Sonny Dykes talks Michael Barton transfer, sixth year for Nathan Broussard and linebacker depth

BERKELEY -- Cal linebackers have become a main focus as the Bears prepare for a run-heavy Air Force team, and we chat with Kenny Lawler about his health and being named All-Pac-12.

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BERKELEY -- Air Force -- California's opponent in the Armed Forces Bowl on Dec. 29 -- is third in the nation in fewest tackles for loss allowed per game (3.69), and have seven players with at least 300 rushing yards, headed by running back Jacobi Owens, who has 1,009 yards on the ground this season.

But, Owens is just 52nd in the nation in rushing yards. How are the Falcons third in the country in rushing, with 321.8 yards per game? They get their production from a variety of sources, with Owens, quarterback Karson Roberts (674 rushing yards) and D.J. Johnson (425 rushing yards) each providing firepower on the ground. In fact, Air Force has seven players with at least 300 rushing yards. With that type of rushing attack, Cal's linebackers and defensive line are going to be key, but they'll be working without veteran Michael Barton -- who is injured, but has also decided to transfer as a graduate student after taking his degree in May -- and athletic Devante Downs, who's down with injury. Hamilton Anoa'i played in seven games this year, but went down with injury during the Oregon game, after blocking a punt. He won't be available against Air Force. Also unavailable is Aisea Tongilava, who missed the whole season with a toe injury which was operated on. While head coach Sonny Dykes said Tongilava will use this as a redshirt year, he was back in practice on Friday, getting much-needed extra reps that he would not have gotten were the Bears not going bowling.

"It's very frustrating, because this is important for those guys," Dykes said. "The good thing is, we've got Aisea back. He'll get a lot of reps here in the next seven practices. We wish those guys were practicing right now, because they'd benefit greatly from it. Today was really his first day fully cleared, so we'll kind of see how he does from there. He won't play. He's going to redshirt."

The loss of Barton, senior Jalen Jefferson and, Dykes said, the likely loss of Nathan Broussard -- who was potentially going to return for a sixth year -- will be mitigated to some degree by the youth at the linebacker position. Tongilava will be a redshirt sophomore, Anoa'i will be a junior and Downs will also be a junior.

"I think he's going to graduate and move on," Dykes said of Broussard, a Texas native who grew up 15 minutes from the bowl site at TCU. "We've talked about it, and I don't know that he's made his mind up completely about it, but I would anticipate that's what he's going to do."

Also returning will be Ray DavisonJake Kearney and team defensive MVP Hardy Nickerson.

"The good thing is, we've got good, young depth," Dykes said. "That's the positive thing. We've got some talent and some guys that I think are going to be really good players. Having Hardy back is a big deal, and then Jake Kearney coming back is going to be a big deal for us, as well. When you get all those guys back -- Devante and Hamilton and Aisea -- they've been good players, so we'll be fine."

That said, the Bears currently have one linebacker commit -- Cameron Goode -- and, Dykes said, Cal will look to add another to the class.

"Yeah, yeah. I think we're going to have to add one more in recruiting," Dykes said. "We've got a pretty good crop in recruiting. This is something that we've been planning for. We knew."

Cal will get some help back, though, in the run game, as junior safety Damariay Drew is a full-go, and practiced on Sunday. Dykes anticipates that he will start against Air Force, bringing his 64 tackles to bear against the Falcons.

Cal Running Game With Oakland Athletics manager -- and Cal baseball alum -- Bob Melvin on the sidelines during a chilly high-40s, rain-soaked practice on Friday, tailback Tre Watson joked that he was just too fast for his compression pants -- he tore a hole in the groin region -- and said that he was "taking it to another level." He certainly has done that on the field, averaging 90.3 yards and 13 carries per game over the final three contests of the regular season.

"I think a big part of it is confidence. That's of the things that made him so good as a high school player -- he's just really confident. He was very certain. He made good decisions, and was certain about those decisions. He's been a little bit undertain as he's been progressing, and that's the typical progression for that position. He's not one of those guys that's bigger than everybody, or faster than everybody. He's always been a player that's been successful because of his decision making, and because of his patience -- his ability to see things -- and all of that. Once he started doing that at this level, then he became a good player."

Over the first nine games, Watson didn't break double digits for carries, and never ran for more than 37 yards, rushing for 30 or more yards four times.

"I think a big part of that is he just kept getting better," Dykes said. "Being fresh helped him. That's why it's so important to have four or five guys. You've got to have them, because they're going to get beat up, and guys like this emerge late because they haven't had that many hits, and they're healthy, and that's why you have them."

