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BERKELEY -- Darius Allensworth told anyone who would listen this offseason that the defensive back corps would surprise some folks this season, and, going into the final week of fall camp, it’s hard to argue.
“I think we’ve talked about it before, but [Cedric] Dozier, I think, has had a good camp. Allensworth, really, started to assert himself last week,” said California head coach Sonny Dykes after Monday’s practice. “Darius White’s still a guy that we’re hoping to get back more in there. He’s getting some reps a little bit more every day. We just want to be smart and bring him along slowly and don’t want it to be a lingering injury. We think if we can get him over the hump and get him strong enough, hopefully we can keep that from lingering.”
Allensworth turned in one of the big plays by the defense in 11-on-11 work, which punctuated a practice mainly focused on working against scout team opponents, as the Bears move closer and closer to the season-opener against Northwestern. With sophomore starting quarterback Jared Goff at the helm, Allensworth was helped by good coverage from Stefan McClure in breaking up a pass destined for Bryce Treggs.
During seven-on-seven work, Treggs again was on the short end of a big play by the defensive backs, as Trevellous Cheek broke up a pass to the junior wide out from freshman quarterback Luke Rubenzer. Rubenzer, though, responded with a 50-yard touchdown rifle shot to Trevor Davis, who caught a back-shoulder ball against A.J. Greathouse at the 15 and danced into the end zone.
The first-team defensive backfield consisted of Allensworth and Cameron Walker at corner, with Michael Lowe and McClure at safety. Allensworth also shifted over to nickel, when Cal added Dozier into the mix, though both Allensworth and Dozier also saw time at first-team corner, straight-up.
Cheek had several big plays on the day, making a pick against the scout team offense after Walker let a sure pick slip through his hands the play before, prompting a round of push-ups as punishment.
Hamilton Anoa'i tallied an interception in scout team work on the second-team defense, and had another would-be pick broken up by Sebastian.
Lowe, though, was the real star of the secondary on Monday, making two interceptions on back-to-back plays against the scout offense, the second one a one-man tip drill.
“I judged it a little too early, and I jumped, thinking I could snag it with one hand,” Lowe smiled. “I got my hand on it and just kept my eyes on the ball, and as I fell, it just fell right into my hands. It was like a limbo drill a little bit. It’s just one of those plays you’ve got to make, especially in practice, and getting used to making plays that way in the game.”
Lowe – one of the last members of the vaunted 2010 class remaining – has had, arguably, the best camp of his career, and it’s because of his age that he’s taken on an increased leadership role in the young secondary.
“I’m just more motivated this year,” Lowe said. “Not saying that I wasn’t motivated my previous years, but I’m understanding the intensity level that needs to be there, in order to win. That’s something that I’ve really been focusing on. Individually, I’m perfecting my craft and trying to be the leader in the best way possible, and that’s me just knowing all that I can know.”
With a sophomore (Walker) and either a redshirt freshman (Allensworth) or a redshirt sophomore (Dozier) at corner, that’s meant a lot of teaching coming from No. 5.
“For me, it’s helped me, personally, in just understanding the defense more, so that I can coach those guys up, there,” Lowe said. “There are a lot of freshmen, a lot of sophomores, and at that age, they don’t really feel like they’re going to play, but you never know what happens. I just try to coach them up as much as I can, and understanding the defense. That way, I can tell them, and I really think that’s been helping me out a lot, just being a leader, naturally, and coming out there and making sure my guys are ready to go.”
Last season, Lowe, McClure, Avery Sebastian and Joel Willis went down with injuries, so a lot of youngsters were pressed into service. It’s now Lowe’s job – along with the coaching staff – to make sure that the next Bear up is ready.
“Naturally, I put that pressure on myself, just so that I can get the best out of myself, and ultimately, the best out of everybody else around me,” Lowe said. “There’s a bit of pressure there, but there’s a lot of focus, as well, and I think honing in on my preparation will help me for Saturday, more than anything, so I’ve been focusing on that a whole lot.”
Lowe said that the team is now laser-focused on its Week One opponent, as camp begins to wind down.
“We’re focused a lot, and not just Northwestern, but on ourselves, to get better, first and foremost,” Lowe said. “I think we’ve been putting a lot of focus on Northwestern and the game plan, and just starting to get into that game rhythm.”
The MIKE linebacker spot was divided in first-team reps between Michael Barton and Hardy Nickerson, the latter of whom didn’t see any live reps, but taking first reps against the scout team offense. The linebacking corps as a whole was fairly fluid on Monday, with Edward Tandy, Devante Downs and newcomer Jake Kearney seeing time as the second unit, with Davison rotating in with both the first team and second team and proving to be very effective.
Kearney nearly came down with an interception in scout team work, and against the first-team offense run by Rubenzer in 11-on-11 work, flushed the mobile first-year quarterback out of the pocket with good pressure.
“The good thing about the linebackers is all those guys train for different positions, so we can make moves pretty easily,” said Dykes, who’s still uncertain if Nickerson will be the starter at MIKE. “I don’t know yet. We’ll see. He’s in a limited capacity, and we’d like to see him kind of come back a little bit. Barton will play over there, as well, and then we’ve just got to keep Devante coming on.”
Freshman walk-on linebacker Jonathan McDonald went down during one-on-ones with receivers with a nasty-looking elbow injury. There was no word after practice on the exact prognosis, but it didn’t look good.
On offense, Cal got the tempo going during seven-on-seven and 11-on-11 work, with Goff completing three straight passes before running back Daniel Lasco got a first down to the outside. Goff then rolled right and found Davis for a touchdown, and was then in for a hard-yardage touchdown rumble by Vic Enwere.
