of quality linebackers and a need for more edge rushers? You direct some of your better outside linebackers, such as junior Chris McCain to move up a level to defensive end. The former blue-chip recruit from the state of North Carolina got his feet wet as a 10-game starter in 2012, earning honorable mention All-Pac-12 with 50 tackles, 8.5 stops for loss and 3.5 sacks. Ultra-competitive and athletic, he's attempting to transform a 6-6, 215-pound frame built more for Haas Pavilion than Memorial Stadium. McCain has a busy offseason ahead that includes learning a new position and packing on 20 or so additional pounds to better handle the rigors of being a down lineman.
Also moving from outside linebacker to defensive end this season will be 6-4, 265-pound Brennan Scarlett. He clearly has the size and the strength to excel in the trenches, with the potential to continue growing into the kind of strongside end who supports against the run. Despite missing three games to injury and lacking experience, Scarlett earned praise by making 40 tackles, six stops for loss, 2.5 sacks and two forced fumbles.
With the former linebackers filling spots at end, 6-5, 320-pound senior Deandre Coleman is shifting back to a more natural position, nose tackle. He thought about turning pro early before opting to return for his final year of eligibility. Coleman moves very well for a player of his size and strength, leading Cal linemen a year ago with 48 tackles, 8.5 stops for loss and three sacks. The all-league candidate will not only make it tougher for opponents to run between the tackles, but he's also capable of generating backfield pressure from right up the gut.
Filling out the starting front four will be 6-2, 275-pound junior Mustafa Jalil. No, he hasn't emerged as expected yet, making just five tackles in seven games a year ago, but he's the quick and sudden option to complement Coleman from tackle. After dealing with knee problems in 2012, Jalil is looking to play an entire season without incident.
The Bears feel confident about their depth and talent coming off the bench. Junior Kyle Kragen, a heralded first-year transfer from Diablo Valley (Calif.) College, impressed during the spring with his intensity and burst off the edge. The 6-3, 250-pound will spell McCain at rush end. Behind Scarlett is 6-3, 260-pound sophomore Todd Barr, a young player the staff really likes. In limited action, he made 12 tackles, 4.5 stops for loss and two sacks in his first year.
On the interior, veteran reps will be provided by 6-2, 340-pound junior NT Vili Moala and 6-1, 285-pound senior Keni Kaufusi. Yeah, Moala has yet to pan out, making just seven stops and starting one game in 2012, but the staff still feels that he has the potential to become a force in the middle of the line. Kaufusi is a luxury coming off the bench, a mature defender, with three starts and a couple of sacks to his name from last year.
Watch Out For … the scale in McCain's bathroom. It's incumbent upon the junior to add weight, but in such a fashion that it doesn't impact his explosiveness off the snap. He's a thoroughbred, but with the move forward one level, he's going to spend less time in space and more time grappling with tackles that outweigh him by at least a toddler child.
Strength: Athletes. With the import of multiple linebackers to defensive end, the Bears are suddenly very agile and athletic up front. McCain, Scarlett and Kragen will be handfuls for opposing tackles. And the interior linemen, Coleman and Jalil, move well enough laterally to bust through gaps and into the backfield.
Weakness: Stuffing the run. Cal struggled to stop the ground game a year ago, ranking No. 70 and allowing 4.3 yards a carry. Coleman has an All-Pac-12 trajectory, but it's a must for the Bears that both Jalil and Moala deliver the best seasons of their careers. With former linebackers manning the flanks, this D has got to step it up from the inside.
Outlook: There's enough talent up front for coordinator Andy Buh to mold into a cohesive, disruptive front wall. McCain and Coleman possess next-level potential, while Scarlett and Jalil represent complements with notable upside potential. Can the new staff elevate and energize Moala? If so, Cal has a chance to be sneaky-good on the first line of the D.
