Chapter 3: Cal football’s defensive turnaround hits new year in stride

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Everybody — regardless of the name on their back or the colors they support — loves a good comeback story.

Starting free safety Ashtyn Davis, a former walk-on with zero offers to play football out of high school, is a prime example on Cal’s depth chart. So is Kuony Deng, the program’s most prized defensive recruit in recent memory, just three years removed from competing at the Virginia Military Institute as a two-sport star.

Despite atypical upbringings, both Davis and Deng defied the odds and are key characters in one of college football’s best comeback stories — that of the entire Cal defense.

Six years ago, the Bears finished 1-11 under then-first-year head coach Sonny Dykes — an offensive guru who developed the likes of Jared Goff and Davis Webb during his time at Cal.

But on the flip side of Dykes’ four-year tenure, the Bears often looked like youth peewee players competing against NFL All-Pros, as opposing playmakers flattened the Cal defense like a rolling pin on fresh dough, week in and week out.

It took only two years into Justin Wilcox’s reign to transform the narrative surrounding the blue and gold. With a defensive background, a savvy approach and a little pixie dust, Wilcox has transformed the Pac-12’s worst defensive squadron into a nationally recognized 11-headed monster.

Needless to say, it’s been quite the turnaround in Berkeley. One year removed from its most complete season in more than a decade — which earned it a No. 13 ranking in the defensive S&P+ statistic — the Bear defense is poised to run it back.

With the exceptions of inside linebacker Jordan Kunaszyk, outside linebacker Alex Funches and defensive tackle Chris Palmer, defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter will retain almost all of his starters and key role players.

That’s music to the ears of fans hoping for another wire-to-wire ascendancy, especially in a year that features competition in the form of Oregon’s Justin Herbert, Washington’s Jacob Eason and numerous All-American candidates hailing from Pac-12 schools.

What’s more impressive is that the takeoff chapter in this story came while the defense’s most dynamic talent — outside linebacker Cameron Goode — was sidelined with a foot injury. With Goode healthy and eager to join the party in 2019, some analysts have pegged the Bears’ defense to be a top-10 unit this fall, even without the services of Kunaszyk and Funches.

One of those analysts is Pac-12 Networks specialist Yogi Roth, who labeled Deng as a potential candidate for the conference’s Defensive Player of the Year despite his late arrival to Division I ball. It’s easy to see why.

At 6’6” with athleticism that spans beyond the gridiron, Deng stood out (literally) as the No. 1 junior college linebacker in this year’s class. Throughout the spring, he flashed the uncommon ability to play both linebacker positions and excelled in both coverage and blitz packages. In a nutshell, he’s a defensive coordinator’s dream and is about as good a replacement for Kunaszyk as one can find.

If Deng and old-school wrecking ball Evan Weaver are the heartbeat of DeRuyter’s defensive machine, then Gerald Alexander’s secondary constitutes the legs that make it churn. The starters — Davis, strong safety Jaylinn Hawkins, and corners Elijah Hicks and Camryn Bynum — were the best-kept secret in the nation last season, maintaining numbers to their names that mirrored those of Ohio State, Clemson and other powerhouse programs.

But beyond just having the four starters back to obstruct aerial attacks, the Bears’ defensive backs run deeper than the initial 11.

In nickel packages, Traveon Beck enters as a borderline All-Pac-12 candidate, while Josh Drayden would likely be starting for most other schools on the West Coast. Safeties Daniel Scott and Trey Turner III can also hold their own in zone coverage, providing Cal with insurance behind Hawkins and Davis.

If there is a unit — or perhaps just a couple of roles — that could impede the program’s defensive climb, it’s up front. Palmer’s departure at nose guard is a call for both Siu Fuimaono and Aaron Maldonado to take on increased roles eliminating time in the pocket next season.

Luc Bequette and Tevin Paul figure to receive double teams against the likes of Stanford, Washington and Washington State — programs that have historically protected the quarterback like Rudy Gobert mans the paint. Fuimaono will likely get the first crack at filling in Palmer’s role, while Zeandae Johnson and Lone Toailoa face added pressure to set the edge against opposing tailbacks.

2017 was chapter one, Wilcox’s first act. Chapter two featured 175.1 passing yards surrendered per contest, five defensive scores and 21 interceptions — all top marks in the Pac-12. The third time’s the charm for a reason, and all things point toward good(e) times in chapter three.

Josh Yuen covers football. Contact him at jyuen[email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @joshcal2020.