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UCLA at UC Berkeley Defensive Preview: Battling it Out at the Bottom

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The Cal defense has improved greatly, but will it be enough to beat the Bruins?

NCAA Football: California at Washington Jennifer Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

We’re all still licking our wounds from last Saturday, and at this point, the only way we get a bowl game is if we actually win this Saturday and petition the committee to throw us a bone. We all know changes are a must after this season, but as I’ve stated before, we still have one more opponent. Here is the Cal Bears defensive preview.

Defensive Line

Part of Cal’s issues on defense last year was the lack of a pass rush. After finishing last in the Pac-12 in 2014 with 16 sacks, Cal improved and tied for eighth last season with 28. Redshirt senior DeVante Wilson is listed as one of the starters at the defensive end position and represented Cal at the 2016 Pac-12 Football Media Days in July. He has recorded 39 tackles with 4.5 of those for a loss and 3.5 sacks. He has two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery and recorded his first pass breakup of the season last weekend against Stanford. With the pass rush on the priority list, Wilson spent the off season working on his technique getting off the edge, and he is obviously seeing success. Sophomore Cameron Saffle was listed in the number two spot during fall camp, but has worked his way up the depth chart. He was one of three true freshman to start on the defensive side of the ball last season, and has contributed a total of 53 tackles with eight of those for a loss this season. Junior defensive tackles James Looney and Tony Mekari will round out the defensive line. Looney has 52 tackles including seven for a loss for a combined total of 28 yards, and one forced fumble and one fumble recovery. Mekari has a season total of 32 tackles so far, with nine of those coming last weekend against Stanford. With our offensive line woes and the Cal defense getting better on the pass rush, I’m always worried that Fafaul may be running for his life. Our O line has gotten slightly better, but in my opinion, not good enough.

Linebackers

While the pass rush up front was a weakness for Cal in the past, the linebackers were actually seen as a strength. With the departures of Michael Barton, Jalen Jefferson and Hardy Nickerson Jr., younger players now have the opportunity to fill the void and contribute to the overall success of the defense. Redshirt Junior Raymond Davison was slated as one of the players to step up on defense, and with his 67 tackles and one interception, I’d say he has definitely made a positive contribution. He is ranked #23 in the conference in total tackles and had a career high 13 tackle game against Texas earlier in the season. Junior Devante Downs has also stepped up in a big way, ranking #8 in the conference in tackles. He has 79 total with 1.5 sacks and led Cal in tackles with a career-best 14 last weekend against Stanford. Redshirt sophomore Aisea Tongilava is starting at the “Sam” position after missing the entire 2015 season due to injury. His stats do not do him justice, as he missed a good portion of the season due to a toe injury, but he is currently the only linebacker listed at his position. This is a position where I am confident that we have more talent, but the lingering question always rests with the ability of our offensive line to protect our quarterback. Additionally, will our running backs have room to get through Cal’s line and actually make an impact on our offense? Will our receivers be able to get open and beat the coverage? I’m confident that this week will be easier than last week, but since we have an awful tendency to play down to our opponents, Cal may pose just as much of a threat to our offense as USC did.

Secondary

Cal’s secondary definitely upgraded this year and is stacked with returners. Senior Cameron Walker is one of the team's most experienced and versatile players with 35 career games and 29 starts at three different positions in the defensive backfield. He has been utilized all over the field when Cal needed coverage due to injury, and this is something Walker enjoys. Back in 2015, he told the SF Gate, “I’m enjoying being in a lot of different positions. It’s not the same as corner or safety where you’re just like stuck on one part of the field the whole game. I like moving around a lot.” Junior Darius Allensworth has collected one interception and four pass break ups this season, even though he has been plagued with injuries including issues with his thigh and a pulled hamstring. He has not played in the last four games, and if he is still out, freshman Josh Drayden may take his spot. He has played in eight games this season and recorded 22 tackles. Redshirt Senior Khari Vanderbilt is listed in the safety position and has a total of 78 tackles, three sacks, and one interception this year. Junior safety Luke Rubenzer has contributed 58 tackles of his own, including 11 against USC and also has two interceptions that he returned for a total of 72 yards.

Analysis

While I always worry about the ability of our offense to protect our passer and make holes for the running backs, I think we’ve definitely got more talent on this side of the ball. The elephant in the room is how many dropped passes will we have? Will the running backs be able to break free? After a season of writing these articles, I think we’ll see more of the same from Fafaul (nothing on him, but he’s hit his ceiling) and a run game still looking for an identity.