Unit Rating: 7
Chris McCain and Brennan Scarlett are making the shift to D-line, as Cal switches to a 4-3. Junior Nick Forbes is going to be one of the clear-cut leaders of the Bears on the second level. The 6-1, 235-pounder enjoyed a breakthrough season on the inside, finishing second on the team with 85 tackles, 4.5 behind the line, while recovering a team-best three fumbles. Heady and nimble in all directions, Forbes is capable of being a playmaker against both the run and the pass. With the defense shifting to a 4-3 this fall, he'll be learning a more traditional inside linebacker role than what he'd grown accustomed to under Jeff Tedford's staff.
Playing weakside will be sophomore Jalen Jefferson, who enjoyed a precocious debut as a Bear. The 6-2, 235-pounder broke into the lineup in September and never left, chipping in with 47 tackles. With a full offseason to get bigger and more acclimated with the system, he's liable to parlay his speed and sharp changes of direction into a monster second year in Berkeley.
The staff is excited to have the services of junior Khairi Fortt, the Penn State transfer who sat out 2012 to fully rehab a knee injury. The 6-2, 235-pounder is extremely versatile, capable of playing inside, yet more likely to lock down strongside. More than just big and quick, he possesses the instincts to sniff out plays before they can develop, and the hunger and focus to take his game to a new level this fall. From Happy Valley to Strawberry Canyon, Fortt changed zip codes looking for a fresh start to his career.
The backup to Forbes inside is 6-0, 225-pound redshirt freshman Hardy Nickerson, the son of the former NFL Pro Bowler by the same name. He's a playmaker, with the pedigree to gradually grow as a member of the rotation. The utility man of the group is 6-3, 245-pound sophomore Nathan Broussard, who looked in the spring as if he's capable of playing multiple positions in the front seven. He started four games as a rookie, making 18 tackles, 3.5 stops for loss and three sacks, while standing out as a pass rusher. Adding depth on the outside will be 6-2, 245-pound junior David Wilkerson, who missed all of last year to an ankle injury. He started three games in 2011, making 17 tackles, 5.5 stops for loss and four sacks.
Watch Out For … there to be jockeying for playing time right through the summer. Forbes is close to a sure-thing in the middle, but the coaching staff is encouraging competition at the outside positions. Jefferson and Fortt have an edge today, but Broussard and Wilkerson both bring pass-rushing skills that could be useful on third downs.
Strength: The pass rush. The starters are athletic and instinctive, timing their blitzes to disrupt the rhythm of the quarterback. Plus, Broussard and Wilkerson are pseudo-defensive ends, with the size and the fundamentals to also threaten from the edge. The linebackers will support the D-line on obvious passing downs.
Weakness: Star power. Forbes is the best of the group, but he's not one of the elite linebackers of the Pac-12. Fortt is new to the league, and Jefferson is only in his second year with the program. The Cal linebackers and hard-working, with pretty good size, but there's a wow factor that's missing from this unit.
Outlook: Forbes will be a rock in the middle of the second level, possibly leading the Bears in tacklers. The B team is solid, bringing experience and toughness from off the bench. The key this year will be the development of the outside linebackers. It's incumbent upon Jefferson to take the next big step in his growth, and for Fortt to prove that Penn State was misguided for not giving him more snaps in 2011.
Unit Rating: 6.5
The defensive backfield will justifiably get a lot of attention this offseason. From the group that yielded 32 touchdown passes in 2012, three veteran starters must be replaced. Defensive backs coach Randy Stewart will be a very busy man this summer. Good news comes from the return of 5-10, 200-pound CB Stefan McClure, who sat out all of last year to recover from a knee injury. Even better news is that the sophomore looked terrific in the spring, blanketing the talented Bears receivers. McClure has bona fide lockdown potential, the rising star of the secondary, provided he suffers no physical setbacks.
Once opposing quarterbacks realize that McClure should be avoided, 5-9, 175-pound junior Kameron Jackson is likely to be targeted. The two-time letterwinner has experience, making 27 tackles and three interceptions, all versus UCLA, as a three-game starter. However, he needs to tighten up his coverage skills, and his size will continue to be a concern when facing bigger receivers.
