PREVIEW: Cal's running game and offensive line will face an exotic challenge in San Diego State

Cal has begun preparing for San Diego State's deceptive, exotic defense, so what are the keys for the Golden Bears to break through on the ground, and up front? We break it down with offensive line coach Brandon Jones and running backs coach Garret Chachere.

San Diego State head coach Rocky Long has been at this defense business since 1978. Over the last five years, his defense has been ranked No. 28, No. 22, No. 48 and No. 7 in rushing defense, with his No. 7 rushing defense in 2015 ranking 26th in tackles for loss per game in the FBS (7.1), 15th in total tackles for loss, 23rd with 2.64 sacks per game (2.64) and 14th in overall sacks (37).

In 2014, Long's Aztecs finished No. 13 in scoring defense, and 16th in total defense.

For a team that averaged just 152.8 yards on the ground last season, California had a (somewhat) encouraging ground game in the opener against Hawaii, rushing for 189 yards, averaging 5.4 yards per attempt, but that did include a 34-yard touchdown run from Khalfani Muhammad, and another 40-yarder from the senior tailback. Other than those two runs, Cal had 12 runs of 4 yards or more, with none in the third quarter, and four coming on the final drive of the game, highlighted by a 27-yard run from Vic Enwere. Taking out sacks, the Bears had just three runs of zero or negative yardage. "I feel we left a lot of yards out there in the run game, whether it was us missing blocks or not matching with the running backs," said offensive line coach Brandon Jones. "That’s the thing that I’m really eager to see. That’s some stuff that we’ve been trying to work on and address this week. I really feel, other than Khalfani’s big runs, I wasn’t just overly pleased with how we ran the ball.”

23 times, Cal rushed the ball between the tackles, and given that the Bears hadn't switched to a kick step from the vertical set by the time they faced the Aztecs last year, that's going to be more of a feature of this offense going forward, despite much of the attention being placed on Davis Webb and the passing game.

But, San Diego State is not the mis-match up front that the Warriors were. They're more athletic, more aggressive, and, in the words of both Jones and running backs coach Garret Chachere, more exotic.

“They do a ton of exotic stuff," Jones said. "They’re going to keep you guessing. They’re going to bring a ton of different pressures. They usually only bring about five people, so it’s just up to us to sort it out. We gave up two sacks last year on some stuff that I feel we can correct.”

The base 3-3-5 defense, which ostensibly would give Cal the numbers advantage in the box, isn't quite that simple. The Aztecs will with great regularity stand the entire line up, giving them better angles on gaps. What they sacrifice for leverage they make up for in speed.

“They stand everybody up, kind of get to your gap on your own -- a lot of twists, a lot of overload situations, just stuff that you’ve really got to study. They constantly keep you guessing," Jones said. “When you really think about it, they’ve got a really good formula for winning. They play really, really, really good defense, and it’s really hard to prepare in a week. I struggle with it. It’s by far the hardest stuff we play ... The biggest thing for me is trying to dissect them and their formula. They keep the ball a ton when they’re on offense, and they’re so exotic on defense, they three-and-out people so much. That’s kind of overwhelming.”

The stand-up line allows the Aztecs to exchange gaps between linebackers and defensive linemen, and even between safeties and defensive linemen, both on passing downs and on running downs, complicating the assignment part of assignment football. The solution? Likely a zone blocking scheme up front, to pick up whatever defenders flash in front of each individual lineman. “They do a heck of a job disguising," Chachere said. "Basically, it’s being able to identify the people how we want to identify [them], and making sure that our rules – blocking – hold up. As long as you’re sound, that’s all you can be. You can’t get too involved in all their exotic looks. You have o stick by your rules, follow your rules.”

The athletic versatility up front starts with senior defensive tackle Alex Barrett. After moving to right defensive end last season, he's back at defensive tackle (after starting the final two games there in 2015), and is a preseason first-team All-Mountain West pick by SPN, Sporting News, Lindy's Sports and Athlon Sports. One of the five best pro prospects named by Campus Insiders, he's eighth on Lindy's Mountain West Top 10 NFL Talent list. Last season, Barrett picked up 62 tackles, 13.0 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks, seven quarterback hurries, two interceptions and one interception returned for a touchdown.

This past week against New Hampshire, he had four passes defended and two sacks.

