In the past three seasons, Sonny Dykes's Louisiana Tech defenses have been ranked 120th (2012), 57th (2011) and 116th (2010) in the nation. When Dykes took over as skipper for California, he resolved to change that, bringing in Andy Buh to coach the linebackers and serve as defensive coordinator.
While the new Bear Raid may be a focus of the Bears' season opener against No. 22 Northwestern, which ranked 64th in total offense in the Football Bowl Subdivision last season, and was among the best teams in the nation in fewest fumbles (1.23 per game) and fewest interceptions (0.54 per game), finishing the year at +13 in turnover margin with an 87.7% red zone efficiency rating.
Beyond the switch from the 3-4 to the 3-2, Buh's impact will be felt immediately in that he coached in the Big 10 last season with Wisconsin. While the Badgers didn't play the Wildcats, as Dykes said this week that Buh "certainly saw them on film a lot."
"I think it helps," Dykes said. "He's familiar with their style of play, to an extent, but the thing that they do is that they're so diverse in what they do offensively, with the two quarterbacks, to what [Kain] Colter brings to the table – just his ability to make plays – and what they do, they just execute incredibly well. That puts pressure on your defense, when an offense executes at the level that they do."
Northwestern was third in the Big 10 last season in scoring offense, scoring 31.7 points per game. While the Wildcats were tied for ninth in passing offense, the two-quarterback system of Colter and Trevor Siemian was effective, to say the least. Then-sophomore Siemian was 10th in the league in passing yards per game (101.3), while Colter was seventh in passer efficiency (129.3). Colter completed 101 of 149 passes with four picks and eight touchdowns, while Siemian went 128-for-218 with three picks and six touchdowns.
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"It just presents the challenge that one quarterback can run and throw, and another one they use for passes, so it makes you have to prepare more in your game plan, and look at things," said redshirt sophomore cornerback and team captain Stefan McClure. "You have to scheme a little differently for each quarterback, so that gives you more on your plate to prepare for. Instead of just one, specific offense, now you've got the zone read offense, and then you have their passing attack offense, so it gives you a couple of different aspects to prepare for."
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Colter – simulated in practice this week by Austin Hinder -- is an effective weapon in the zone read, option and speed option run by Northwestern. He started 12 of 13 games last season, and saw time as a wide receiver during the middle of the season. He ranked 12th in the conference in rushing yards per game (68.8) and 11th in total offense (135.9 ypg).
Siemian has a big-time arm as a standard pocket passer with a bit of a clutch factor, hitting a game-winning TD pass on the road last year against Syracuse.
"We think they're both equally good, so when they're both equally good, we try and just come up with a plan that stops good quarterbacks," Buh said. "Obviously, the one runs a little bit better than the other, but they both have strong and efficient arms. We have to prepare a scheme that stops the run and the throw. They're both tremendous quarterbacks."
Northwestern's two biggest strengths both play to two of the Cal defense's biggest perceived weaknesses. As the Bears set to preparing for the Wildcats more than a week and a half ago, the outside run containment was notably better than in years past, but the gap integrity up the middle – particularly on the interior of the defensive line – was less than stout, despite the presence of NFL prospect Deandre Coleman and former five-star Viliami Moala.
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The Wildcats receiving corps – supplemented by tailback Stephen Buckley in the slot – is also experienced. Junior Christian Jones hauled in 35 balls for 412 yards and two touchdowns last season to lead Northwestern, which saw eight players catch at least 10 passes, and five catch at least 20. Colter caught 16 passes for 169 yards.
That receiving corps will be going up against a secondary that is paper-thin, and while safeties Avery Sebastian and Michael Lowe, and cornerbacks McClure and Kameron Jackson are strong and experienced across the board, the depth behind them is inexperienced.
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"We're just so young," Dykes said. "We're playing a lot of guys that have never played in college football before. When you have that, there's always some growing pains associated with that. We hope that we get the carryover from practice to the game, because our kids have practiced very well, and we think we're a long way ahead of the curve in that regard, but how is that going to translate from the practice field to the game? That's something that we can't really answer right now."
