As we try to figure out what to expect on the Cal defensive line this season this may be the correct answer: The unexpected.
When the Bears ended spring workouts, abbreviated by COVID-19, their three-man defensive front seemed set. Seniors Luc Bequette and Zeandae Johnson at the ends with sophomore Brett Johnson at nose guard.
Bequette transferred to Boston College when it appeared the Pac-12 would not be playing a fall season, and from there everything has changed.
Brett Johnson now will be sliding outside to end at times. The coaching staff plans to use Zeandae Johnson, a sixth-year senior, all over the D-line, depending on what formation the Bears are using.
Junior Aaron Maldonado, who missed the first half of last season, is likely the starting nose guard in the three-man set.
Sophomore JH Tevis is making depth-chart inroads at end, and at least three freshmen — nose guard Stanley McKenzie (6-2, 320) and ends Jaedon Roberts (6-3, 305) and Ethan Saunders (6-3, 285) — are doing their best to force their way into the rotation.
*** Senior Zeandae Johnson explains in this video how the Bears will overcome a lack of depth on the D-line:
“We have a little bit less depth than we have in the past,” Zeandae Johnson conceded. “But I feel confident with what we have, and especially the young guys coming along.”
Coach Justin Wilcox said some of the freshmen could play as early as the Nov. 7 opener vs. Washington while others may be worked into the flow in subsequent weeks.
“I would expect Stanley McKenzie would do some things for us. Stanley’s done a nice job,” Wilcox said. “Jaedon Roberts we kind of recruited as a two-way guy — offense and defense. He’s very talented. He’s learning a lot, technically, about the (end) position. Ethan Saunders has got some really good quick-twitch traits and he’s a powerful guy.”
Defensive coordinator Peter Sirmon anticipates Cal won’t be alone in fitting freshmen into the rotation.
“This season is going to be unique,” he said. “I think every program is going to have to develop and rely on some of the younger players.”
*** Sirmon talks in detail in this video about the Bears' defensive line personnel:
To a large degree, the Bears will continue to lean on their experienced players.
Along the defensive front, that starts with the Johnson Brothers.
“Zeandae is playing really well,” Wilcox said. “Physically and mentally, he is really tuned in. He’s playing hard. Zeandae looks really good right now.”
Sirmon is in full agreement. “Zeandae is a very, very important part of what we’re doing defensively, from the leadership, talent, experience. He is playing as well as I have personally seen him in the last few years,” Sirmon said.
“He has a good mastery of what we’re asking him to do. You see the continued development of him leading some of the other, younger players.”
Sirmon said Brett Johnson has made big strides in his technique from a year ago, when he was thrust into the starting nose guard role early in the season.
"He has the physical tools. He’s extremely strong at the point of attack,” Sirmon said. “He does some things naturally with leverage and with his hands that get you really excited.”
Zeandae Johnson is constantly impressed with Brett Johnson’s ability to hone in on the job and avoid being distracted.
“As far as zeroing in goes, he’s the opposite of mind wandering,” Zeandae said. “He is laser focused to the point where it seems like he’s dang near a robot. He’s just wired to go.”
*** Here's more from Zeandae Johnson on Brett Johnson:
Follow Jeff Faraudo of Cal Sports Report on Twitter: @jefffaraudo
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