Which Cal defensive backs step up to take the place of Darius White and Stefan McClure?

What will Cal's defensive backfield look like after losing four major contributors from the last two seasons? We take a look.

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Personnel Losses: Where to start? The Bears lost veteran safety Stefan McClure and top corner Darius White to graduation (both have since hooked on with the Indianapolis Colts as undrafted free agents). Those were expected losses (and are somewhat mitigated by redshirt freshmen Jaylinn Hawkins and Malik Psalms, and sophomore Evan Rambo), but the late-spring knee injury suffered by Damariay Drew -- arguably the best defensive back on the roster -- and the injury retirement of Griffin Piatt were not accounted for during the recruiting cycle, meaning that this group is certainly thinner than anticipated, at least as far as experience goes.

After two seasons where the Bears were dead last in the nation in passing defense (128th), the Bears were 91st in passing defense last season (out of 127 FBS teams), and 109th in overall defense (after spending 2013 and 2014 at 124th in yards allowed per game).

The bad news: They lost McClure, White, Drew and Piatt from the defense that improved, and there is a lot of youth looking to fill that hole.

The good news -- if there is any to be taken -- is that Drew's injury -- sustained on a non-contact play this spring -- did not involve any other ligaments or meniscus. It's a straight ACL tear. That means he can be back by spring, 2017. But, we're not previewing spring ball, 2017. 

http://www.scout.com/college/california/story/1686193-griffin-piatt-to-m... Of the 11 players with 2015 starting experience in the defensive backfield, three are defensive backs. But, of the 26 letterwinners returning on defense, 10 are defensive backs. There's not a ton of starting experience, but there are at least players with real-game experience.

While Piatt (7 games, 1 start last season; 13 career games, 5 starts) was largely limited due to injuries, he would have had the fourth-most experience in the secondary, behind Cameron Walker (35), Darius Allensworth (25) and Caleb Coleman (15), tied with Trey Turner (13) and ahead of Luke Rubenzer (12). Aside from that group (and Drew, who has 23 games and 14 starts under his belt), nobody else even cracks the 10-game mark. That's a big drop off.

"The key for us is going to be figuring out some depth behind those guys," said head coach Sonny Dykes. "Luke’s obviously played a lot of football and got better last season. He really played well against Arizona State, did some good things in the bowl game. We could end up moving somebody to safety, probably Malik [Psalms], potentially, or a guy that’s a corner right now, just to give us some depth back there, as well.”

All that being said, there are more bodies in the defensive backfield than when the Bears were forced to work out Chris HarperBryce Treggs and Bryce McGovern in the secondary.

‘The good thing is, we recruited a lot of DBs, and we finally have options," said Dykes. "We’re not going to be playing with Patrick Worstell, Matt Rockett and Chris Harper and guys like that at safety or corner like we have in the past ... We’ve got some depth. It’s been a long time coming. Some of the guys people aren’t necessarily going to know that much about, but they’re going to be good players.”

As a result of a 2015 class that saw the Bears bring in defensive backs exclusively 6-foot-1 or taller, Cal has, as Dykes said, some options, should they need to move players around on the back end.

"There’s guys," Dykes said. "We’ve got a lot of answers."

Projected Starters

Nickel: SR Cameron Walker (35 games, 29 starts, 158 tackles, 2.0 sacks, 5.0 TFL, 11 PD, 1 FF, 1 blocked kick, 3 QB hurries, 2 INT, 53 return yards, 1 INT for TD)
Next Up:
SO Trey Turner (13 games, 1 INT, 12 tackles)
RJr. De'Zhon Grace (4 games)
RSo. Quentin Tartabull (1 game)
RJr. Caleb Coleman (15 games, 20 tackles, 2 INT, 1 FR, 11 PD, 7 PBU)

