Cal Football: How a Once-Gruesome Defense was Transformed in Two Seasons
The rest of us can marvel at the staggering leap the Cal defense has made in just two years. But inside Memorial Stadium, where the Bears do the work that has made this possible, no one is content.
“As a defense, as a team, we’re satisfied with being unsatisfied,” senior linebacker Jordan Kunaszyk said after practice Wednesday. “Consistently, we want more. We want to be the best. We want to be great.
“Just because we had a couple good games, it doesn’t really mean anything.”
With bowl eligibility on the line, the Bears now face what defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter calls, “our biggest challenge to date, obviously.”
Cal (5-3, 2-3 Pac-12) treks to the Palouse this week to take on Washington State (7-1, 4-1), which resides at No. 8 in this week’s debut College Football Playoff rankings, is No 10 in the AP Top-25 and No. 12 in the nation in scoring at 40.8 points per game.
Coach Justin Wilcox concedes that neither the Bears’ 12-10 upset last week of then-No. 15 Washington nor their 37-3 shellacking last season of what was then an unbeaten WSU team will provide any currency on Saturday night in Pullman.
The Bears dismantled the Cougars at Berkeley last year in the night-time haze of the North Bay fires because they sacked quarterback Luke Falk nine times and forced seven turnovers.
“Anytime you have success that builds confidence, but nothing we did last year or last week guarantees us anything moving forward,” Wilcox said. “We have to step our game up because this is a totally different challenge this week.”
This WSU team has turned the ball over just nine times times and allowed defenses to sack mustachioed graduate transfer quarterback Gardner Minshew II — the nation’s leading passer — just six times on more than 450 designed pass plays.
But the challenge is also different for the Cougars. Cal no longer is the team that from 2014 though ’16 actually managed to lose five games in which the offense scored at least 40 points.
Another big jump in 2018
The Bears took a big step forward a year ago, but the defense is at a different level still this fall. “I’ve done this a few times,” said DeRuyter, in his 30th season as a college coach, “and the second year is usually where you make your biggest jump.”
Consider these numbers:
In 2016, the year before Wilcox and has staff arrived, Cal allowed 42.6 points and 518.2 total yards per game, 245.4 of those through the air.
The Bears improved to 28.4 points and 429.9 total yards a year ago, but still were surrendering 265.8 passing yards each week.
Through two-thirds of the 2018 schedule, the numbers are dramatically better still: 22.3 points and 312.0 yards allowed, just 165.5 via the pass, which is eighth-best in the country. The Bears also are in the top-10 nationally with 12 interceptions and three defensive touchdowns.
“For it to change the way it has, two years ago to now, is really cool,” said Kunaszyk, who arrived from junior college in 2016. “Being a leader on a great defense is something I’ve always wanted to do.”
Offensive tackle Patrick Mekari was a freshman in 2015, when Jared Goff and the offense shouldered the weight.
“I feel like the roles have slowly switched since I first got here. The defense has been unreal," he said. "I knew it was going to turn around eventually. It's awesome to see."
Wilcox won’t engage in any dialogue about the challenge he faced taking over for offense-minded Sonny Dykes before last season. “Coaching’s a difficult profession,” he said. “I’m not judging anybody.”
But junior linebacker Evan Weaver said the change started with the new coaching staff.
“The defense used to be an afterthought here, but now it’s really in the forefront of where our program is and where our toughness is,” he said. “We knew we always had the talent. It was just getting the right scheme, the right coaches around us.”
Wilcox points out that Dykes did not leave the cupboard bare. Seventeen of the 22 players on Cal’s defensive two-deep chart — and nine starters — were on campus when Wilcox arrived.
The buy-in to a new staff was `awesome'
“We were fortunate that when we came here the guys really kind of dove all in to what we were asking them to do, and they’ve gotten a lot better,” Wilcox said.
“It speaks to their character. And (the buy-in) wasn’t 100 percent — I don’t think it ever is. But the critical mass of the team . . . awesome . They worked at it and tried to do everything we asked them to do.”
The new staff addressed specific changes, including a dedication to tackling better and playing hard on every play, while also engineering a big-picture shift.
Senior safety Ashtyn Davis, citing life changes that have translated to the field, said, “This coaching staff brought a lot to the table. We kind of changed the whole culture around here.”
Defensive backs coach Gerald Alexander was made “tackling coordinator,” and DeRuyter said others see the difference. “When my coaching friends call me, they always remark how hard our guys play and how well we tackle in space,” DeRuyter said.
The secondary was expected to be the team’s strength, and has lived up to that billing. Davis and fellow safety Jaylinn Hawkins along with sophomore cornerbacks Cam Bynum and Elijah Hicks have combined for seven of Cal’s 12 interceptions along with 13 pass breakups.
“We’ve got some good players back there, for sure. They’re playing confident and they are understanding the nuances of the game,” Wilcox said. “They put in a lot of time off the field. In order to be good, that’s what it takes. Relying on just your ability it’s tough to sustain success.”
Then there is the prolific inside linebacker duo of Kunaszyk and Weaver, who have combined for 180 tackles - 34 percent of the team’s total. Weaver’s 37-yard pick-six provided the winning margin against Washington.
The two have a formed comfortable partnership, despite the fact that their personalities both on and off the field are somewhat different.
“Evan is a little bit of a hard head. Jordan is a bit more cerebral,” DeRuyter said. “Evan will run through a brick wall to try and find a guy. JK is usually a little smarter and will run around it and get the guy.”
Weaver, the reigning Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week, said some of that just comes naturally. “Hitting people’s fun . . . it really is,” he said with a smile.
The Bears will try to keep defense fun on Saturday night against the free-wheeling Cougars, but Wilcox knows they are still a work in progress.
“We’re a long way from where we want to be.”