BERKELEY -- There were few defensive highlights in the California football team’s first scrimmage of the spring on Saturday, and though Noah Westerfield was stout at the rush end position for the first-team defensive line, and Jonathan Johnson came up with two quarterback pressures, and a no-gain tackle on Daniel Lasco during the four-minute offense portion of practice, it’s still tough to tell a whole lot about the defense beyond the fact that they are much more advanced in their schemes than they were a year ago.
“We put the defense in some tough situations, sticking the ball at the seven-yard line and the 20, but we wanted to do that, see how they responded,” said head coach Sonny Dykes. “I thought the offense really executed well early, but I thought the defense came and made some stops at the end. It was better for those guys, to make stops in the four-minute stuff. Those are all situations where we need to be good at, so we’re spending a lot of time trying to address those, trying to teach our players about situational football, and we’re getting a lot out of it, so we’ll continue to do it.”
[READ MORE SCRIMMAGE: Offensive Breakdown]
Part of the reason it’s so difficult to completely assess the defense is because a full third of it – the defensive backfield – may be completely different by the time fall rolls around, with up to eight players joining Greg Burns’s group who are either not yet in school, or are injured.
“The biggest thing I’m trying to do is give everybody a fair shot,” says Burns. “What this spring is, is for the individuals that are currently here, it’s their opportunity to show us everything they’ve got, and everything they can and can’t do, because when the fall comes, they’re going to lose reps for me to get an idea of what the incoming guys can do. The rule that I tell them, is that no one’s a starter, everyone has a chance, and right now, they’re competing that way, and when the fall comes, that rule still applies to the new guys.”
One thing that Darius White can do is cover. The ball was not thrown his way once, as he locked down Kenny Lawler for much of the day. Lawler did not have a single catch.
“The good thing is, the guys that need to improve are improving,” said Dykes. “Darius White, Wednesday and Friday, had his two best practices he’s had by far. It wasn’t even close. To see the rate that he’s improved, particularly here late, has been very encouraging. Darius Allensworth is much improved. He has not played as consistently as we need him to play quiet yet, but he’s much improved. Cedric Dozier’s better.”
There was a lot of fluctuation in the defensive backfield on Saturday, with White and Allensworth -- who made a no-gain open-field tackle on Lasco on a screen –as the starting two cornerbacks, backed by JuCo transfer Derron Brown and former quarterback Luke Rubenzer at safety with the first-team. Rubenzer, though, does not look to have a quick enough trigger, or a nuanced-enough understanding of defense at this point to say that he will continue to take first-team reps.
“I’d like him to [stick around],” Burns says. “It’s going to be the head man’s decision, but the bottom line is, he has an opportunity. He’s taking advantage. He’s excelling at a quick pace, even though we’ve thrown him in with the one’s. We’re forcing his hand to learn fast. He’s processing it. We did the same thing with Derron, and I’ve told guys before: Day One, don’t be surprised if I throw you in with the one’s, not to scare you, but to challenge you. Both of those guys have accepted it, and they’re working.”
“All that’s still […] we’ll sit down at the end of spring, talk about it and talk to him and talk to our coaches and kind of see what the future is, but he’s been impressive as a safety,” Dykes said of Rubenzer. “He’s a good athlete, he runs well, he’s got some toughness about him and he’s really adjusted to a position change remarkably fast.”
The second-team defensive backfield, at least initially, was comprised of the emergent De’Zhon Grace and Dozier at cornerback, backed by safeties Cameron Walker and David Garner, who came up with an interception on Chase Forrest. Walker spent some time in the slot as the nickel, but has looked to have taken a step back from last season, when he returned from corner after an unexpected freshman campaign playing free safety. His one-on-one reps this spring against Bryce Treggs have almost universally gone the way of the senior receiver, and it’s not close.
“Someone who’s taken advantage of their opportunity, maybe, is De’Zhon Grace,” says Burns. “It’s someone who was a walk-on wide receiver, who’s now establishing himself as a corner, and given the opportunity, he’s starting to improve.”
Grace had a spearing tackle on a pass to the right sideline by freshman Ross Bowers on the final drive of the day, and has shown a penchant for being in the right place at the right time.
The rest of the day saw those eight defensive backs blended together in some formulation or another, with Caleb Coleman and Trevellous Cheek sidelined.
“One of the cool parts is, that I’m getting a lot of guys to learn things, so now, I have depth, per se,” Burns says. “I’ve got somebody who can play corner, but also play nickel. I’ve got a corner who can play corner, but can play safety (Walker). I’ve got a field safety that can play boundary, and that gives us variety.”