Walker was thrown into the fire as a true freshman corner, and has become one of the most seasoned members of the defensive backfield, and indispensable at nickel because of his experience at both corner and safety. No surprise there. Coleman has more experience at nickel, since coming in as a wide receiver as a freshman, than anyone except Walker, so seeing him at the bottom of the depth chart was a bit of a surprise, especially because Tartabull -- while talented -- has played precisely one game of competitive football in the past three years. Tartabull missed most of his senior season at Mission Hills (Calif.) Bishop Alemany, and then redshirted while recovering as a freshman, and then missed spring ball in 2015, and all but the regular season finale this past season. Walk-on Grace has been sneaky good this spring, and Turner is a ball hawk destined to be a starter, so not a ton of surprise there, but the positional depth chart for nickel shows just shows how up-in-the-air the entire defensive backfield truly is.

Cornerback (L): RSr. Antoine Albert (8 games, 7 tackles)
Next Up:
RFr. Malik Psalms
FR. Traveon Beck
-- or FR Nygel Edmonds
-- or JR Marloshawn Franklin
RSo. Chibuzo Nwokocha

This is where finding a replacement for a departed hand is going to be hardest. White was not only a superb corner (now an UFA with the Indianapolis Colts), but he was an emotional touchstone for the defense, as well. Albert has matured greatly, and has begun to fill that motivational hole left by White. He's much more comfortable in his own skin out on defense, now, and it showed this spring. Psalms is one of the strongest, pound-for-pound players on the team, and excels in press coverage, but he redshirted last year. Beck is coming in as a true freshman, as is Edmonds (though he could see time at both corner and safety, Dykes said), while Franklin was supposed to come into Berkeley during the spring, but had to take care of one more class at JuCo. When White missed much of his first camp with a shoulder injury, it set him back, badly, when the Bears needed bodies once injuries started piling up. Could missing this spring hurt Franklin, who can play both corner and safety? Usually, you bring in junior college players so they can play right away, and in this defensive backfield, that's definitely a need.

Safety: RSr. Khari Vanderbilt (11 games, 17 tackles, 0.5 TFL ... pre-camp depth chart lists Damariay Drew as starter)
Next Up:
JR. Luke Rubenzer (23 games, 1 start, 2 interceptions, 44 tackles)
RJr. David Garner (4 games, 5 tackles)
RJr. Jacob Anderson

Vanderbilt came on very strong this spring, after having a breakout season on special teams, and in spot action on defense. Vanderbilt racked up 17 tackles and 0.5 TFL in his first season.

“A lot of people don’t really know about Khari," Dykes said. "It’s not a household name, but he’s somebody who had a great spring."

Hard not to give Rubenzer the nod here, in place of Drew, but Vanderbilt has certainly impressed. Beyond that, another change to the pre-fall depth chart is putting Garner ahead of Anderson. Garner played in four games last year, and this spring, played a lot bigger than his 5-foot-9, 195-pound frame. I'm not saying Garner is a starter, but he has good instincts and plays the run well. He's not going to be a guy who gets into passing lanes, but he does play receivers close and can be pesky.

Safety: SO Evan Rambo (11 games, 8 tackles)
Next Up:
RFr. Jaylinn Hawkins (1 game, 1 PD)
RSo. Jonathan McDonald

Rambo, one of three true freshmen to play extensively on defense last season (along with Turner and defensive end Cameron Saffle), played in 11 games last year, after having a breakout fall camp, and recorded three tackles against Arizona State. At 6-foot-3, 205 pounds, he's a part of a class of bigger, longer defensive backs Cal signed in 2015 that can play either safety or corner, and Rambo's length is certainly an asset, especially in coverage.

"I think Evan’s really evolved into a special guy," Dykes said. "I really do. I think he’s got a chance to be a really good one."

He's also a heavy hitter, so if anyone can take Drew's place as a run stopper, it could very well be him.

"Rambo’s kind of an unknown at this point, but when you go back and watch the tape of spring football, he was about as good a player as we had on the field," Dykes said. "It’s encouraging to see those guys out there and see them playing well.”

