Last season, Cal’s defense gave up 511 points and was ranked tenth overall in the Pac-12 conference – it’s no secret that the Bears have a long road toward improvement. Fortunately for the team, many of the key pieces of its defense remained intact.
Cal’s defense will be transitioning from a 4–3 to a 3–4 defensive scheme; rather than having four down linemen and three linebackers, the Bears will have three down linemen and four linebackers.
The returning pair of senior Devante Downs and redshirt senior Raymond Davison are the projected starters at the inside linebacker position. Downs led the team with 84 tackles in 2016, totaling 40 solo hits and 44 assists. He was tied for ninth overall in tackles in the Pac-12.
Already one of Cal’s best defensive players last year, he will have to step up his game even more for the upcoming season should the team want to improve its defensive ranking.
“(Responsibility on the field) comes along with the territory of being a senior,” Downs said in a CalBears interview. “Calling the plays, making sure everybody is doing everything right.”
At 6’3” and 245 pounds, Downs has just a bit more size over 6’2”, 225-pound Davison and it is likely that he will lead the defense as he is capable of fighting traffic to get to the ball.
Davison was third overall in tackles for the Bears last year with 69, featuring 37 solo and 32 assists, with one interception as well. His ability to force pass breakups makes for a solid compliment to the tackle-heavy Downs.
The second string inside backs are senior Hamilton Anoa’i and redshirt junior Jordan Kunaszyk, who are both likely to see time on the field and give Downs and Davison some relief.
At outside linebacker, junior Cameron Saffle is projected to own of the starting spots. Saffle is coming off of a strong sophomore campaign at defensive end where he led the Cal with 4.0 sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss of yards. Saffle racked up a total of 57 tackles and was in a five-way tie for ninth overall for interconference sacks in 2016.
Saffle can move quickly to attack the passer, finish his tackles with strength and can get to the ball to force pass breakups. He had to move from defensive end to outside back but the change has not affected his play much.
“Moving to outside linebacker, like I’ve said before, is more realistic for me, especially with some other guys as well who have been playing defensive end their whole life,” Saffle said in a CalBears interview. “It’s not much of a change now once you start picking up the defense.”
Redshirt freshman Cameron Goode, who stands at 6’3” and 225 pounds and junior Alex Funches, at 6’2’’ and 230 pounds, are the favorites for the second outside linebacker position.
Goode sat out last season but as a senior at Klein Collins High School he was rated 60th in the nation at the outside linebacker position by ESPN. He helped his reach a 9-2 record and earn the No.14 team ranking in Texas. Funches came to Cal from Trinity Valley Community College, where he had 64 tackles and 7.0 sacks in his sophomore year.
Cal’s rushing defense was significantly weaker than its passing defense in the 2016 season. If the change to a 3–4 strategy and the addition of a backer can slow the game on the ground, the Bears’ defense could see large improvement. Head coach Justin Wilcox was the defensive coordinator and inside linebacker coach at Wisconsin last season. With a defensive-minded head coach, Cal football may see a change in the much maligned other side of the ball.
Christie Aguilar is the assistant sports editor. Contact her at [email protected].