The scene at last Tuesday’s practice was a heart-wrenching one for any person with vested interest in the Cal football team: projected defensive line contributors DeAndre Coleman, Viliami Moala and Mustafa Jalil all slumped on the sidelines, sans helmet, sans pads, sans cleats, sans everything.
The preseason Hendricks Award watch list member Coleman sullenly waddled around with a black boot attached to his left foot. Moala lumbered alongside him, neither one planning on taking a snap that day.
Jalil sat twenty feet away, riding a stationary bike with a blank expression.
Although the practice consisted only of station-to-station work with little to no contact, the lack of the D-line’s presence was noted.
Reporters peppered Coach Jeff Tedford after practice with questions concerning the overall health of the defensive line, one often considered among the top units in the conference.
Tedford brushed off most of the questions on account of his distaste for discussing injury matters, calling Coleman and Jalil “minorly banged up” and assured the media that all three would be back for the Sept. 1 opener against Nevada.
The three sidelined defensive linemen shed light on a more significant issue for the Bears this upcoming year: their lack of depth on the defensive line.
With Moala, Coleman, and Jalil all sitting out with minor injuries, redshirt freshman Todd Barr assumed the starting role at defensive tackle. Barr has yet to take a snap in his young Cal career, but he may be seeing Pac-12 action if Jalil or Moala’s injuries linger or resurface.
The Bears walk a thin line with their lack of defensive depth. On the one hand, the front seven could be one of Cal’s greatest strengths. Seniors Aaron Tipoti and Kendrick Payne provide size and experience at the tackle positions, and Coleman is a game-changer on the end.
With all three of those playmakers on the field for the defense, opponents such as USC’s Matt Barkley and Ohio State’s Braxton Miller will be prevented from having all of the time in the world to ensure their wideouts are as open as possible.
But any injuries to the front line and the second string may lack the experience to impart any damage on the Heisman candidates and their lines, leaving the average Cal secondary ripe for exploitation.
Right now, the Bears have the defensive personnel to do some damage against the high-caliber offenses lurking in the wings. But Tuesday’s practice magnified the fundamental flaw of this unit: Behind Tipoti, Payne, and the rest of the 300-pound starters lie myriad question marks.
Hopefully for Cal, the answers to those questions lay in the vagueness of the distant horizon.
In order to return to the Pac-12 top tier, Coleman and Payne have to be dominant and hope the injury monster isn’t hiding under their bed, waiting to attack them while they’re asleep.