Cal football relying on defensive line to improve in 2015

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39.8 points per game in football sounds like an awesome statistic to attach to any team. For the Cal football team, however, those 39.8 points are the ones the Bears gave up to opponents, on average, on the defensive end of the field in 2014. This placed Cal at 123rd out of 128 teams in the FBS. If the Bears hope to make any sort of significant move toward lowering this number, they will need to make large strides on the defensive line.

Cal went 5-7 last season and came one win short of a bowl game, largely because of its struggles at defending the pass. While improving pass defense is often seen as being left primarily to the cornerbacks and safeties, the defensive line actually plays a big role here.

If the linemen can put opposing quarterbacks under pressure, they’ll make covering wide receivers an easier proposition for the cornerbacks. That’s because the more quickly the quarterback is forced to get the ball out of his hands, the less time the defenders are forced to stay with the receivers and keep them from getting open.

This not only limits the number of open receivers but also prevents the receivers from getting open deep for big plays, because they simply don’t have the time to run very far if the quarterback has only a couple of seconds from the snap until he has to pass the ball. This was an area in which Cal really struggled last season. According to the Fremeau Efficiency Index, the Bears’ opponents averaged more than 10 yards per play on 20 percent of their drives last season. This put Cal at a lackluster 113th in the nation and is something that can be blamed on every level of the defense.

The pass rush, however, would do a great job to take matters out of the other units’ hands to a large degree. The best way to do this would be to get opposing quarterbacks thinking and afraid in the pocket. This can happen only if the defensive line starts sacking the quarterback far more than it managed to last season. According to Football Outsiders, the Bears were 126th in the FBS at adjusted sack rate, behind such luminaries as UMass, Kent State and Ball State.

A substantial improvement here would be a big step in the right direction toward getting Cal back to its Jeff Tedford-level heights. The defensive line will also be tasked with shoring up a run defense that ranked 40th in the nation, which is a solid number but is partially because teams didn’t feel a need to run the ball against the Bears.

The Bears’ opponents managed to score 19 rushing touchdowns, which shows that Cal struggled at goal-line defense, one of the primary jobs of the defensive line. In short-yardage situations, it’s the linemen’s job to create penetration and allow the linebackers to easily get into the backfield and stuff any running attempts. The Bears were decent at this, but they certainly have room for improvement.

Much of this improvement will be expected to come from merely another year of seasoning for the players expected to start on the line: seniors Kyle Kragen and Puka Lopa at the end positions, who will be joined by defensive tackles sophomore James Looney and senior Mustafa Jalil. The defensive line figures to reflect the benefits of much-improved depth this season, as the Bears will be able to rely on substitutions to keep their players fresh and make sure all the linemen are always going at 100 percent. Some key bench players figure to be senior defensive tackle Trevor Kelly and junior DeVante Wilson.

A player who will be expected to propel the team’s defensive line is Russell Ude, who will be a freshman in the 2015 season. The defensive tackle will bring the team a relentless motor and is long armed enough that he should be able to clog up the other teams’ passing lanes.

With Ude’s addition, along with other players’ improvement, the Bears seem to have enough talent to make big strides on the defensive line in 2015. Now it will come down to just how well they can execute to help propel the Cal defense to a point of respectability.

Hooman Yazdanian is the sports editor. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @hoomanyazdanian.