The one weakness – interior gap integrity – could lead to the exposure of the other – the lack of depth in the secondary – particularly considering how effective the Wildcats' rushing game is.
"We've got high expectations," Buh said of the defensive line. "If they play on Saturday, they're going to be ready to go, regardless of how many days they were in or out. They're ready. The group's ready, and we're expecting a lot of big things from them."
Northwestern is far from typical in its rushing attack. Along with Colter, the star of the backfield is unquestionably 5-foot-8, 175-pound tailback Venric Mark.
Aside from his talents as a first-team All-American punt returner, he was the Wildcats' offensive MVP after rushing for 1,366 yards. Mark was fifth in the Big 10 in rushing, ninth in scoring (15 TDs), ninth in kick return average (19.8 yards per return) and first in all-purpose yards, with 2,171 (including 280 punt return yards and 104 receiving yards). Cal may have plenty of speed in the backfield in Brendan Bigelow, Daniel Lasco and Khalfani Muhammad, but Mark could be just as deadly.
"He's quick. He's a strong runner," said Buh. "He's got great vision. He's got some explosiveness with the ball. We'll have to have a really good day to stop him."
Along with Mark, the Wildcats also has a position they like to call the "superback." During practice this week, freshman inside receiver Ray Hudson has simulated 6-foot-2, 225-pound sophomore Dan Vitale, while the part of 6-foot-4, 240-pound sophomore Mark Szott was played by freshman offensive tackle Vince Johnson. Northwestern's other superbacks include 5-foot-10, 215-pound sophomore Doug Diedrick, 6-foot-4, 250-pound redshirt freshman Jack Schwaba and 6-foot-4, 225-pound freshman Jayme Taylor out of The Woodlands (Tex.) – Lasco's alma mater.
[GAME WEEK Q&A: Talking Cal With PurpleWildcats.com]
The range of body types used to play that "superback" position should look familiar to Cal fans, as it covers the same range as the Bears' "bone" position.
"The guys that they have in that position are really good athletes," Buh said. "It's a hybrid between a halfback, fullback and tight end, and that's why they call it a ‘superback.' We identify what position it's in and play that formation and that position as it's identified."
What that means is that if the "superback" lines up as a fullback, he's treated as a fullback. If he lines up as a tight end, he's treated as a tight end, and so on.
The similarity to the bone position – at least as far as the versatility of the athletes involved -- has helped the Cal defense prepare for that part of the Wildcats offense, particularly when the first-team and second-team defense goes against the first- and second-team offense every day in practice.
"Any time we can get a similar look from our offense, it helps a lot, because then we don't have to simulate it ourselves," Buh said. "Any time we can get a similar look that's fast, it helps us out tremendously."
Because of that experience, both soft spots in the Cal defense – the interior line and the defensive backfield – have seen marked improvement, particularly in the persons of cornerbacks Isaac Lapite and Cedric Dozier, with safety Damariay Drew stepping up while starting free safety Avery Sebastian recovered from a severe concussion.
"I've just been focused on consistency," said Dozier. "I want to be great, but I was in a rush, and I was trying to be great all in one day. To be great, you have to focus in one day at a time, and focus on consistency. It's only that one day and that one practice and that one play. I just started focusing. The big thing is not looking back at the ball, but playing the man and then going for the ball. I got toasted in spring ball not doing that."
The linebacking corps – anchored on the strong side by Jalen Jefferson -- has also come to the support of the line, and by the end of the week of practice, Jefferson, redshirt freshman MIKE linebacker Hardy Nickerson and WILL linebacker Khairi Fortt were superb not only in coverage, but also in plugging gaps up front.
"I'm real proud of that group," Buh said. "They're all into it. The freshmen came in ready to play. They've stayed mentally ready the entire time, even without knowing that they would actually get reps. My hat's off to them for that. They've had a tremendous camp, and they're ready to go."
KEY TO VICTORY: Defense
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