At strong safety, junior Avery Sebastian speaks softly, but carries a very big stick. While only 5-11 and 190 pounds, the one-time hockey player from Atlanta is the kind of intimidator who makes receivers want to know where No. 4 is at all times. High effort and high intensity at all times, Sebastian started four games in 2012, and made a career-high 56 tackles. With a full-time gig, he's capable of so much more this fall.
The Bears boast a couple of seasoned veterans at free safety, 5-11, 210-pound junior Michael Lowe and 6-2, 210-pound senior Alex Logan. Lowe is atop the depth chart, but both players have played plenty of important snaps at this level. Lowe started eight games a season ago, making 69 tackles and a team-high three interceptions. Logan started four games and made 24 stops for the busiest year of his career. Both players retain the size and physicality to provide quality support against the run.
Watch Out For … McClure to pick up where he left off during his rookie. Yeah, he might be a little tentative with his cuts in the early going, but spring drills provided evidence that he hasn't lost the cover skills that made him such a prized, four-star recruit in 2011. McClure is exactly the kind of aggressive player that the Cal secondary is pining for in 2013.
Strength: The corners. Even after losing Marc Anthony to graduation and Steve Williams to an early departure, the Bears feel as if they'll be in good shape at cornerback for the next two seasons. When healthy, McClure trajectory stops at the All-Pac-12 Team. And while Jackson remains an unfinished product, he showed enough in the spring to be considered a full-timer in this league.
Weakness: Consistency in coverage. Only one Pac-12 squad, lowly Colorado, yielded more touchdown passes than Cal did a year ago. And typically, you don't get better by losing three starters. The Bears have plenty to prove this season in a conference where it's not always easy to hide deficiencies in pass defense.
Outlook: The return of McClure is immensely important to the defensive backfield. But what does it say about a group, when its cover boy is coming off major knee surgery, and has just one season of experience? The Bears will remain vulnerable through the air, even if McClure emerges as a borderline all-league performer. Worse yet, a lack of proven depth could become a particular problem in the second-half of the season.
Unit Rating: 6.5
Instability is everywhere on the Cal roster, with the special teams unit being no exception. Senior Vincenzo D'Amato is back after elevating to the All-Pac-12 First Team, hitting 16-of-23 field goal attempts. He has a big leg, a bonus on kickoffs, but he still needs to improve his accuracy. D'Amato missed three extra points in 2012, while nailing just 7-of-14 three-pointers from outside 30 yards. In fact, Cal has missed nine extra points over the last two seasons.
Sophomore Cole Leininger averaged just under 40 yards in his first season as the replacement for accomplished P Bryan Anger. His hang time prevented nearly half of his punts from being returned, supporting a punt coverage team that needed the assistance.
Watch Out For … the impact of junior Brendan Bigelow on the return game. While he's the most explosive member of the special teams unit, he's also in line to take over as the starting running back. Can the Bears afford to use an injury-prone Bigelow, who was honorable mention All-Pac-12 on kickoffs in 2012, on more than just the offense?
Strength: D'Amato. He lacks consistency, but he's also the top returning kicker in the Pac-12. Not only can he reach the uprights from beyond 50 yards, but his right leg will also prove valuable to the D on kickoffs.
Weakness: Coverage teams. The new staff has its work cut out for it when it pertains to covering punts and kickoffs. A year ago, the special teamers were an unmitigated liability to the defense, ranking 88th in punt return yardage allowed, and 118th, with two touchdowns permitted, on kickoffs.
Outlook: Special teams coordinator Mark Tommerdahl is going to be a busy man this season. Included on his Sonny-do list will be to improve the consistency of his punter and placekicker, locate a spark in the return game and plug the gaping holes in coverage. The only way is up following last season's horrible all-around performance from the group.
Unit Rating: 5.5
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