Best secondary in the nation? Cal defensive backs establish high bar in 2019

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Midway through Cal football’s week two win over BYU last September, defensive backs coach Gerald Alexander pulled his players aside after a critical defensive stop. 

“THIS TEAM GOES HOW WE GO!” 

A five-year safety at the NFL level, Alexander joined the program as a member of Justin Wilcox’s welcoming party in 2017. Across two seasons, Cal’s secondary has evolved into one of the top position groups in the nation — something few envisioned even with Wilcox’s defensive background.

How these players came together and became the backbone of an extraordinary comeback story all dates back to playing with a chip on their shoulders.

Redshirt junior Elijah Hicks is the lone four-star recruit out of high school. Strong safety Jaylinn Hawkins and cornerbacks Camryn Bynum, Traveon Beck and Josh Drayden were modest three-stars with decent but unspectacular scouting reports. Free safety Ashtyn Davis emailed his way into a spring tryout with the team more than four years ago.

That corps — in addition to several promising players on the scout team currently pushing for reps — is putting up numbers in line with schools dripping with five-star talent. In dozens of articles previewing the 2019 season, Cal’s defense is featured alongside the likes of Clemson, Alabama, Georgia and LSU.

But even with the newfound fame, the players are staying grounded to their roots: overlooked, mediocre and, for some, unwanted. Hawkins calls all the positive talk around the secondary “poison.” Davis, the former zero-star recruit turned starting free safety, credits the group’s collective mindset heading into what will be the final collegiate year for most of the corps.

“(Alexander) says whatever we did last year doesn’t mean anything this year, doesn’t guarantee us any success at all this year,” Davis said. “The reason we were successful last year was because we worked hard, and (we) have a lot of respect and accolades going in (to this year), so we just have to have that same mindset going forward.”

Even after a season in which the Bears surrendered the lowest number of passing yards per contest (175.1) and picked off the most passes (21) in the Pac-12, no Cal defensive back was named to the Paycom Jim Thorpe Award watchlist this summer.

The Thorpe Award, which annually honors college football’s top defensive back, did name four Pac-12 stars to the preseason watchlist, including Stanford’s Paulson Adebo, but not a single member from the blue and gold.

Talk about feeding more motivation to a group that’s hungrier than ever to run things back.

Davis dismissed any dialogue surrounding watchlists, saying he tries to keep his focus where it needs to be. Hawkins, who ended the year with a three-interception game against TCU in the Cheez-It Bowl, has erased all memory of that game and his overall season.

“It’s a new season, and we’re starting with a clean slate,” Hawkins said. “I don’t like to have confidence just because I had one good game.”

Throughout the first week of fall camp, the secondary has stood out for several reasons, none greater than its extra efforts to make the most out of every minute of every day. The players have decided to wear sweaters and sweatpants underneath all of their gear, creating a significant spike in discomfort while out on the field.

When it’s not their turn in the rotation, they each stand about 30 to 40 yards behind the drill, mimicking their positions as their teammates compete against the offense. As good as they were in 2018, it’s easy to see why 2019 can be even more special for the program’s most mature unit.

Bynum, recently named a team captain for the upcoming season in a vote by his teammates, voiced the benefits of having played together for two dozen games already.

“We’re able to add more disguises, and by adding more IQ to the defense, we’re able to play a lot more looser,” Bynum said. “Just being able to be on top of our assignments every single play and more versatile with everything we do.” 

“There’s a lot we left on the table, so this year we have to do a lot better and be able to be the best secondary in the country. That’s our goal,” Bynum said. 

Hicks, one of the catalysts behind upping discomfort on the practice field, put an exclamation point to Bynum’s assertion. 

“We need to win more games,” Hicks said. “We need to win a bowl game. We need to win a championship. There’s a lot of things that we left on the table last year, so I don’t even see why we would be satisfied.”

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