Brown has made a big impact at safety, though he didn’t have much to do on Friday. His presence in the middle certainly changes the passing game, and he’s been solid in run support, and one of the stauncher challengers to receivers in one-on-ones throughout the course of spring.
“He’s doing good,” Burns says. “He’s picking up everything. He’s the new, new guy. He’s the ‘OK, what’s that word mean?’ the terminology, the whole thing, but, the athleticism that he displays, the range that he’s got back there, he’s going to help us.”
The linebackers were solid against the run, and with Jalen Jefferson still a few practices away from actually getting out in team work and hitting in 11-on-11, the first-team group consisted of Michael Barton and Jake Kearney on the outside, with Hardy Nickerson, Jr., in the middle. The second-team linebacking corps consisted of Maximo Espitia and Devante Downs on the outside, with Hamilton Anoa'i in the middle. Aisea Tongilava was also used heavily in the rotation with both the first and second group, and had a big hit on Vic Enwere on a drive that had the defense backed up to the seven-yard line.
Nickerson had trouble bringing down Lasco, who escaped his tackle to nearly convert a third-and-seven before Barton came across to make the stop two yards short of the sticks.
The defensive line had quite a challenge on Saturday, as the interior of the Cal offensive line opened up hole after hole against a strong defensive tackle corps, but the outside edges had a better go.
Westerfield applied continuous pressure on the left side against Brian Farley. Westerfield flushed quarterback Jared Goff out of the pocket three out of four plays in the two-minute offense, and was aided by frontside pressure from Johnson twice.
“Noah’s proven to be a good football player. He came in last year as a true freshman, and played at a high level, and was consistent,” Dykes said. “He’s a lot like a lot of our young guys. He was learning last year on Saturday afternoons, in the fall, and that’s not really where you want guys to learn. He continues to learn, right now, in spring football, and get better. He’s bigger. He’s more confident. He’s just a different player than he was a year ago.”
Defensive line coach Fred Tate echoes Dykes’s sentiments when it comes to discussing the rest of the defensive line. The biggest difference between this year and last, Tate says, is maturity.
“We played everybody, really, that’s back,” he says. “They played, other than the guys that were redshirting, and were down on the scout team. That’s showing up, just in terms of little things. We’re not there, yet, by any means, but what’s showing up to me, is that those guys have actually played, whereas, during the season last year, the majority of those guys had never played for us.”
The defensive line that started the scrimmage consisted of Kyle Kragen and Johnson on the outside, with James Looney and Tony Mekari in the middle. Of those four, only Looney did not play last year, due to his transfer from Wake Forest, but he did play six games for the Demon Deacons as a freshman.
“He is a phenomenal athlete that hadn’t played a lot of ball. Obviously, he went to Wake Forest, played as a freshman, redshirted here last year, but he’s just getting better. He is your three-technique athlete that you always look for,” says Tate. “He’s got a lot of twitch, in everything he does. Even when he’s attacking run blocks, he’s twitchy. Pass rush, he’s twitchy. He’s just an athlete.”
The second-team line consisted of Westerfield and newcomer DeVante Wilson on the outside, with Marcus Manley and Kennedy Emesibe in the middle, though the line was heavily rotated throughout the course of the day, with Trevor Kelly and Puka Lopa also rotating in heavily.
There were more blitz packages run on Saturday than at this point last year, and those blitzes are much more exotic and detailed than the ones this group ran last year. That’s a product of the maturity that Tate spoke of.
“Yes. Some of the things that we’re stressing are the things you just said. We blitz, and we’ve got guys that either come or don’t come,” Tate says. “Blitz. Blitz and get off, get off. We’ve got to be a more physical team, and to do that, we’ve got to get off the damn football.”
“We struggled a little bit in the passing game, getting to the quarterback, so we’re definitely focusing on that,” says Looney. “I feel like we played pretty well in the run, but you can always get better. Coach Tate has us out there, and coach Kaufman will have us out there working our tails off, developing our game a lot more, and we’re definitely going to focus on rushing the passer a lot more, and get to the quarterback as fast as we can.”
The defensive line was only able to notch one sack on the day – by Westerfield on Forrest – but there was a notable uptick in pressure faced by all three Cal quarterbacks, particularly on the edges, where Dykes still wants to develop more depth at the offensive tackle position, while Steven Moore remains on the shelf.
“We hope to have four. We hope to have four. We need Dom. We think Dom can come on and give us a fourth guy, and he hasn’t done it quite yet, but we think he can, and Aaron Cochran continues to emerge a little bit. We think we can get something out of him. We’ll just kind of see how it continues to play out, but if we can come out of spring feeling good about Vinnie and about Dom, that would be a big step in the right direction.”