Top 10 Story Lines Revisited: Part 2

We break down the second half of our top 10 story lines for the Cal football team headed into fall camp, starting with the return of Brennan Scarlett.

MORE SEASON PREVIEWS
Top 10 Story Lines Revisited: Part 1
Bay Area Media Day: Swagger Games, Depth and Remembrance
Williams: Doing the Job
Pac-12 Media Day: Sonny, McLovin and McClure
FEATURE: The Doctor Is In

HANDY LINKS
Camp Schedule
2014 Roster
Preseason Depth Chart

We started going over the top 10 California football story lines earlier today, and now, we're finishing off the final five just before the start of fall camp. So, without further ado, here we go:

6. The return of Brennan Scarlett: It’s been 632 days since California’s 6-foot-4, 260-pound pass-rusher last strapped on the pads and actually played against someone in another color, and he’s tired of waiting.

“I can’t wait until that first game at Northwestern,” he smiles. “Yeah, I’m excited.”

In the 12 games he’s played in his Cal career, Scarlett has tallied 44 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, two pass breakups and two forced fumbles. A persistent hand injury has shelved him for the last season and a half, but coming into his redshirt junior season, he could be the most important player on the defensive line, and maybe even in the whole defense.

“I feel good. I feel great,” Scarlett said. “I’ve been working out, without being able to play, obviously, but I’m working out hard, and I’m stronger and faster. I feel like it’s the same way with a lot of my teammates, too.”

At some points during his hand saga, it felt like he couldn’t high-five someone without having to undergo another surgery, but after several surgeries and a bone graft to heal an infection in his twice-broken hand, Scarlett has learned a lot about what it means to be a leader, especially having to do it from the sidelines.

“Even without being able to play, I was trying to just be in the locker room, especially with younger guys, staying in their ear, helping them be comfortable and get accustomed to the system we’re playing,” Scarlett said. “Now, it’s even better, now that I can be out there on the field with them.”

Even though he wasn’t involved directly in the 1-11 season, his absence – along with injuries to almost the entire starting defense – contributed to one of the worst statistical defenses in the history of the program.

“It is really hard. That’s really hard, but at the same time, I think it’s going to help a lot, for this year, because a lot of younger guys got a chance to play last year, who wouldn’t have had a chance to play, and that gives our team that much more depth,” Scarlett said.

With Scarlett back, as well as defensive tackle Mustafa Jalil, the defensive line figures to be much improved.

“I’m very, very anxious,” Scarlett said. “I’m excited to see how we put it all together. Seeing all the summer workouts, seeing these guys come back – [Nathan] Broussard, Moose (Jalil), Avery [Sebastian, torn Achilles], all those guys – to see how strong and fast they’re looking, I think when we all get together on the field, it’s going to be something special.”

7. The New Guys: Fred Tate, Art Kaufman and Greg Burns: One of the biggest differences from last season – aside from the addition of the former walking wounded – is a near-complete overhaul of the defensive staff, headed by the addition of defensive coordinator Art Kaufman.

Before he arrived at Texas Tech, the Red Raiders were 114th in the nation in total defense. During his 2012 stint in Lubbock, Tex., Tech vaulted up to 38th. Before Kaufman took the helm of Cincinnati’s defense in 2013, the Bearcats were 54th in the nation in total defense. During the 2013 season, Cincinnati was No. 9 in the nation in total defense.

What makes Kaufman such a wizard when it comes to turning around defenses?

“The biggest difference, so far, is that it’s simpler,” Scarlett said. “Coach Kaufman has kept it very simple for us. It’s allowing us to play fast. You could see it in the spring: Our defense looks a lot faster than last year, already.”

New defensive line coach Fred Tate falls right in line with that philosophy, not asking more of his players than they can do, and maximizing the results.

“He’s not super-strict; we do what we’re comfortable with,” Scarlett said.

As for Greg Burns, who replaces Randy Stewart as the defensive backs coach, there’s a deeper connection with the players under his charge. For one: It’s different having a younger, African American coach than an older, white coach.

“That part is different,” said defensive back Stefan McClure, who’s coming off a tear to his medial meniscus. “He’s a lot younger, so you can relate to him a little differently, just because of the race part. He’s been through the same things. From my point of view, when we’re talking football, football has no race, but if you’re talking about connecting, then, yeah, you can connect better with him, in a person-to-person aspect. On the field, it’s the same. Coach Stew knew his stuff. He had all his technique and stuff down and everything like that, and different terminology, but we had the footwork.

“It’s more just terminology. This is my third DBs coach. No one’s reinventing the wheel. Nobody’s changing this stuff. It’s all the same. There are only so many DB drills that you can do, but it’s more just terminology and knowing what he expects and knowing his terminology to go with what drills and what expectations he has. He’s a great teacher, and he’s teaching us all that stuff, and it’s been going pretty well.”

McClure said that he’s about 85-90% with his surgically-repaired knee, which is part of the reason why he’s 8. A little thin at DB and DT: McClure said that he’s about 85-90% with his surgically-repaired knee, which is part of the reason why he’s been listed both at cornerback and safety.

“I don’t know if that’s necessarily the reason why, but we’re trying to get the best fit to make our team the best that’s possible,” McClure said. “If that means having me at corner, then that’s what it’ll be. If that means safety, then that’s what it’ll be, but it’s all about having whatever makes the best fit to help us get the best four DBs out there to turn this thing back around.”

While McClure, Trevellous Cheek, Joel Willis and Sebastian went down with injuries last season, youngsters like Cameron Walker, Damariay Drew and Cedric Dozier were pressed into service, but with their experience, added to the signing of JuCo corner Darius White, the defensive backfield is now much deeper than it was at any time last year.

