With new starters at four of the five positions in the secondary as a well as a new defensive backs coach, you may wonder whether the success Cal's secondary has had over the past two seasons can continue.
Sports Illustrated suggested in advance of the 2019 season that Cal might have the best group of defensive backs in the country after returning all its starters from 2018, when the Bears were second in the nation in interceptions with 20.
Things will look different in the Cal secondary this season, although it may not be as dire as it seems. Safety Daniel Scott and cornerback Chigozie Anusiem were reserves most of the 2019 season, but they were starters in the Bears' Redbox Bowl victory over Illinois, and both figure to be starters in the Nov. 7 opener this season against Washington. In addition, a decision the coaching staff made before last season is likely to yield benefits this season. That decision centered on Josh Drayden, and we will talk more about him in a moment. First let's review what has changed from last year's secondary.
Gerald Alexander, the Bears' defensive backs coach the past three seasons and the man who received much of the credit for developing Cal's secondary, left to become the Miami Dolphins' defensive backs coach. He was replaced by Marcel Yates, Arizona's defensive coordinator the past four seasons. Only time will tell whether that change will have an effect.
The two starting safeties from last year's team--Jaylinn Hawkins and Ashtyn Davis--are now in the NFL, and nickel back Traveon Beck was a senior last year.
Elijah Hicks has been moved from his starting cornerback spot to replace one of the departing safeties, leaving new starters at both safety positions, the cornerback spot vacated by Hicks and the nickel back position. If Camryn Bynum had not returned to the roster after initally opting out, the Bears would have new starters at all five secondary positions.
The return of Bynum for his fourth season as a starter is key.
"It's a tremendous plus, not only to the secondary but the whole defense, somebody who's played so much football," cornerback Chigozie Anuseim said of Bynum. "Just the type of person he is, the work ethic, so it's just a tremendous plus. I love having him back."
**Chigozie Anusiem notes the importance of Bynum's return
Bynum's experience is critical with all the new starters, and Hicks was a three-year starter at cornerback before switching positions.
"With Camryn back and Elijah, there's a lot of experience between those two guys," Cal coach Justin Wilcox said. "Josh Drayden has played a lot of football for us in the past few years."
**Justin Wilcox assesses his secondary
Drayden was the subject of the 2019 decision that should help the Bears this season.
A senior last season, Drayden played in four games, including two starts. But Cal took advantage of a rule passed prior to the 2018 season that allows a player to redshirt if he plays no more than four games in a season.
"It was a lot of factors," Drayden said of the reasoning to redshirt. "One, it gave me an opportunity to go to school another year, get a great education, as well as we had a very talented secondary last year, so just giving more opportunities to help and contribute to the team."
**Josh Drayden discusses the decision to redshirt last season
Drayden has played in 39 games at Cal, including six career starts, but the defensive backfield was set for 2019. So instead of seeing limited duty last year in what would have been his final college season, he is likely to man the critical nickel back spot this year.
Defensive coordinator Peter Sirmon calls the nickel back the 12th starter in the Bears' defense. In fact, Cal started five defensive backs in five of its 13 games last season (starting just two defensive linemen in those games), and Sirmon said the nickel back was involved in more than half of the Bears' defensive plays in 2019.
**Peter Sirmon talks about Cal's nickel back
Incoming freshman Collin Gamble has been impressive enough in preseason camp to get some playing time at the nickel spot, too, and redshirt freshman Craig Woodson has shown enough big-play potential at a safety spot to see the field at times along with starters Hicks and Scott.
Bynum mans one cornerback spot and may see time at nickel back and safety as well, and Anusiem, who has the makings of another standout Cal cornerback, is the presumed starter opposite Bynum.
The talent Anusiem exhibited through the 2019 season allowed Wilcox the luxury of moving Hicks to safety for the Redbox Bowl and into the starting lineup at safety this season.
So the potential is there for Cal to continue its solid play in the secondary, but questions will remain until the Bears' start playing games. When a team loses two safeties who have started games in the NFL as rookies, something is lost on the back end.
Follow Jake Curtis of Cal Sports Report on Twitter: @jakecurtis53
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