“He’s by far the best," Jones said. "He’s probably one of the better D-linemen that we’ll see. Really active, kind of undersized with a high motor. He’s really, really disruptive. He stands out quite a bit, to me. That’s who I gauge it off of. He make a ton of plays. He makes a ton of plays, and I know they’ve got the Defensive Player of the Year, a corner, and the backers are sound. I think they return six, if I’m not mistaken, so it’ll be a good challenge for us. We’ve got to be able to run the ball and zone off of everything that they give us.”

That defensive player of the year wasn't do-everything linebacker Calvin Munson (a third-team All-American in 2014, who tallied 15 tackles for loss and 9.5 sacks in 2015), but cornerback Damontae Kazee, who earned a second-team All-American nod with 75 tackles (a team-high 58 solo stops; the next highest was 45), a team-leading eight interceptions, 5.5 tackles for loss, seven pass breakups and two forced fumbles.

“I think they put their DBs into run support," Chachere said during the bye week. "I think when and who and why, really, we’ll know more after we watch them this year.”

Kazee isn't the only returner in the defensive backfield, as safety Malik Smith (2015 Mountain West honorable mntion after tallying 77 tackles, 5.0 TFLs, nine breakups, and five interceptions), Na'im McGee (Mountain West Championship MVP, 81 total tackles), Kameron Kelly (58 tackles and two picks with 3.0 TFLs) and Trey Lomax (2 starts in 2015 due to injury, after 11 starts in 2014) all return. Against New Hampshire last week, Smith was the only defensive back to tally a tackle for loss -- his only tackle on the day -- while Kazee had just four tackles, although that's likely not indicative of what the Bears will see on Saturday.

New Hampshire ran the ball 31 times for 71 yards, with Munson, Barrett and Randy Ricks tallying five of the team's seven tackles for loss, with another coming from former Arizona defensive end Kyle Kelley. Kelly is another one to watch, with 7.5 tackles for loss last season.

“I’m sure they’ll even have some exotic looks for us that they didn’t show this week, but Rocky is who he is," Chachere said. "You’ve got pretty much an idea of what and how it’s going to shake down. We’re not looking at it as, we have this entire defense that we have to prepare for. We’re looking at is as, ‘Here’s our tracks, here’s our keys, these are our aiming points. The offensive line has some tracks, keys and aiming points, and we’re just going to stick with it.’”

What the Cal running game has to do is to continue what it did at times against Hawaii -- an appropriate strategy against San Diego State: Hit a lot of singles, like Aztecs great Tony Gwynn.

"Exactly. That’s a good analogy,” Chachere said. "A bunch of backs want to hit the home run every play, instead of sticking with the scheme, and knowing that that run may have only been three yards, that run may have only been two yards, that run may have been four yards, but by the time you get to the third and fourth quarter, that run becomes 10 or 12 or 15."

If Enwere, in particular, can keep his pads square and hammer through contact, instead of sliding sideways and trying to get skinny, he can grind down San Diego State's front. “Last year, from what [pro scouts] were saying to me, he would have bounced it outside, and turned his shoulders to fit in a gap or find his way in a gap, whereas this year, he was able to stay square, slide his body and find that seam and punch through it," Chachere said.

The diminutive Muhammad -- who showed better explosion into and through contact against Hawaii than he ever has -- needs to keep the same approach.

"Punch through it and keeping his shoulders square and his pads down. Those are the kind of runs the pros want to see," Chachere said. "They want to see you find that seam, get your pads down and get four yards, when initially, you’re only going to get one. Get five, when it looks like he may get two. Same thing with Khalfani. He’s a third-down back. I’m sure a lot of people are looking at him that way -- a returner, a guy at the next level. To see his tough runs, my point is, for Khalfani, he made a lot of tough runs when there wasn’t anything. He got three, four, five yards – same thing. Second down, staying with the run, getting his pads down and getting positive yards."

Beyond those two, Tre Watson needs to get more involved. He's the most complete back Cal has, with balance, vision, speed and physicality, to go along with lateral quickness and change of direction. Watson only had 11 carries for 34 yards in the opener, as offensive coordinator Jake Spavital went with the hot hand -- Muhammad -- early, but for Cal to do what it did last year against the Aztecs -- rush for 164 yards on 36 attempts -- Watson needs to be involved.

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