“He’s been good,” McClure said of White. “He’s really fast, he’s really quick, explosive, so I think he can fit in our scheme well. Like everybody else, he has to learn the defensive scheme, understand that and know how to use those concepts and philosophies against the offense to best help our defense.”

Preseason starting corner Darius Allensworth said during the offseason that the DBs would be the surprise of the defense, and while part of that may be the exuberance of youth, for McClure, it may not be that far off.

“Oh yeah, by far, I think that if we can get everyone healthy, guys got the confidence,” McClure said. “We’ve got the young guys out there, running around. If we can get Avery back, healthy, he’ll make a big difference. He had 11 tackles at halftime (against Northwestern), solo tackles, so he flies around well. We’ll have Darius, we’ll have speed out there, myself, we’ll have a good mix of Avery and I at safety. He likes playing in the box, I like being able to roam around and be able to cover deep. We can both go in the box, interchangeably. It’ll be real fun. I like to let our play do the talking for us, but don’t be surprised.”

As for the defensive tackles, fall camp will be big to get junior college transfer Trevor Kelly up to speed. He checked in on Sunday at an even 300 pounds – right where the Bears want him. He showed in the spring that he can be a big playmaker and run-stuffer in the middle, and now that he’s lighter on his feet, he’ll be that much more effective.

Marcus Manley also excelled during spring ball, and with the transfer of Jacobi Hunter -- who played as a true freshman last year – his maturity will have to continue if Jalil isn’t quite ready to go early on.

“The biggest challenge is that there’s not much experience,” Scarlett said. “We’re going to have a lot of guys that are coming along. I think, by the first game, they’ll be great assets to the team. Harrison Wilfley is looking good, and he has a lot of upside. Moose coming back will be great for us. Marcus Manley looks great. Austin Clark, TK, we’ve got a lot of guys who have a lot of upside. We’ve just got to get ready and get some practices in.”

As for Jalil, who will be brought on slowly as he continues to get back in shape, he, like Scarlett, could be a game breaker.

“Big Moose is going to be really good for us,” Scarlett said. “He’s looking good. He’ll be ready by that first game. Whenever Moose is on the field and healthy, he’s a force to be reckoned with.”

9. How about those linebackers? The one constant during the Bears’ press tour in the buildup to fall camp has been Nathan Broussard. Listed as the preseason starter at MIKE, he went down last year in camp with an ACL tear, but looks for all the world to be a big surprise for those who haven’t seen him since he was a backup outside linebacker in 2012.

“I’d like to think that I can put some surprise on people’s faces out there, but I really think Nathan Broussard, I think he’ll be a big surprise for a lot of people, playing inside linebacker,” Scarlett said. “Not a lot of people have seen him play at that position, but I think that’s the best position for him, where he feels most comfortable at.”

Last year’s MIKE starter, Hardy Nickerson, Jr., is also on the mend from a lisfranc injury suffered towards the end of last season. Though the actual injury occurred late, he was dealing with foot issues throughout the season, which slowed his foot speed greatly. Between him and Michael Barton, there will be plenty of depth in the middle. Barton is listed at WILL linebacker as the starter, with Edward Tandy as the backup MIKE. He got a lot of experience last year on special teams, but at 6-foot-1, 225, he’s a spark plug with a lot of explosion who was, perhaps, underutilized in 2013.

The linebacker corps is bolstered by the move of Ray Davison from defensive line to outside linebacker (he’s backing up the inimitable Jalen Jefferson -- the leader of the corps – at SAM), early-enrollee Devante Downs (No. 2 WILL), and the move of Maximo Espitia and former four-star Jason Gibson from safety to outside linebacker.

10. Is this season key to Sonny Dykes keeping his job, with a new athletic director on the horizon? With interim athletic director Michael Williams pledged to stay in the post vacated by Sandy Barbour for up to a year, Dykes won’t have a new boss any time soon, and he’s not concerning himself with what a change at the top could mean.

“My job, the way I was hired was, ‘Look, you need to fix the academics,’ which I think we’ve fixed pretty quickly,” Dykes said. “Then, you’ve got to win football games. We’ve already made tremendous strides in one, and I think that Year Two, we’ll make tremendous strides in Part Two. I don’t worry about stuff I can’t control.

“I have enough to worry about, things that I can control, where I can’t worry about stuff I can’t control,” Dykes said. “Mike will do a great job. Mike understands Cal. He gets it. He’s a former student-athlete. He’s a very smart man. He’ll make very thoughtful decisions. I have a lot of faith in John Wilton, Vice Chancellor, when they decide to hire somebody. I think they’ll hire the best athletic director in the country, I really do. I think you just move forward. It’s not an ideal situation, maybe, but it’s out of my hands. I’ve got a lot of faith in Chancellor Dirks and John Wilton and everybody associated with Cal athletics. I’m really excited about the future.”

Williams, for one, likes Dykes, particularly the work he’s done on the academic side, lifting the single-year APR from 923 to 969.

“First off, I like Sonny,” says Williams. “I like working with him. He’s done a phenomenal job of reaching out to me and making sure that I understand what’s going on with this program. One of the things I think we should all have noticed about Sonny is that there is no complaining, and there are no excuses. He came into a very challenging situation. I’ve seen a tremendous – I don’t want to use the word ‘upgrade’ – but I’ve seen more and more of his players and student-athletes are exactly the kind of person we are proud of at Cal. He’s done a fantastic job of turning around the academic performance of his players, and he talks very, very optimistically about the talent he has. I think he can’t wait to see them on the field. I can’t wait to see them on the field.”

Dykes more than likely will have another year to prove himself to the new athletic director, but this season will go a long way towards determining his ultimate fate.


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