Cal Football: Expectations for Bears’ Defense Are Sky High. Are They Too High?

Justin Wilcox had been defensive coordinator at Boise State, USC, Tennessee, Washington and Wisconsin before become Cal's head coach.Photo by Jeffrey Swinger - USA TODAY Sports

Virtually every preseason publication places Cal’s linebackers and defensive backs among nation’s best.

If you read all the projections on how good Cal’s defense will be in 2019, you might get the impression these Bears will resemble another Bears defense that resided in Chicago in 1985. The ’85 NFL Bears were ranked the greatest defense in the pro football history by Athlon.

The Cal Bears have some impressive defensive personnel, especially in the secondary, but most of the lofty predictions are based on three things: last year’s defensive success, the number of key returning players, and the presence of defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter and defensive-minded head coach Justin Wilcox. The addition of linebacker Kuony Deng didn’t hurt either.

However, high expectations produce a burden some cannot handle. Time will tell whether the Bears' defense will be as good as aniticipated.

The Bears’ defense looked particularly good last year in comparison to their weak offense, with projections indicating Cal may have similar scoring shortcomings this season.

This chart shows that only one other major football program had a greater disparity between its defensive and offensive efficiency than Cal in 2018:

Is it mere coincidence that Cal and Michigan State both wound up with 7-6 records, both were ranked early in the season before dropping off, both pulled off significant upsets (Michigan State knocking off No. 8 Penn State and Cal beating No. 15 Washington), and both held bowl opponent to fewer than 14 points yet both lost?

We forge ahead, knowing that the defensive line is the only concern on a Cal defense that could be one of the nation’s best.

Let’s take a look at the superlatives bestowed on the 2019 Cal Golden Bears’ defense by the so-called experts:

---Phil Steele’s preseason magazine ranked Cal No. 1 in pass efficiency defense last year based on his metrics. Cal had a grade of 13.7, significantly ahead of the next three finishers – Michigan (13.0), LSU (12.9) and Mississippi State (12.7).

We don’t know the specific elements used in Steele’s rankings, but the Bears come out smelling like a rose.

Considering the Bears return virtually all of the defensive backs who saw significant playing time last year, it is not surprising that Steele projects Bears’ defensive backs to be the second-best secondary in the country in 2019, behind only LSU.

The Cal secondary that included cornerbacks Cam Bynum and Elijah Hicks, safeties Jaylin Hawkins and Ashtyn Davis and nickelback Traveon Beck should be even better this season. Of course, a lot has to do with the kind of pass rush Cal can muster, but the Bears ranked only sixth in the Pac-12 in sacks per game a year ago and still excelled in pass defense.

Photo by Mark J. Rebilas - USA TODAY Sports

---Steele ranks Cal’s linebackers as the No. 8 linebacker unit in the country, and his comment about the Bears’ linebackers ends by saying, “. . . with an outstanding secondary behind them (#2 overall), this unit could improve once again.”

Inside linebacker Evan Weaver is the proven star of the Bears’ linebacker unit, but outside linebacker Tevin Paul showed his value over the second half of the season, and Cameron Goode returns after missing all but the Cal opener because of injury. The key will be Kuony Deng, a junior college transfer who could be an instant star at inside or outside linebacker.

---In his rankings of draft-eligible players following the 2019 season, Steele ranks four Cal players among the top 30 NFL prospects at their respective positions, and they are all defensive players: Ashtyn Davis (No. 10 strong safety), Jaylinn Hawkins (No. 12 free safety), Evan Weaver (No. 12 inside linebacker), Cam Bynum (No. 30 cornerback).

---Athlon’s preseason college football magazine ranks Cal’s linebackers as the seventh-best linebacker unit in the country. Here are its rankings for linebacker units.

  1. Alabama

  2. Georgia

  3. Penn State

  4. Miami

  5. LSU

  6. Michigan State

  7. Cal

  8. Clemson

  9. Northwestern

  10. Michigan

---Athlon ranks Cal’s defensive backs as the fourth-best such unit in that category.

Here are the top 10 defensive backs units:

  1. LSU

  2. Florida

  3. Alabama

  4. Cal

  5. Ohio State

  6. Virginia

  7. Clemson

  8. Georgia

  9. Washington

  10. Penn State

Alabama, LSU and Cal are the only teams ranked in the top seven of both categories.

---Athlon has even more respect for the Bears’ defense within the Pac-12, ranking both the Cal defensive backs and the Bears’ linebackers as the best such units in the conference, and the Cal defensive line ranking sixth in the Pac-12. That’s impressive staff (and we’ll ignore for the moment that Athlon ranks Cal’s quarterbacks, running backs and offensive line 11th in the Pac-12 and slots the Cal’s receivers 12th – or last – in the conference.)

---Athlon has five Cal players on its preseason first- or second-team all-Pac-12 squads, and all five are defenders.

---Lindy’s preseason magazine doesn’t rank Cal’s linebackers among the top 10, but it does rank the Bears’ defensive backs, who come in at No. 8 nationally:

  1. LSU

  2. Alabama

  3. Florida

  4. Utah

  5. Ohio State

  6. Notre Dame

  7. Auburn

  8. Cal

  9. Michigan

  10. West Virginia

Here is what Lindy’s said about Cal’s defensive backs:

“Defensive backs coach Gerald Alexander has done wonders for a unit that allowed 30 passing touchdowns in 2016. Last season the Golden Bears led the Pac-12 in passing defense (175.1 yards per game) while Jaylinn Hawkins led the conference in interceptions with six. Fellow defensive backs Ashtyn Davis and Traveon Beck are standouts.”

Seven Cal players are on Lindy’s preseason first-, second- or third-team all-conference teams, and all seven are defensive players. That includes punter Steven Coutts.

---Finally, an outfit called SaturdayDownSouth ranks Justin Wilcox as the 15th-best defensive signal-caller in the nation.

Given the site’s title, that’s high praise for a Pac-12 coach who finished in the middle of the pack last season.

Now for some individual touting. We have already heard the mountains of preseason recognition Evan Weaver is getting and reacting to, but other Bears defenders are being touted as well.

Ashtyn Davis grades out the best among returning Pac-12 safeties according to Pro Football Focus

And Davis can stop the run besides collecting four interceptions

However, the most impressive example of Davis’ athleticism and coordination may be this video

Traveon Beck is not even a regular starter, but his statistics stand out here:

Cornerback Elijah Hicks did not allow much last season, and we think he is the weaker of Cal’s two corners, behind Cam Bynum.

Safety Jaylinn Hawkins received high grades from PFF

Tevin Paul already ranks among the top edge rushers in the conference

Will Cal be able to live up to these expectations? Will all the praise diminish the Bears' motivation to improve? Was last year a fluke? Can the Cal defense handle the burden of knowing it has to win games if its offense struggles again?

Questions remain, but the potential for defensive greatness is there.