Cal Football: A Young Contingent Will Try to Replace `Best' Player Brett Johnson

Versatile defensive lineman out for entire 2021 season after car accident.
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How big was the loss Cal football sustained when junior defensive lineman Brett Johnson broke his hip in a car accident last month?

“It’s a significant loss,” Cal coach Justin Wilcox said this week in the video below. “Brett’s an outstanding player, a really bright future . . . will still have a bright future. He’s arguably one of the best players on the team, if not the best.”

If not the best.

That covers a lot of territory . . . Chase Garbers, Kuony Deng, Cameron Goode, Christopher Brown Jr., Elijah Hicks.

In fact, Johnson may be the best player on the Bears’ roster. Aside from perhaps Garbers, the team’s only quarterback with game experience, Johnson is also probably the most indispensable a talented player able to slide in at defensive end or nose guard.

But he will be sidelined for the season after undergoing surgery that will require a long rehab.

“He’s recuperating. It was a scary ordeal and we’re glad he’s not injured worse than he was,” Wilcox said. “He sustained a significant injury. He’s on the mend. It’ll be a bit of a road ahead of him. He’s prepared for that. He’s spending time at home with his family right now as he just rests up while he gets ready for rehabilitation.”

There is no timetable at this point on when that rehab will begin.

“It’s a pretty lengthy process, but Brett’s a big, strong guy and he’s got a lot of determination so as they work through the rehab he’ll be at, I’m sure, the front of it, so to speak. He’ll be pushing it as much as he possibly can,” Wilcox said.

“He’s got a great outlook on life. He’s upbeat. I’m sure it’s not a lot of fun some days, but he’s got a great attitude and demeanor to attack it.”

From now until the Bears open their season Sept. 4 against Nevada, young players with limited or no experience will work to show they deserve the chance to fill Johnson’s game-day snaps.

Redshirt junior JH Tevis, who started three of the team’s four games in the shortened 2020 season, is penciled in at one end. He had a career-high 10 tackles against UCLA last fall.

“I thought he took a big step last year,” Wilcox said. “Each year since he’s been here has gotten better and better. He’s gotten a lot bigger. He is a very hard-working, tough guy. He’s crafty when it comes to playing the game. He’s understanding the game more and more. We expect JH to have a large role for us.”

Johnson would have started at the opposite end spot. A committee of players will get opportunities there.

Here’s what Wilcox said about several of those will vie for playing time at defensive end:

ETHAN SAUDERS (6-3, 285, sophomore): “Ethan’s role was growing this past fall. He really came on, then unfortunately suffered an injury. Another explosive guy. Plays really hard. Naturally very strong. Where he was going in the fall you could kind of start to see glimpses of the athleticism and explosiveness that dew us to him watching him play in high school.”

STANLEY McKENZIE (6-2, 325, sophomore): “Stanley is another guy with a bright future. He would have played a significant amount for us in the fall . . . had some (injury) setbacks there. Stanley loves football. He’s a powerful guy. Got a lot of size. He’s hard to move. He’s a guy we’ll be counting on to give us some quality reps in the fall.”

JAEDON ROBERTS (6-3, 300, sophomore): “He does have some range. Ideally, we’d like those guys to be able to play more than one position. Jaedon could potentially do that. He has come a long way as well. Pretty raw when he came in here . . . and that’s a good thing because he’s got physical ability. I think he’s worked hard at improving his technique with Andrew Browning. He could see time potentially at either of those spot, nose or end.”

AKILI CALHOUN (6-4, 270, freshman): “I’ll tell you what, since he’s been here he’s done nothing but working extremely hard. He loves football. Practice, workouts, everything that comes with it. He is all into it. You can see his body changing. Eating and working out, just the size that he’s putting on and the definition of his body. He’s getting big and strong.”

RICKY CORREIA (6-4, 350, sophomore): “Rick had a really good spring and did some impressive things and can help us at nose or potentially end or three-technique in nickel.”

Scheme will to some degree dictate personnel on the field next fall. As Wilcox pointed out, the Bears play a lot of nickel, where there are only two big bodies on the defensive front.

Correia and perhaps Roberts may be more likely to play nose guard when the Bears are in their 3-4 alignment. Aaron Maldonado, under-sized for a nose guard at 6-3, 275, may shift to end. There is no shortage of options the coaching staff will consider.

Given that the five names detained above combined for just a single tackle last season, it's an easy call for Wilcox to concede that defensive line is the team’s  least-experienced position group.

But he is upbeat about the possibilities.

“There’s some young guys we feel really good about. They’re talented and they’re going to have to a have great summer and fall camp to put themselves in position to earn some repetitions,” Wilcox said.

“Is is going to be three guys only playing? Probably not. I would imagine there’s going to be kind of a rotation in there, which is what you want anyhow.”

Cover photo of Brett Johnson by Kyle Terada, USA Today

Follow Jeff Faraudo of Cal Sports Report on Twitter: @jefffaraudo