One of the big reasons for Watson's emergence has been the uneven health of senior Daniel Lasco, who's played in eight games, with double-digit carries in just three, after having rushed for 1,115 yards and catching 33 balls for 356 yards last season.

Khalfani Muhammad and Vic Enwere have also benefitted, with Muhammad leading the rushing attack with 559 yards on 78 carries for a team-best 6.9 yards per carry. Enwere has been the team's workhorse, rushing 98 times for 510 yards and a team-best seven touchdowns.

"They've done a good job for us," Dykes said. "They really have. Khalfani has really emerged as a really good player. Week in and week out, he was a key to us winning ballgames. Vic, obviously, did some great things as well. I'm really proud of the way those guys played. It's always the same -- you hate to see somebody get hurt and not be able to play, like Daniel, especially someone in their senior year, and somebody we expected to have such a good season, but that's opportunities for other players, too, and you want to see guys make the best of it."

Lasco looked to be in near-top form on Friday, both catching the ball out of the backfield and running.

"He's full-go, but I'm not saying he's full-speed. There's still a little bit to go," Dykes said. "He's been kind of a half-rep guy, and now he's getting a lot of reps. He's getting closer."

The Bears still have seven more practices to go, so Lasco does have time to get back up to speed.

"We'll practice [Sunday] morning, Sunday afternoon, Monday morning, and then we'll let them go and we'll meet them at the bowl site on Christmas Day," Dykes said. "We'll just see how it goes between now and then. We've got seven practices, so we'll see where Lasco's at, his health, and how he's feeling. He looks a little better than he's looked; still not quite there yet."

Changes Up Front

One of the reasons that Watson and the Bears have been able to run the ball so well late in the season (averaging 152.6 yards per game over the last five) has been the gelling of the offensive line.

Cal allowed just six sacks over the final five games, after giving up 20 over the previous seven, and allowed 16 tackles for loss over the final five games, compared to the 47 they gave up in the first seven games of the season.

"We just kind of came on and started playing better at the end of the year," Dykes said. "We did some things, offensively, from a scheme standpoint, to help ourselves a little bit. The biggest thing is, we just played better football. Guys started playing with more confidence and more certainty. I look for that trend to continue into next year, and I think that that group has been a group we've had to piecemeal together in some ways, and have had to play with a lot of young players and some guys that were probably playing before they were ready. I think this year, at the end of the year, and I think going into next year, it's going to be a veteran group, and we think it's going to be one of the strengths of our football team."

What was the nature of that schematic change? 

"It's just a couple of things to try to take a little bit of heat off of those guys and get them more help with the running backs, little nuances here and there," Dykes said.

That improvement will certainly be tested, as Air Force is 19th in the nation in sacks (2.77 per game), third in sacks per opponent passing attempt (0.10), 32nd in tackles for loss (7.00 per game), 23rd in fewest passing yards allowed (190.38 ypg), fifth in passing completions allowed (13.85 cpg), ninth in fewest rushing first downs allowed (6.23 per game), ninth in lowest completion percentage allowed (51%) and second in fewest offensive plays allowed (61.46).

High Fliers

The Falcons, though, have not faced off against an offense like Cal's. Of particular note during the first half of the bowl practices has been Kenny Lawler, who was limited over the last three games of the season due to a deep hip/buttocks bruise. During the final three games, Lawler caught three balls for 25 yards, but did have a touchdown grab and a key block to spring Watson for a touchdown against Oregon State

"He's healthy; the biggest thing is he's healthy and he's moving better and playing with more confidence," Dykes said. "He was trying to get back and just didn't have an opportunity to practice. He wasn't as sharp. It shows you how important it is to practice every day. What happens is, the quarterback loses their timing with you, when you're not practicing. That happened, and we just lost our rhythm a little bit, but he's back healthy, and I anticipate him having a big bowl game."

A week ago, during the second bowl practice, Lawler went up for a ball in the back east corner of the end zone and came down on that right hip, between Darius White and Stefan McClure. He popped right back up, without a second thought.

"I didn't even really notice it when I fell down, so that's a plus," said the first-team All-Pac-12 receiver. As for that honor -- the first first-team receiver Cal has had since Keenan Allen, Lawler was humbled.

"It's amazing," Lawler said. "It's one of those dreams that you have when you're a kid, playing the NCAA games, trying to make your character -- All-Pac-12. It's a blessing. For me, it's a team accomplishment, and I couldn't do it without the team, without Jared [Goff] throwing me the balls, without the other receivers getting me open, and the DBs, getting us better. It's a team accomplishment, for me."

On Friday, he made a backwards-flipping catch in one-on-ones, and was very strong with the ball in his hands.

"I feel good," Lawler said. "If I'm not 100 percent, I'm close to it. It just feels good to be out there."

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