The tempo was pushed during the final set of offensive team work, but was slowed by an interception of Rubenzer by Allensworth.
The first-team offensive line looked much the same as it has over the past several days of camp, with Steven Moore at left tackle, Chris Borrayo at left guard, Chris Adcock at center, Alex Crosthwaite at right guard and Jordan Rigsbee at right tackle.
The second-team line was centered by freshman walk-on Addison Ooms, with left tackle Brian Farley, left guard J.D. Hinnant, right guard Matt Cochran and right tackle Dominic Granado rounding out the group.
Ooms got into a bit of a tiff with a defender during 11-on-11 work, with Rigsbee cheering on the aggressive first-year center.
With wide receiver Kenny Lawler limited because of what Dykes called a bruise on his thigh, inside receiver Darius Powe shifted to the outside, and was very impressive in one-on-one work against the corners, thanks to his size.
“We wanted to work Darius a little bit out there,” Dykes said. “We’ll start working some contingency things, in case a guy goes down here or there, so Darius would be the person to move outside, either at the X or the Z position, if somebody goes down. We feel like we’ve got some pretty good depth inside there, between Ray [Hudson] – who’s had a good camp – and Stephen Anderson, so that gives us some flexibility to be able to move Darius around a little bit, if we need to. That was just something we did today. We may do it a little bit tomorrow, and then he’ll probably go back to his natural position.”
Dykes said that, with the depth at outside receiver, freshman Erik Brown will “potentially” redshirt.
“We’ll see how that plays out,” Dykes said. “Those things happen quickly, and I think it would probably be good for him right now, just to have a chance to develop physically. We think he’s going to be a really good player, but a lot of those guys, it’s better if they can redshirt for a year and get a little bit stronger. We’ll see how that plays out. We’re very high on him, like him a lot, but we do have some depth at that position.”
The starting defensive line appeared to consist of Brennan Scarlett and Todd Barr at defensive end, with Austin Clark and Mustafa Jalil on the interior. Jonathan Johnson also got some first-team looks.
Dykes said that Jalil is “for sure” one of the starters on the interior, and on Monday, he faced several double- and triple-teams up front.
Clark, Dykes said, would also likely start on the inside, but, he continued, “there’s been a lot of good play in there. That’s kind of a shot in the dark. We’ll see how that plays out as we go through.”
Up to six defensive tackles will rotate in, Dykes said.
As for Jalil’s health, at this point, it doesn’t appear to be a concern anymore.
“He hasn’t given us any reason not to [think he’s healthy], up to this point,” Dykes said. “He hasn’t been sore. He’s responded very well. We just tried to start with a small workload and keep increasing it. He’s responded to pretty much everything we asked him to do, and has looked pretty good doing it.”
Jalil also tipped a pass into an interception by Barton during scout team work.
Noah Westerfield saw second-team reps at defensive end on Monday, and even tallied a sack against Rubenzer, and Barr also notched two sacks.
Tuesday’s double day will start off with another mostly-special teams session at 10 a.m., open to the public, and will conclude with a regular practice at 3:30 p.m. Dykes said that the special teams play is “way ahead” of where Cal was at this point last year. During punt rush work, Hudson was a fingernail away from a blocked punt.
“There’s just more depth on our team. What we ran into last year was, by the end of the year, we had so many guys down that there were so many true freshmen playing different positions,” Dykes said. “A lot of times, we were grabbing guys in games and trying to get them coached up and ready to go do something that’s pretty specialized. A lot of stuff on special teams is pretty specialized -- the skills that are needed, the reps and all that kind of thing, and you’re trying to move people around on Saturday, you don’t get a very good result.”
Last year, the Bears ranked dead last in the Pac-12 in punt return average, with just 2.7 yards per return. How can they improve?
“Make them punt more, to start with,” Dykes laughed. “That’s the easiest way to do that. Make them punt more would be very good, and then, we didn’t do a great job fielding it, last year, so we’ve got to do a better job fielding balls and just blocking it up better.”
Treggs and Chris Harper will be the primary returners, though McClure could see time there, as well, as he did on Monday.
“We’ll work with a couple different guys. Potentially, Treggs could do it. Chris Harper’s had a good camp, Trevor Davis has had a good camp, McClure is potentially somebody who could potentially do it, so we’ve got some options. We’ll continue to see who’s the best one,” Dykes said.
Harper made his mark on Monday with a 35-yard touchdown grab thrown by Goff.
Dykes said that James Langford, Noah Beito and Matt Anderson will “kick it out” this week, in hopes of being named the starting place kicker, which Dykes hopes to do by the end of the week.
“That would be the ideal situation, to get those questions answered, maybe on Saturday, hopefully maybe before then,” Dykes said. “We’ll let them kick it out this week and see how it goes, but the quicker, the better. We want to try and test them a little bit, put them in some stressful situations. We’ll have a two-a-day tomorrow, and the morning practice will be a heavy special teams practice. Some of those things will start to play out.”
Kickoff return will be the province of Khalfani Muhammad, who ranked sixth in the conference last year with an average of 21.9 yards per kick return, though Davis will also be back to return kicks.
Asked whether the speedy Muhammad would be used situationally, given that Lasco, Enwere and freshman Tre Watson will also see significant snaps, Dykes said that Muhammad could be an “every-down back,” but doesn’t want to tire him out by using him too much.
“We think he can be an every-down guy. I don’t think he’s necessarily a 30-carry-a-game, every-down guy, but we think he can be a good first-down back, just like he’s going to be a good third-down back,” Dykes said. “I don’t know if that’s going to be as much situational as it is just making sure that he’s rested. He’s a fast guy, and we want him to be fast in the fourth quarter. The only way to do that is to make sure we’re not doing too much with him.”
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