“It is encouraging,” head coach Sonny Dykes said of his defensive line, which, without headliner Mustafa Jalil was impressive on Monday, with Kyle Kragen -- five pounds heavier than he was before he lost 20 pounds due to mono last year – and Tony Mekari standing out. “We have depth, in that group. That’s what I like.”
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Jalil is being rested during the spring, to make sure that he’s healthy come fall (“He’s played a lot of football around here, and we want him to get his snaps next fall,” Dykes said), and while taking part in individual and positional work, will not play any live reps this spring. Taking Jalil’s spot in the middle of the defensive line, though, has been Trevor Kelly, who’s come on very strong through the first four practices, and particularly on Monday in full pads, dropping Daniel Lasco for a loss during one team 11-on-11 period, and another TFL on Tre Watson.
“Jalil’s not out there, Todd Barr’s not out there. The good thing is, we’ve got some pieces, so that’s encouraging,” Dykes said. “Trevor Kelly is 30 pounds lighter right now than he was last year at this time. He’s moving around so much better. Trevor had a good day today. He really did. He’s moving around well, he’s playing hard, he knows what to do. I’ve been pleased with what he’s done. He’s had four really good practices, and I thought he showed up a bunch today.”
Also consistently impressive has been James Looney, finally eligible and noticeably trimmer after a redshirt year. During that year, defensive line coach Fred Tate often barked during one-on-one drills, ‘Goddamn, I wish you were eligible,’ and now, he’s seeing what Looney can really do, giving him multiple one-on-one reps instead of rotating him out.
“Looney is starting to show up, as well, starting to do some good things,” Dykes said. “It’s good to see Jonathan Johnson is a different player. He’s playing much faster and with more confidence. It’s got a chance to be a good group for us, and I love the depth that we have. I love the fact that we can play five or six defensive tackles, and not notice that big of a difference.”
The Bears ran Looney, Chris Palmer (who scored a tackle for loss on Tre Watson during team 11-on-11 work), Kelly, Mekari and Marcus Manley through the middle on Monday, trying various combinations with various defensive ends. The most consistently productive line was Kragen, Kelly, Mekari and Johnson, which came up with three sacks.
“We couldn’t do that at any point in time,” Dykes said about being able to run so many defensive tackles through the line.
Kragen in particular was impressive on the outside of the line, coming up with a would-be sack on Jared Goff during team 11-on-11 (he had to pull up to not hit the starting signal-caller, but came complete free off the right edge).
“He’s been really good,” Dykes said. “He’s strong, he’s playing hard, he’s been around, he’s mature. I just think he knows how to play the position, and I think he’s worked really hard to get himself into great shape. I think he’s playing hungry, and it’s good to see guys come back off of an injury and play hungry, so I’ve been really encouraged.”
Though Watson did get dropped for a loss, he still broke out for several sizeable runs (“I thought Tre was better today,” Dykes said), after Daniel Lasco opened team 11-on-11s in full pads with a 20-yard scamper. Watson and Lasco got he lion’s share of reps, followed by Vic Enwere and Lonny Powell, who exploded for a first down early in team period, with five tacklers surrounding him.
“He got the ball a bunch in the team period, and thought he did some good things,” Dykes said. “I like what I’m seeing from all those backs. Vic’s running with a different power and explosiveness, and he’s playing with much more confidence. I thought Lasco did some really good things, today, particularly in the inside period. He’s making a lot of guys miss, and he’s doing a lot of the little things better. I like what I’m seeing from all of them, really.”
Powell – the freshman back – is going to have to negotiate a very crowded backfield that includes the above-named backs, as well as Khalfani Muhammad -- who did little team work on Monday – and Jeffrey Coprich, who’s listed at receiver to alleviate some of the crowding in the backfield, but still took some skill reps with the backs as he works his way back onto the field.
“We’ll see. He’s four practices in, and he’s doing some good things,” Dykes said of Powell. “The thing I like about him, is he’s strong, he’s tough, he’s physical, he’s got some maturity. We’ll see how the 15 go this spring, and then, see how he does in fall camp. I think he’ll push all those guys for playing time. I really think he will. It’s still early, and we’ll see how the body holds up, and how he does, 12, 13 practices in this spring, and then how he responds during fall camp, but I certainly like what I see right now.”
As for Muhammad – who will miss some time later this spring because of track and field obligations – the Bears are in wait-and-see mode.
