2016 Cal football preview: linebackers

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Michael Barton, Jalen Jefferson and Hardy Nickerson Jr. all headed an upperclassmen-laden linebacking core that was largely considered the strength of the defense in the Cal football team’s 8-win 2015 campaign. While the departures of the three aforementioned players are surely going to sting, the Bears will attempt to fill the void with athleticism and hope that once promising young players can step in and contribute as upperclassmen.

As for this year, the players most likely to have an impact on defense as linebackers are juniors Devante Downs and Ray Davison, and sophomore Aisea Tongilava, all of whom are listed as starters on the preseason depth chart.

Downs was a four-star recruit who overcame injury in high school and even earned playing time as a freshman after enrolling early at UC Berkeley. He is a dynamic athlete who has had bright moments in his first two years. At the middle “Mike” linebacker spot, Downs’ versatility and ability to make plays all over the field will help the Bears’ defense significantly. After all, having a sure tackler at the Mike is a must. Most importantly, Downs will have the responsibility of being the defensive leader. With his on-field experience, he should be well-equipped to succeed in that position.

Davison is another Cal linebacker who is no stranger to playing time. Davison projects to be Cal’s starting weakside “Will” linebacker, which means his duties will include backside blitzes and coverages. Davison has been a solid coverage linebacker in recent years and should continue to improve as a junior. At 6-foot-2 and 225 pounds, he also has the size to guard tight-ends, running backs and bigger slot receivers.

The biggest question mark in the linebacking corps is at the strongside “Sam” position. Tongilava, the projected starter at Sam, doesn’t have much experience playing in the Pac-12, and right now it’s hard to gauge what impact he will have on defense. But, as a Sam ‘backer, his main responsibilities will be to stop the run and drop into coverage on occasion. Sam linebackers are typically stronger (to be able to go head to head with lineman), and at 6 feet and 225 pounds, Tongilava seemingly has the strength and size to fill this role. There is no denying his athleticism, however, as he was a world-class rugby player in high school when he participated on the U17 national team for the U.S. Rugby-to-football transitions aren’t always seamless though, as we saw with the 49ers’ Jarryd Hayne experiment.

There are also a number of capable players on the Cal bench who will find their way on the field this year considering the rapid pace of play in the Pac-12. Junior Hamilton Anoa’i will back up Downs at Mike, sophomore Jordan Kunaszyk will back up Tongilava at Sam and junior Derron Brown will back up Davison at Will.

Anoa’i was a Northwestern commit up until the night before National Signing Day, when he pulled an 11th-hour switcharoo to join the Bears. Anoa’i is fast, and his speed will be important when he is on the field.

Kunasczyk is a junior college transfer who committed to the Bears in March, over a month after National Signing Day. He must have been impressive in the short time he has been on campus because he is already a second-string player. Even as a mere sophomore, he figures to be an integral part of the Bears’ defense moving forward.

Brown is a different case entirely: He was a junior college safety who has made the transition to linebacker and should get his first crack at playing time this fall. Although he has put on weight, he is on the smaller side at 6-foot-1 and 205 pounds. This shouldn’t be too much of a problem though, given the more coverage-based responsibilities of the Will linebacker position.

With so much turnover plaguing the entire Bears program heading into 2016, the new age of linebackers have the ability to provide much-needed stability to a defense that still needs to improve on its up-and-down 2015.

Contact Adam Kreitzman at [email protected].