BTTV: Walk This Way
BERKELEY -- Washington State throws the ball on roughly 75% of its snaps. Taking out sacks, and that jumps up to nearly 77%. So, what does a beleaguered California secondary – ranked the fourth-worst passing defense in the Pac-12 – have to do against Mike Leach's Air Raid?
"Cover the pass," says corner-turned-safety Cameron Walker.
That easy, eh?
Despite a marked improvement in the utilization of the Air Raid over last season – Leach's first in Pullman – the Cougars are still 11th in the conference in scoring offense and in total offense (388.0 yards per game), though given their conference-worst 60.6 rushing yards per game, that's not entirely a surprise. When it comes to passing offense, Washington State is fifth in the conference, just 45.6 passing yards per game behind the second-place Bears.
"It's a mirror of two offenses, in a way. It's two similar type teams. It's almost a basketball game on grass," says Cal defensive backs coach Randy Stewart. "It's going to come down to being able to pass rush and cover."
We'll cover the rushing element of the defense in our next in-depth preview, so for now, we're going to take a hard look at Stewart's charges in the secondary.
Though No. 2 corner Kameron Jackson is still listed as "questionable," the rest of the secondary is intact for the third week of practice in a row. Michael Lowe has continued to be a steadying influence in the middle, Stefan McClure has had perhaps his best week of practice this season, and even former walk-on Isaac Lapite -- playing in Jackson's stead – has shown marked improvement since taking over in the Oregon game.
"We're getting better. We've got to continue to get better," Stewart says. "There's a reason we're all here, and we're going to go from where we are to where we want to go. It's not close yet. Each day, it gets closer and closer, whether it shows or not. It is happening."
The Bears have no choice but to get better in the passing game. After the first three games of the season started off with big passing plays from then-No. 22 (now No. 15) Northwestern, Portland State and then-No. 4 (now No. 3) Ohio State, the players who allowed those explosive passes have seen much more time, including safety Damariay Drew, who will share time with former cornerback Cameron Walker, according to Stewart.
When Walker and corner Joel Willis came in against Ohio State, quarterback Kenny Guiton's passer rating plummeted from 310.11 to 99.72, and Stewart expects to see that kind of improvement on a macro level as the season wears on. Of course, there's no time like the present to see that type of a leap.
"We need to get back on track to where we thought we would be by now," says Walker. "I think we have our confidence. It's just doing it."
The Bears are ninth in the conference in pass defense (allowing 250.0 yards per game through the air), and allow a Pac-12-worst 8.5 yards per passing attempt.
Cal is dead last in the league in passer efficiency defense, allowing opposing signal callers to post a 144.8 rating.
While Washington State quarterback Connor Halliday is 10th in the Pac-12 in PER (128.5), he is fifth in the conference in passing yards per game (294.4) and has completed 66.4% of his passes – third in the league behind Washington's Keith Price (72.3) and Oregon State's Sean Mannion (67.2).
"They just create a lot of space, and it's constant," Stewart says. "They don't care about a bad play. They take a pick, they get the next series and they go again. They take a sack, they get the next series and they go again. We give up a bad one, we don't get it back. We don't have another play. Every play for us, counts. For them, not on first? OK, get it on second. If they get it on first, we're done. It's over. It's just the constancy and the consistency. If there are 80 plays, we can play 70 of them good, and 10 of them bad, that's a great offensive day. They're 10 and 70, and we're 70 and 10. That's a good day for them, and a bad day for us. That's the consistency in space. If you want to excel on defense, in this day and age, with all the spread offenses, that's what you've got to do."
Cal head coach Sonny Dykes remarked earlier this week that, at times against the Ducks, the Bears played a converted receiver (Willis), a former walk-on (Lapite) and two freshmen (Drew, a redshirt, and Walker, a true frosh) at the same time.
"I think Joel Willis has gotten better, and showed some signs last week of doing good things when Kam went down. I think Isaac Lapite is improving the more he gets a chance to play. Obviously, Cam Walker, I think, gets better and better and better every rep," says Dykes. "The good thing is, when you're as young as we are, you can see improvement almost on a day-to-day basis. We had this conversation earlier: I think, at one time in the game the other night, we had Isaac Lapite, Joel Willis, Cameron Walker and Damariay on the field at the same time, I believe, and we had a converted wide receiver, a walk-on and two freshmen playing DB against the best offense in college football, and that's usually not a good match-up. They're good players, they're going to be good players, but they're just kind of inexperienced."
With a secondary thinned by the loss of safety Avery Sebastian and, at times, Lowe and now Jackson, the biggest factor for this week is simply the fact that the unit has now played together and practiced together for the longest continuous stretch this season.
"[It's p]laying together more, and playing time," Stewart says. "We've got McClure, who played – what? – three games two and a half years ago [sic]? That's it. Everyone else is young or new. They've just got to get better."
No defensive back has improved as much as Walker, who came in as a cornerback, at first, not expecting to play as a true freshman.
"I was and then I wasn't and then I was," jokes Walker, who had all of three days' experience at safety before facing the Buckeyes. "It was pretty interesting. I came in that Monday, and they told me – because we were going into the scout meeting – and on my way to the scout meeting, they said, ‘Hey, you're playing safety this week.' I was like, ‘Oh, really?' I just adapted."
Since then, Walker has tallied eight tackles in two games, and has taken to the position switch unlike any freshman Stewart has seen.
"Not as a freshman, and especially not ever being exposed to the position," says Stewart. "In this day and age, a safety really controls and adjusts just about everything, and they force you to, with the spread offenses."
A spread offense will be exactly what Walker and the rest of the defensive backfield will face against the Cougars, who have seen 14 different receivers catch at least two passes this season, and nine catch at least 10 balls, led by Gabe Marks, who has hauled in 37 passes for 423 yards and four touchdowns – all team-leading stats.
"Cameron has improved exponentially," Stewart says. "Now, here's the thing: He's a corner. He's never been a safety. I think it's maybe going on 15 days now. He's got 15 days of safety. He is accelerating his progress. He's going to be a great player for us, and we're going to grow with him, we're going to learn with him, and by the time this season's over, he's going to be night-and-day from what he is today. This game's done, he'll be so much better after this game. Every game, every day, he is just growing."
Walker says that he's seen the most personal improvement at safety in his run fits, which likely won't be much of a factor on Saturday. While it's essentially accurate to say he'd never played safety before Ohio State, he did get a smidgen of experience at Los Angeles (Calif.) Loyola.
"I played safety for like, three games, my freshman year, and then they moved me back to corner," says Walker. "I think my last game, I got a couple series at safety, because our safety got hurt. I like it. It's different, but I like it [...] It's a good feeling. You get the experience young, and you can only get better with time.
"Everybody needs to focus on their assignment. Everybody needs to execute their assignment and everything else will just fall into place."
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