CAL SPRING GAME BREAKDOWN: Defense

BERKELEY -- The same defense that's been one of the worst units in all of college football the past two years showed life on Saturday, and not just a little. The Cal defensive front proved to be very active, and the defensive backs were far from the "mess" that Sonny Dykes deemed them to be just a few practices ago.

BERKELEY -- In 2014, the California Golden Bears finished 11th in the country in points scored, at 38.3 points per game. The offense was, at times, unstoppable. The points came in bunches. The running game was complimenting the passing game and vice versa. For most of 2014, the Bear Raid offense was a force to be reckoned with.

Yet, despite all the points, all the yards, and all the offensive records, the Bears finished 5-7 -- their fourth losing season in five years.

If the offense was not the problem, then that can only mean that the defense was, and the stats clearly support that theory. In 2014, the Bears allowed an average of 39.8 points per game -- good for 123rd in the country. The defense allowed 49, 56, 59, 59, and 42 points in different games last season. Especially late in the year, when Cal's depth was challenged due to injuries, the defense was simply atrocious. Compared to 2013, the Bears defense made strides. But those strides were simply not enough to get them to a bowl game.

Thus, as the Bears inch closer to the 2015 season, the defense again becomes a point of emphasis. Can Cal’s defense improve enough to survive the depth issues until the freshmen class arrives in four months? Can the defensive line consistently generate pressure not just from their starters, but from the second and third units? Can the defensive backfield hang with opposing wide receivers, and at least make enough plays to secure victories—something they did in inconsistent spurts last year?

On Saturday, the Bears concluded spring practice with the Cal Spring Football Experience, giving fans a taste of what they can expect later on this year. From a defensive standpoint, fans wanted to see a unit that would hold their own against their prolific offense, and at least make a few plays hinting at progress.

The good news for those fans -- even with the obvious disclaimer that this was a glorified spring scrimmage -- is that the defense at least showed that they are taking steps in a positive direction. Of 8 full-field drives, the offense only scored 1 touchdown -- a Jared Goff threading-the-needle pass to Bryce Treggs. Otherwise, the defense not only held their own against the Bear Raid offense, but actually dominated the scrimmage.

The defensive line -- which struggled mightily generating any pressure late in 2014 -- shut down the running game. The offense averaged merely 3.6 yards per carry, only scoring on a Lonny Powell touchdown in a designed goal line situation.

In passing downs, the Cal defensive line consistently generated pressure rushing only 4 down linemen. Of the quarterbacks’ 36 total pass attempts, the defensive line generated 12 “hurried” passes -- an admittedly subjective stat defined as a passing attempt under clear duress. Having the defense forcing opposing quarterbacks to throw under duress one-third of the time is certainly one way to improve defensive performance.

In addition to the 12 “hurries”, the defensive line also generated 3 sacks -- 2 by senior defensive end Kyle Kragen and 1 by junior defensive tackle Marcus Manley. Consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks is going to have to be a staple of the defensive line if the Bears hope to make it to a bowl game this year. On Saturday, against a rather prolific offense, the defensive line hinted that they may have the ability to do just that.

While the defensive line found success getting into the backfield, the defensive backs did a terrific job of at least running with Cal’s talented plethora of wide receivers. Even in 7-on-7s, the defensive backs stuck to wide receivers fairly consistently -- showing clear improvement as a unit from being one of the worst in the country over the past two years.

Senior cornerback Darius White in particular had a field day, getting his hands on pass attempts in single-man coverage and thwarting a couple of would-be huge plays. Against Maurice Harris on a red zone fade route, White stuck like flypaper, breaking up the pass with his body in the end zone. On a busted play, White managed to get in the way of a streaking Bear wide, turning a sure touchdown pass into an incompletion. White also made additional plays in 7-on-7 coverage, breaking up 2 additional passes in separate sessions. With his performance on Saturday, it is of no wonder why White is listed as the starter at cornerback.

“They improved a lot,” said Goff. “I would call out Darius White. I think he’s gotten a lot better. I think he’s starting to compete everyday. He is going toe-to-toe with [wide receivers Kenny Lawler and Maurice Harris].”

“He is doing really well as well as the rest of the defense. They are all getting better everyday.”

In addition to White, safety Cameron Walker also had a few noteworthy plays -- including a hard hit in the end zone to jar the ball free from what would otherwise be a touchdown. Cornerbacks Darius Allensworth and A.J. Greathouse, along with safety Derron Brown, also recorded pass breakups, while safety/quarterback Luke Rubenzer recorded an interception along the sideline.

Again, this is a spring scrimmage against an offense that the defense knows, inside and out. But the defensive line’s consistent pressure in the backfield and the defensive back’s ability to stick with and break up passes has to be an encouraging sign for the Cal faithful. If the Bears plan on taking that next big step forward and win 6, 7, or 8 games in 2015, then defensive pressure and pass breakups must be consistent and constant.

It may only be a spring game, but the small sample size of results provides a bit of encouragement regarding the defense.


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