“That’s the great thing about that position, is you’d better have depth,” Dykes said. “That’s the one thing we found out, through the years. I was at Arizona three years, and I think all three years, our third- or fourth-string tailback led the team in rushing, just because guys couldn’t stay healthy. These guys get beat up a lot. You’d better have depth at that position, and I think we’re starting to develop some.”
A schedule has been put together for Muhammad to deal with track and football conflicts, but, he’s so far been with the Bears on the gridiron fairly consistently.
Cal, while going full 11-on-11 in pads, had a crew of referees, a sight that won’t be too unfamiliar by the end of spring ball.
“We didn’t want to have them early, because it was going to be a little sloppy, but we’re just trying to get our penalties fixed,” Dykes said
The Bears were the worst in the conference last season when it came to penalties, averaging 82.2 yards per game, and tying for the third-most infractions in the entire Pac-12 behind Oregon and USC.
“We have an emphasis on that, with those guys calling it, and making sure we’re aware of it when we commit penalties,” Dykes said. “We’ll have some Pac-12 officials on Friday. They’ll be out here, as well. We want them to be out here, we want them to call penalties, and we want to make sure our players are aware of it.”
Having Pac-12 referees on-hand will be a help to the Bears as they get a taste of what those officials will be like during the season.
“It’s so you can get used to those guys spotting the ball, and all the mechanics that go into that,” Dykes said.
Cal will hold something akin to a scrimmage on Friday, with full live tackling towards the end of practice, as opposed to on Monday, where the full-pads practice featured drives moving 10 yards at a time, no matter the result of the play.
“We’ll do a little bit more live stuff on Friday, where we’ll actually put some drives together, and let them tee it up a little bit more,” Dykes said. “We’ll have two distinctly different team periods on Friday. One will be focused on a couple of things, and then we’ll have a team period where we play football. It’ll be a big day for us.”
It was also a big day for erstwhile quarterback and current safety Luke Rubenzer, who picked off Goff early in team 11-on-11, working with what seemed to constitute the second-team defense.
Rubenzer was burned twice by two of Cal’s more athletic and veteran receivers, as both Bryce Treggs and Stephen Anderson made leaping grabs over him during seven-on-seven work, but in Goff’s first drive, Rubenzer used good pressure from Hardy Nickerson -- who’s looked much faster than in years past – to jump a route and make a vaulting interception.
“Every day, he gets better,” Dykes said of Rubenzer, who wore red and worked exclusively with the defense on Monday. “That’s what I like to see. First day, he looked pretty good, second day, looked a little better, third day looked a little better and today, I thought he’s starting to get a sense for things, and there are certain guys that are in the right place at the right time, and you want those guys playing for you. I think he’s one of those kids that seems to have an ability to be at the right place at the right time. We’ll see how that goes.”
Seven former Bears will participate in Pro Timing Day on Tuesday, including Chris Harper, who was at practice on Monday, along with former defensive back Kameron Jackson and linebacker Jason Gibson.
A scout from the New England Patriots was also in attendance.
Four-star linebacker Camilo Eifler paid close attention to Garret Chachere and his linebackers. The first five linebackers who took the majority of reps as units and personnel groups mixed included Jake Kearney, Jalen Jefferson, Devante Downs, Michael Barton and Nickerson. Barton was very active on Monday, as was Downs, who is going to push for a starting spot at the MIKE. Barton sniffed out a swing pass to Lasco for a big hit, and forced a fumble on Kenny Lawler. One play later, he dropped Lasco for a loss on a run.
Cameron Walker worked out at safety again. Given the relative success he had as a freshman playing there, and his struggles back at corner last season, that move looks to have taken hold.
Aisea Tongilava and Maximo Espitia saw work at MIKE linebacker, with a heaping helping of reps for Tongilava.
Darius White was particularly active in the secondary, with several breakups during work against receivers. Bryce Treggs said that he certainly noticed White’s work on Monday, and that the receivers, as a group, are happy when they’re challenged by the defensive backs, who have stepped things up this spring from last year, Treggs said.
Quentin Tartabull tells me that his knee feels very good, and while he won't play this spring, he should be ready to go by the season. He's also sporting a Bob Marley look with a beard and dreads, and said that when we saw him at Cal's camp as a recruit, he had to keep close-cropped because he went to a Catholic school. Now, he can let his freak flag fly.