Mark your man: Defense

With the 2012 season opener fast approaching, Cal's football team gets schooled.

The Cal secondary had an inconsistent 2011 campaign and looks poised to show more of the same in 2012. The Bears had the 37th ranked pass defense in the nation last season, but their secondary was exposed and eviscerated numerous times, often by mediocre quarterbacks and offenses.

The cornerbacks look to be dependable. Senior Marc Anthony will likely be the cornerstone of the secondary, having been named a candidate for the Jim Thorpe Award and Jack Tatum trophies, both given to the nation’s top defensive back. Anthony had an overall solid 2011 campaign but tended to struggle with faster wide receivers — epitomized by giving up 11 receptions, 284 yards and a pair of touchdowns to Colorado’s Paul Richardson.

Playing opposite of Anthony will be junior Steve Williams, who will look to continue to build off an impressive sophomore campaign. Sophomore Stefan McClure should also see significant playing time as the nickel back. McClure had a rough start to his career as a true freshman against Oregon last year, but eventually started to prove why coach Jeff Tedford claims he has more potential than any defensive back he’s ever coached. McClure’s freshman season was cut short when he tore his ACL, MCL and meniscus during a kickoff against Arizona State.

At safety, the Bears are much less sound. Senior Josh Hill will likely be moving from his nickel back spot, where he’s played in 36 games. He’s Cal’s active career leader in both tackles and interceptions but has yet to establish himself as a legitimate safety. Alongside Hill will be junior Alex Logan, who has only logged six career tackles while spending most his time at Cal on special teams.
Sophomore Avery Sebastian could very well find his way into the starting lineup soon. Sebastian was a highly touted recruit coming out of high school, playing most on special teams in 12 games as a true freshman in 2011.

Grade: B-
— Connor Byrne

The Cal linebacking corps could prove to be one of the strengths of the team or a glaring weakness on defense this fall. The departures of 2011 Pac-12 Player of Mychal Kendricks and NFL draftee D.J. Holt leaves the unit without its core from the last few years, but that hole is about to be filled by some of Cal’s most highly touted linebacker recruits in recent history.

The outside is the strength of the linebackers, with sophomores Chris McCain starting on the strong side and Brennan Scarlett on the weak side. McCain showed lots of promise in his freshman campaign in stopping the run, but a severe concussion knocked him out of the final weeks of the 2011. If he can pick up where he left off, he’ll be a force on the outside.

Scarlett comes in with significantly less experience, having only played in three games last year before sustaining a season-ending injury that also kept him out of spring practice. But Scarlett is back to full strength and has been compared to Kendricks as a triple threat linebacker — someone who can stuff the run, drop into coverage and rush the passer.

The interior looks much cloudier. If sophomore David Wilkerson can stay healthy, he’ll likely be the anchor. But if Wilkinson’s injuries continue to bother, senior Robert Mullins will  take his place. Sophomore Nick Forbes will also be in the mix for the start.

Then there’s Khairi Fortt, a recent junior transfer who left Penn State following the Jerry Sandusky sanctions. He hasn’t practiced much this fall and won’t see a lot of significant playing time early, but should be a major factor later in the season. Fortt started to establish himself as a premier middle linebacker for the Nittany Lions last season and could grow into the centerpiece of Cal’s linebacker unit.

Grade: C+
— Connor Byrne

Defensive Line:
Provided the monsters in the middle remain healthy and escape the injury bug, the defensive line project as one of the Bears’ greatest strengths. Cal usually employs a 3-4 defense, with two ends lined up outside of the offensive tackles and a nose guard in the middle.

Rotating in and out on at the nose guard spot will be seniors Aaron Tipoto and Kendrick Payne, two talented and experienced 280-pounders comprising a unit that ranks among the top in the conference. Defensive end DeAndre Coleman was recently named to the Hendricks Award watch list, honoring the top defensive linemen in the country. With Tipoti and/or Payne plugging up the middle, Coleman should rack up the sacks with decreased pressure on the edges.
Mustafa Jalil, entering his sophomore campaign, is another promising defensive line prospect. A highly touted recruit, Jalil was one of only three true freshman to play in all 13 games. The San Diego native compiled 13 tackles and played well enough to be listed as a starter on the spring depth chart. Sophomore behemoth Viliami Moala provides some talented depth behind Tipoti and Payne.
The only question with this group is the lack of depth at end. Behind Coleman and Jalil on the depth chart is Todd Barr, a redshirt freshman who has yet to take a snap. Reports from Tedford are positive on the youngster, however, and if luck favors the Bears the lack of depth will be just a minor nuisance. For Cal to make an impact on the Pac-12, this line has to live up to its potential; if it can, look for the front three to wreak havoc on some offensive lines.
Grade: B+
— Michael Rosen