Where There's a Willis, There's a Way

What did the defensive backs do after the Oregon game to get on the same page? Joel Willis explains after he returns with a bang on Tuesday, as the defensive backfield prepares for a stiff challenge in Oregon State quarterback Sean Mannion and his favorite target. Plus: What part of Oregon State's game may be absent on Saturday?

BERKELEY -- The California defensive backfield has taken its fair share of blows this season. First: a 23-yard bomb on the first play from scrimmage against Northwestern, and then 276 more passing yards, to go along with a torn Achilles by starting safety Avery Sebastian. Then, on the second play from scrimmage against Portland State, an 81-yard touchdown pass. Then, Michael Lowe went down to injury, missing the Ohio State game, which saw the Bears surrender a 90-yard touchdown pass on the second play from scrimmage.

Safety Alex Logan retired due to injury, and by the time the conference schedule rolled around, the already-thin secondary was reeling. A rain-soaked affair against Oregon didn't help matters, as Kameron Jackson went down with a lower-leg injury.

Following the debacle in Eugene, the defensive backs had a meeting.

"We all came together and had a talk with each other, and we said, ‘OK, we've got to settle this down and actually get in the game. We've got to be key factors in the game,'" says redshirt sophomore corner Joel Willis. "We said, ‘We've got to get this together.' It's been progressively getting better."

Just as the defensive backfield felt it was ready to turn a corner, starting corner Stefan McClure went down with a season-ending knee injury against Washington State, and, just a few plays later, Willis, too, went down after a double-whammy to the old coconut.

"I ran into the wedge [on kickoff], and I was dizzy, and I got hit again," says Willis. "It was the opening kickoff of the third quarter, and then I got hit again. I blacked out. I remember getting hit, and I remember trying to get up, and then after that, it was all black."

Willis was taken to the hospital, and missed Saturday's game against UCLA, where the then-No. 11 Bruins put up 410 passing yards.

"It was mostly precautionary," Willis says of his hospital trip, which was eerily reminiscent of Sebastian's trip during fall camp. "I'm not going to lie: It was a scary event, but at least I'm back here, now, and I can move everything. I'm not swaying."

Willis spent Monday's practice in the dreaded red jersey, feeling like half a player, he says. He could work in one-on-ones, and even a bit in seven-on-seven, but couldn't take contact. On Tuesday, he finally shed the scarlet shirt and got to work in a big way.

"It was awkward, because I couldn't really hit, and really be physical, which is a major part of my game," Willis says. "I came back today, and I hit. That's what I wanted to show."

Willis returned punts, prevented a touchdown with a good, hard jam on Maurice Harris in 11-on-11 work and out-raced James Grisom to a long ball for the breakup, only missing out on a pick because Grisom was able to catch his heel and trip him up. Unfortunately, there's no tripping penalty on the gridiron.

"That's what I said!" Willis jokes. "That's a pick."

Willis later turned in a breakup in the end zone against the scout team offense in the latter half of practice.

Willis returns just in time for Cal, which faces the nation's leading passer in Oregon State's Sean Mannion this Saturday.

Mannion has plenty of weapons at his disposal, including dynamic Brandin Cooks, who leads the Pac-12 in catches per game (10.5) and receiving yards per game (157.3).

"They utilize him well. They figure out ways to get him the ball on screens," said head coach Sonny Dykes in his weekly press conference. "He's a good catch-and-run guy, so they're going to allow him to do that, and put him in some match-up situations where they put him on one of your guys that maybe is not a great cover guy, and he'll get down the field, as well, so they do a good job of utilizing the skill in the short passing game and the screen game, and also in the vertical stuff, getting him down the field."

While Cal was gashed last week by screens, with UCLA running backs catching seven passes for 60 yards, the Beavers' screen game is a bit different.

"UCLA was more of a flare, running back screen team, where these guys are a little bit more of a throw-it-quick, wide receiver screen team," Dykes said. "If they throw a running back screen, it'll be more of a slow running back screen than what UCLA did. It's a little bit different scheme than what we saw last week, but we've got to tackle better in the open field. That's been an issue for us."

Cal spent much of the pre-practice on Tuesday working on exactly that, with everyone from defensive linemen to defensive backs working on open-field tackling.

"I was pleased with the way our safeties tackled, for the most part, last week," Dykes said. "I thought Damariay Drew brought a physical presence that we hadn't had at that safety position, really, since Avery got hurt earlier in the year. It was good to see him doing that. Kam, I thought, was better. Kam, physically, sometimes gets a little bit overwhelmed, trying to tackle a big back or a big receiver or a tight end, but he's going to learn to make those tackles."

Oregon State has made a lot of hay this season with its tight ends, particularly Connor Hamlett and Caleb Smith, who have combined for 392 yards and six touchdowns over six games. However, Hamlett is doubtful with a nagging knee injury, and Smith went down with an ankle injury during Tuesday's practice in Corvallis, Ore.

Back in Berkeley, Willis wasn't the only defensive back having a big day. Drew played up to his head coach's compliments of him, sniffing out a screen and tallying a tackle for loss against the scout team offense in the red zone, dealing out a big hit to scout team running back Mitchel Bartolo in seven-on-seven work. Drew later nearly picked off a jump ball in the end zone, going full-extension, but had to settle for a breakup.

"We've just got to execute the calls, as planned," Willis said of where the secondary goes from here, in the second half of the season. "Sometimes, we end up messing up and it results in big plays. We've got to be in the right spot at the right time, every play."

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