On a national level, Cal football is not held in the highest regard. But if there is any unit that has garnered the attention of college football analysts around the country, it is the secondary. After a 2018 season that saw Cal rank second in the nation in interceptions per game, many eyes were drawn toward the group that coined itself the “Takers.”
Two major reasons for the Bears’ success in the secondary for the past few seasons have been their continuity and chemistry. Without departed starters Ashtyn Davis, Jaylinn Hawkins and Traveon Beck, though, there seems to be a massive void that must be filled.
Additionally, with Gerald Alexander, the coach who developed the Takers into who they are, now in the NFL, new secondary coach Marcel Yates will be tasked with keeping the unit among the country’s elite.
To start, this secondary was supposed to be much more of a question mark than it is at the moment. Back when a fall football season seemed unlikely to happen, star cornerback Camryn Bynum chose to declare for the 2021 NFL draft and begin preparing early, a trend that was common among top collegiate prospects because of COVID-19. However, fortunately for Cal fans, with the return of the Pac-12 came the return of Bynum.
With his opt-in, he reclaims his spot as the No. 1 cornerback not just on his own team, but possibly in the Pac-12. Expect the lockdown veteran to be a leader for Cal’s defense this season, and don’t be surprised to see him end up on several All-Pac-12 rosters at the end of the year.
Across from Bynum will be redshirt sophomore Chigozie Anusiem, who is on my list as a potential breakout candidate in the Pac-12. A lengthy and physical cornerback at 6’1” and 200 pounds, Anusiem will be a major factor in determining the ceiling this defense can reach. Although he did not tally his first start last season until the Redbox Bowl, Anusiem did appear in 12 games, so he should have sufficient experience up his sleeve.
Speaking of experienced players, Elijah Hicks, who started the past three seasons at cornerback, will be moving to safety for his final year as a Bear.
“He looks like he’s been a safety his whole life, hitting and communicating. He looks like a natural out there,” Anusiem said of his teammate.
Hicks projects as a physical safety who will come down into the box but will also be adept in pass coverage thanks to his previous seasons at cornerback.
To round out the cornerbacks, because Cal plays in a nickel formation more than it does a base formation, it’s only fair to consider Josh Drayden as a starter. The redshirt senior is only 5’ 10”, but his agility and technique allow him to match up against the many shifty slot receivers the Pac-12 boasts.
With Davis now playing for the New York Jets, the Bears will be seeking a new starter at free safety, and it’s looking like redshirt junior Daniel Scott will be the one for the job. He is currently battling in camp with redshirt freshman Craig Woodson, whom many coaches are quite high on. Penn State transfer Isaiah Humphries was also a contender for the position before opting out of the season. Woodson should garner a significant number of snaps, but he is young enough that the coaching staff likely won’t feel pressured to start him over Scott.
Moving further down the depth chart, expect versatile redshirt junior Branden Smith to be the fourth cornerback off the bench, while youngsters Collin Gamble and Jaylen Martin could be in line for some time in case of injury.
Between the secondary’s established returners and rising stars, Cal should again boast one of the best defensive back units in the Pac-12.
“We have to be the best in the country — this team goes how we go. That’s our goal,” Anusiem said.
Shailin Singh covers football. Contact him at [email protected].