PREVIEW: How will Malik Psalms and Cal's re-shuffled defensive backfield deal with Washington State's Air Raid?

The Cal secondary will face a complicated puzzle in Washington State's new run game and the ever-powerful Air Raid.

This summer, California safeties coach Greg Burns picked on Malik Psalms. The 6-foot-2, 185-pound corner who was rumored to have bench pressed over 400 pounds in his first summer in Berkeley was going to be a safety, and Burns had an inkling he'd have to hit the ground running. "They were just preparing me for the transition, throughout the summer," Psalms said. "They said, 'We might need you,' after Damariay [Drew] went down during spring ball. I sucks to lose him, but next man up. No matter who it is, somebody has to step up."

Now, 10 weeks into the season, the Bears secondary's two-deep now consists of a former backup quarterback and six first-year players (two true freshman, three redshirt freshman and one JuCo transfer without the benefit of spring ball). It's less than idea, particularly since the Bears are now facing one of the most prolific passing attacks in the nation, in Washington State.

If ever there were a midterm to be ready for, it's this one. During the summer, Psalms immersed himself in the playbook, studying each and every call.

"I had to really get in the film room, more so than I did at corner," he said. "It was a lot of playbook work, sitting there and going through the plays, going through all the checks and adjustments, getting in the film room, seeing what our offense did and how they ran plays. I'm seeing what checks and adjustments I make to them, seeing what checks and adjustments I'd make to each opponent."

Psalms watched film not only of Cal's opponents, but of the Bears' offense, too, just to get more mental reps. Next to him, was Burns.

"We were watching every single game, slowly -- on this formation, I'm doing this; on that formation, I'm doing that," Psalms said.

Psalms spent "countless hours" this summer, along with the other safeties, preparing for this eventuality. 

"It wasn't just me," Psalms said. "It was all the safeties. All of us, we'd all meet up, probably two, three times a week, outside of the normal meeting time, just so we could sit down and make sure that we know what the game plan is." But, while all the safeties met, Burns picked on Psalms.

"Yeah, I was the one," Psalms laughed. "He knew that everyone else knew it. I was the quiet guy, trying to see what everyone else was saying, but he would make sure to stop the meeting: 'Malik, what's your call?' 'Uhhh ... wait, hold on, can we rewind the film real quick? Can you come back to me?'"

All that studying has paid off for the Bears. Derron Brown was a safety, but was moved to linebacker and then broke his hand. Done for the year. Evan Rambo went down with an ACL injury. Nickel back Trey Turner has been sidelined with an Achilles injury. Drew tore his ACL in the spring.

"For him, it's going to be different, because he's on an island, and he is pretty much focused on one thing," Burns said. "When you become a safety, you have to expand your eyes, and see a broader picture. That part of it, of getting him out of the tunnel vision and seeing a bigger picture, was probably one of the harder things. The athleticism is there. Now, he's an athletic safety. That part's there. Covering man, that part's there. Now, seeing the big picture, I've got a whole field to look at and recognizing situations -- people crossing each other -- and how do I fit this? That part was the new part."

Psalms will have a very unique challenge this weekend against Washington State. To go along with seniors Gabe Marks (61 catches for 622 yards) and River Cracraft (44 catches for 614 yards), slot receiver Robert Lewis (18 catches for 196 yards) and sophomore Tavares Martin (50 catches for 557 yards), and Cal will likely not have the services of No. 1 corner Darius Allensworth. With the attrition at safety, Jacob Anderson is now being put into the rotation regularly after coming back from an injury, as is Ashtyn Davis at corner, along with De'Zhon Grace and Chibuzo Nwokocha, the latter of whom left practice on Wednesday on crutches.

Allensworth being sidelined has meant that true freshman Traveon Beck has gotten the nod at corner, after he began his Bears career as a safety. "Traveon Beck was recruited as a corner, came in, played some corner during fall camp, and as we got going, we're trying to figure out numbers and get the best guys on the field. We felt he was one of the best guys, of that group, and that's why he moved to nickel," said cornerbacks coach John Lovett. "He was in a backup role there -- he was basically Cam [Walker]'s backup for the last couple weeks and got some action [with Turner being out]. That was where we were going, but the next best option, to get a fourth guy that was healthy, was to bring him back, because he's had some background in it. He's not too far away from learning what they have to do."

While the Cougars certainly have downfield threats that are catching the Bears at the absolute wrong time, it should be the short game that concerns Cal's defense. The tunnel screens, bubble screens and quick chest passes in the backfield supplement what's become a true-blue (or crimson) running game.

"Within the particular call, all you've got to do is play what the call is," Burns said. "Everyone's going to be assigned to their particular areas, and if it's man, be assigned to a man. From a zone standpoint, they do run combination routes, and we've got to learn to pass off and drop properly and trigger when the ball is thrown and wrap up."

That new running game is no longer is dependent on a handful of carries from Jamal Morrow (69 carries, 423 yards; 38 catches for 395 yards) and Gerard Wicks (62 carries and 275 yards and a team-high 10 touchdowns), but on freshman James Williams.

Williams is a hard-charging, fast, tough back who's led the Cougars with 435 rushing yards and five touchdowns on 70 carries.

The Cougars are averaging 28.9 rushing attempts per game -- still 127th in the nation, but a high-water mark for the Mike Leach era.

Washington State is rushing for 120 yards per game -- also a high-water mark of the Leach era. In 2012, thee Cougars averaged just 29.1 yards per rush, and in 2015, Washington State ran for 80.5 yards per game. Never, between those years, did the Cougars average over 100 yards per game.

The Cougars rushed for 228 yards against Idaho, and then 280 yards against Oregon in back-to-back games on Sept. 17 and Oct. 1, but ran for a net -38 yards against Arizona State, before rushing for 277 yards combined in the last two games.

The Bears are, to say the least, challenged, when defending the run. Washington ran for 287 yards and averaged 6.5 yards per carry, and Cal is surrendering 5.99 yards per carry (127th in the nation) and 286.62 rushing yards per game (worst in the nation). Psalms and the rest of the safeties will have to play two challenging roles on Saturday -- finding a way to help stop the run and making sure not to abandon their responsibilities against the Air Raid.

"Yes, you think that they're going to be a passing team; yes, they're looking like they're starting to run more," Burns said. "It depends on what they bring. In regards to their run game, because they're a spread team for receivers, it depends on what they're doing. It's crack-replace type stuff. We may have inside fits, but it just depends."

There are, however, some things that don't depend on or change with the opposing offenses; things like tackling.

"Run support, it doesn't change from week to week," Psalms said. "It's always going to be the same, for every single defense -- you've got to get the guy on the ground, whether you tackle him or force him back inside, or force him outside, we've all got to do our job and maintain our leverage and we'll win the run defense."

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