THE SITUATION: Last season, California was No. 9 in scoring defense in the Pac-12, No. 10 in total defense, No. 11 in passing defense, No. 10 in passing efficiency defense and No. 9 in interceptions. Then the Bears lost Marc Anthony, Steve Williams and Josh Hill to the NFL and graduation.
Fittingly, the defensive backfield looks to be perhaps the weakest -- and certainly the thinnest -- unit on either side of the ball in 2013. However, there are certainly some very talented players back on the last line of defense. The biggest issue for Randy Stewart is the fact that, beyond the presumptive starters Stefan McClure, Avery Sebastian, Michael Lowe and Kameron Jackson, the rest of the defensive backs on the roster have a total of four starts between them and a grand total of 40 games of experience (not including 12 games from Joel Willis, who is listed as a wide receiver) – most of it on special teams.
"The work that Kam and Avery and Mike and Alex and all of us have been putting in, I think we can turn some heads," McClure said. "Being a weak part of the defense going into the season, I think we'll be able to hold our own through this gauntlet of a schedule that we have. We'll be able to hold our own and surprise some people, because we've got great coaching and we've got a great scheme. We're going against some elite guys in practice, so I think we're going to be good."
The recently announced move of outside linebacker Jason Gibson to strong safety is indicative of that lack of depth, which means that some of the younger defensive backs -- Damariay Drew, Joel Willis and Cedric Dozier -- may very well have to step up if injuries become a problem. That said, McClure has all the confidence in the world in Stewart being able to coach ‘em up.
"He's over there, breaking his glasses every day, just running around with tons of energy," McClure said. "That's what I like. He's energetic. He'll try to beat you from drill to drill, when we go from individuals to one-on-ones, he's running over there with tons of energy. It's exciting. You can just feed off of that energy, and you can't help but be ready."
Stefan McClure (STARTER)
5-foot-11, 200 pounds
As a recruit: Four-star prospect, No. 4 cornerback; 2011 U.S. Army All-American.
Kameron Jackson (STARTER)
5-foot-9, 175 pounds
As a recruit: Three-star prospect, No. 41 cornerback.
5-foot-11, 200 pounds
As a recruit: Three-star prospect, No. 152 cornerback.
5-foot-9, 190 pounds
5-foot-11, 175 pounds
As a recruit: Three-star prospect, No. 70 cornerback; Tore his ACL during his senior season, had it surgically repaired on Dec. 4.
5-foot-11, 180 pounds
As a recruit: Three-star prospect, No. 7 cornerback; Played for Team USA in the 2012 IFAF 19U World Championship and had an interception against Samoa … 2013 Semper Fidelis All-American … DNP due to broken collarbone, suffered in the first league game of his senior year against Encino (Calif.) Crespi.
5-foot-11, 175 pounds
As a recruit: Three-star prospect, No. 124 cornerback.
5-foot-11, 175 pounds
As a recruit: Four-star prospect, No. 24 cornerback; 2012 U.S. Army All-American … Spent 2012 as a wide receiver while redshirting … Three-year varsity starter at Lakewood (Wash.) Lakes … Played wide receiver, dual-threat quarterback and cornerback.
5-foot-10, 190 pounds
As a recruit: Three-star prospect, No. 67 cornerback; Came in as a two-way athlete, also listed as a wide receiver.
6-foot, 200 pounds
TALE OF THE TAPE: McClure's breakout freshman campaign was abruptly ended by an injury suffered in the regular-season finale against Arizona State, where he tore his ACL, MCL and meniscus. It's been 20 months since he last played a competitive snap of football. All that considered, he's probably the best defensive back the Bears have. As a true freshman, he locked down USC star Robert Woods, but also learned some hard lessons when he first took the field against Oregon, in relief of injured Marc Anthony. He spent all of 2012 on the sidelines with a headset, learning how and why a defense works. He has the most know-how of any of the defensive backs, by far, and during summer workouts, showed that he cam put any wide receiver on an island against a talented corps of pass catchers.
Jackson was thrown into the fire as a true freshman, as well, in 2011, playing six games and tallying six tackles. As a true sophomore in 2012, Jackson played in all 12 games, with three starts, sharing the team lead with three picks – all coming in the Homecoming win over then-No. 25 UCLA. He earned the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week nod for that performance, and, along with McClure, brings a lot of hard-won experience to the table in the pass-happy Pac-12.
Beyond those two, though, pickings are slim. Lee came in as a hard-hitting and very raw safety, and has been slow to develop. He and Lapite flashed at times during spring camp, but I'd still like to see more consistency from them.
There's also Willis and Dozier to consider. Both came in more as two-way athletes, and Willis is alternately listed as a defensive back and a wide receiver. The biggest issue with Dozier is that he's a very good overall athlete, but he's never really had a true position. He's very good at a lot of things, but not great in any singular skill set, though I was always a fan of his blocking as a receiver, especially during the practice week for the U.S. Army All-American Bowl.
When injuries mounted in the secondary the past two years, the Bears have been able to rely on Jackson and McClure to step right in and play as true freshmen, and if things don't break Cal's way this year, you might see some of the other youngsters come in and try their hands.
Though Allensworth is coming off of an ACL surgery, compared to the other knee-splosions other Cal players are recovering from, it's virtually a Tommy John operation, at this point. He has his full range of motion back and is working to get stronger. Personally, I love his size. He's a big corner who can run and plays with a lot of physicality. He has plus ball skills and excels in press coverage, owing to a thick upper body, which helps him outmuscle smaller receivers. Even with that injury, I'd be shocked if the Bears staff can keep him off the field.