Hawkins hasn't played in 18 months, but his shoulder looked to be significantly improved over the course of spring. Of course, we didn't see much of him in actual contact, after surgery. Hawkins came in as a corner, but has moved to safety where there is a more dire need for depth. McDonald is a former linebacker, who likewise moved to safety to shore up the numbers there. 

Cornerback (R): RJr. Darius Allensworth (25 gams, 13 starts
Next Up: 
FR Camryn Bynum
-- or FR Josh Drayden
-- or RSo. Ashtyn Davis
JR A.J. Greathouse (11 games, 2 tackles)

There's an argument that can be made as to who is the most valuable piece in the secondary, and while there's certainly a case for Walker, my personal pick would be Allensworth. He's a heady grinder who relished his one-on-ones against the six receivers Cal sent to the NFL last season, and has improved by leaps and bounds. He's pesky, he's physical and he can turn and run. He's not the fastest, but he plays with a lot of technical know-how, and uses his hands well in press. Greathouse has been a bit of a mystery. He's worked at linebacker, nickel back, cornerback and safety in his tim at Cal (and could wind up at linebacker again before all is said and done). He played in nine games with two tackles as a true freshman, and then played in only two games last year, after having moved from safety to corner. He slid down the depth chart behind McClure and Derron Brown, after sharing the starting nod on the preseason depth chart with those two. Bynum, a true freshman, is a bit on the slim side at 6-foot-1, 180 pounds, but he's put on about 15 pounds since this time last year, and I think could be a sleeper in th secondary, given his speed and agility.

The true freshman Drayden is an unknown, and he's on the small side, but what he lacks in size, he makes up for in speed, with a reported 4.39 40-yard time. Davis has a track background -- a second-team All-American hurdler -- but did not play in 2015. His ability to turn and run could be intriguing, but with Allensworth, Bynum and Drayden ahead of him, it might be slim pickings.

Burning Questions

Position of greatest strength? As is going to be necessary in a pass-happy Pac-12, the nickel has to be the strength of the secondary. Not only is there depth, but there's quality, experienced depth at the position, and players who can drop into coverage (Walker and Turner) or play the run (Tartabull), plus, three players at the position have more than 10 games of experience. No other position in the secondary can say that.

Position of greatest concern? Behind Rambo at safety, there's not much. There's Hawkins (who, while a four-star prospect, has played in a single game) and a converted linebacker. That's where I would see putting Franklin or Psalms, if the need arose. Rambo is going to be an asset, but if he needs a blow, as defenders in the Pac-12 do, there's not a lick of solid rotational experience behind him. 

Confidence level about depth, scale of 1-10? 5. There's a lot of young talent in this unit, just like in the linebacker unit, but having the one guy on the defense who I would pick as an NFL prospect right now -- Drew -- go down, in addition to seeing how inexperienced the group truly was when Allensworth went down in the spring, should concern Cal fans. That said, I think Rambo is going to be a star on defense, and we have yet to see the dynamic Hawkins in action yet. Both of them are very exciting, as is Psalms. Rambo and Psalms have such wide wingspans, and can disrupt the passing game in so many ways, but they've only just barely seen real bullets. I think the depth here is miles ahead of where it's been, but I'd still like to see it be a bit more seasoned, especially considering the offenses they're going to have to face, where gap integrity and edge contain (looking at Texas and Oregon, specifically) and run support (UCLA and USC) are going to be paramount.

Where does this position group rank on your team from strongest to biggest area of concern?
Without any reservation, this is the group about which I have the most reservations. Between the matriculations of White and McClure, the injury to Drew and the injury retirement of Piatt, there's a huge deficit of experience on this group, a deficit that isn't quite matched by even the linebackers or defensive line, both of which lost a lot over the last seven months. Is there talent here? Yes, absolutely. But, proceed with caution: Walker was thrown into the fire as a true freshman and, while he soldiered on, he got burned quite a bit. I just have a foreboding sense that if any of the youngsters get put on an island, perhaps at a different position, things could get unpleasant. 


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