Another corner coming in off of an injury, Walker should be completely healed from a broken collarbone, and while he was overshadowed by a lot of talented corners in the West this past recruiting cycle, he has good length, loose hips, long active arms and a very smooth backpedal. While Allensworth is more of a hybrid DB who could fit well into nickel duties, Walker is a pure corner.
Last, but certainly not least, is Cheek. Cheek had to wait a month before getting his letter of intent in, but his faith in the program never wavered. He's absolutely fearless, which meshes well with this staff's attitude. He'll gamble in coverage, and it can pay off big sometimes, but he can sometimes get in trouble. He has to get stronger in the press, and is a bit on the smaller side, but plays bigger than he is, and can open his hips and run with the kinds of speedy receivers he'll see in the Pac-12. He'll struggle against bigger, more physical receivers, and is better playing off the ball than he is on it, due to his lack of size and strength, particularly when compared to Allensworth, but some time in the new strength and conditioning program could go a long way towards solving that shortcoming. Gun to my head, he's probably 50/50 between playing and redshirting. Cal could need him, but if they can get by without him, it would be a greater service to him to let him marinate for a year.
5-foot-11, 215 pounds
As a recruit: Three-star prospect, No. 70 safety, 2010 Crab Bowl participant.
6-foot-2, 210 pounds
As a recruit: Three-star prospect, No. 35 safety.
6-foot-2, 200 pounds
As a recruit: Unrated prospect out of Pawling (NY) Trinity-Pawling as a dual-threat quarterback … Redshirted at Richmond before transferring to City College of San Francisco, where he did not play football … Walk-on … Out of high school, had offers from Richmond, James Madison, New Hampshire, Sacramento State, San Jose State, Temple and Western Michigan.
TALE OF THE TAPE: Lowe has seen most of his experience coming as a backup or as the primary nickel back, and this season, he'll be thrust into the starting role, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. He's shorter and stouter than maybe you'd like, particularly when paired with Avery Sebastian, but he's a very heady player with good instincts. He may not make the big plays, but he won't fail to make the little ones, and in a secondary, which will be tested early and often, that's the kind of guy you want up the middle. Lowe's coverage skills won't blow anybody away, but they're solid enough.
Logan had issues last season in pass coverage and assignments, but whether that was due to him or partially to the complexity of the defensive scheme is hard to say. Nevertheless, he was very inconsistent and didn't have as much of an upside as the younger, more talented Sebastian. He is, however, a bit longer and rangier than either Sebastian or Lowe, with a tad more speed. He suffered a nasty knee injury during spring camp, so how he bounces back will inform where he stands in the final estimation.
Craigie is an intriguing option, considering he's spent the vast majority of his football life as a dual-threat quarterback, and hasn't played a competitive down of football since 2010. He did spent part of 2010 in the secondary as a post-grad at Trinity Pawling School in New York, recording four tackles and one interception. He has good speed, with a 4.6-second 40, his size is certainly impressive and he's not afraid to lower the boom. That said, he'll be a bit of a project for Stewart, who will have to mold all of his individual skills into a coherent form of safety.
5-foot-10, 195 pounds
As a recruit: Three-star prospect, No. 27 safety; 2011 U.S. Army All-American.
6-foot, 205 pounds
As a recruit: Two-star prospect, No. 126 safety, 2011 Cal State Game participant.
6-foot-2, 205 pounds
As a recruit: Four-star prospect, No. 10 outside inebacker, 2011 U.S. Army All-American.
6-foot, 190 pounds
As a recruit: Unrated prospect, recruited as an athlete … Played quarterback, punter, wide receiver and safety at Lakeside (Ariz.) Blue Ridge.
TALE OF THE TAPE: Depth-wise, this is probably the single strongest position in the secondary. Sebastian came on strong last season, starting four games and playing in 11, recording 56 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, one pass breakup and one quarterback hurry. Sebastian's greatest strength is coming up and hitting. His cover skills are improving, but still a bit of a work in progress. He's unquestionably one of the leaders not only of the secondary, but of the defense as a whole, as a heady, smart, quick and vicious defender. Sebastian plays much bigger than he is, and will make up for any lack of speed with his instincts, which, again, are strongest against the run.
Drew is not a surprise at all behind Sebastian. As a running back at Livermore (Calif.), he was one of the toughest players in the EBAL to bring down, according to 2013 signee Ray Hudson, who went head-to-head with Drew when he played safety for Pleasanton (Calif.) Foothill. Drew has tree trunks for legs and has a lot of pop when he comes up to hit. Neither he nor Sebastian are the biggest safeties out there, but like Sebastian, Drew plays bigger than he is. He also has more speed than Sebastian, but his instincts are still a step or two behind. Where Drew has the biggest ground to make up is the fact that he missed most of spring and the spring game due to injury, so fall camp will be crucial for him to cement his spot.
We already mentioned Gibson back in our linebackers preview, but that was before word slipped out that he would instead be joining the secondary this coming season, and that he was no longer a 225-pound outside linebacker, but a 205-pound safety. Gibson started as a defensive end in high school, moved between inside and outside linebacker when he got to Berkeley and now, he might as well go for the hat trick, playing in the third and final unit of the defense. Gibson was always very fast for either linebacker or defensive end, so putting him back in the secondary is a natural move. He's always had a strong ability to drop back and good field vision, and he already ahs good run support instincts. Gibson's sideline-to-sideline speed will serve him well playing up top. The big thing for Gibson will be staying healthy. He's had a tough time doing that the past two years, suffering a high ankle sprain during his first fall camp, missing all of last season with a broken foot suffered last fall camp and being very limited this past spring due to the same foot.