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Cal Football: Balancing Potential with Growing Pains of a Young Inside Linebacker Corps

Coaching staff encouraged by the play of two sophs and two freshmen sharing the jobs.

If there was a dependable thread that tied together Cal’s first three teams under coach Justin Wilcox, from 2017 through ’19, it was the production the Bears got from the inside linebacker spots.

— In 2017, Jordan Kunaszyk averaged 8.2 tackles per game and Devante Downs produced 9.3 per game. They missed a combined eight games but still totaled 139 tackles, with 11.5 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks and 4 interceptions.

— In 2018, Kunaszyk had 148 tackles but junior Evan Weaver topped him with 159. They combined for 20 tackles for loss, including 8.5 sacks, 3 interceptions and 5 forced fumbles.

— In 2019, Weaver earned consensus All-America honors with 182 tackles while a new partner inside, Kuony Deng, had 119 tackles. They teammed up for 17.5 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks, 11 pass breakups and 10 quarterback hurries.

The Bears aren’t playing defensively to the standards established by those teams, and one reason is inexperience at the inside linebacker spot.

Deng, who was moved to outside linebacker last year, has been injured anyway this fall and will miss his fifth straight game Saturday against Colorado at Memorial Stadium.

Redshirt junior Evan Tattersall was productive early this season but has fallen out of favor with the coaching staff. Instead, the Bears have embarked on a youth movement at the two inside spots.

Sophomores Muelu Iosefa — second on the team with 33 tackles — and Trey Paster are starting, and freshmen Femi Oladejo— with 20 tackles in five games — and Nate Rutchena are getting ample second-team game reps.

The young foursome has played a combined total of 23 career games. Weaver, all by himself, played twice that many games for the Bears.

The coaches made lineup tweaks because they believe these guys deserve to play now. They also envision bigger and better things ahead from all four.

But the Bears’ inexperience there is undeniable. And in the case of Paster and Rutchena, they aren’t even playing the same positions they did in high school.

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Paster came to Cal from Buhach Colony High in Merced as a 3-start defensive back prospect. He was moved to linebacker in time for spring ball earlier this year. Paster has totaled 9 tackles in the three games he played, missing TCU and Sacramento State because of injury.

Defensive coordinator Peter Sirmon noted that Paster began his position change transition a year ago playing the star position, a hybrid outside linebacker/nickel. The Bears moved away from that alignment this year so Paster was moved inside.

“Trey has busted his butt. The opportunities he has earned were not given to him. He’s worked very hard in the meeting room and the practice field,” said Sirmon, noting that Paster has built himself up to 6-foot-2, 225 pounds.

“He’s continued to get better,” Sirmon said. “Inside ‘backer is not a position he played in high school, so every time he’s out there he’s learning a great deal and I’m excited for his development.”

Rutchena was a wide receiver and safety at Monte Vista High in Danville, but Cal eyed the consensus 3-star recruit as a linebacker from the start. He has moved into the rotation the past two games, introducing himself to Cal fans with an interception against Washington State.

“Nate, for being a younger, inexperienced player, is doing a fantastic job of picking up the defense,” Sirmon said. “The play that you saw against Washington State, an RPO . . . he saw the quarterback pull the ball out of the mesh and he had the ability of snatching that ball (on) that quick slant, which is not an easy (play).”

Sirmon said Paster and Rutchena are basically alternating series right now, each getting the chance to play then watch from the sideline.

“It’s good for their development,” Sirmon explained. “Gives them an opportunity to take a deep breath . . . and I think that helps manage the volume of the mental reps that you take and gives you the opportunity to observe and watch somebody else play the position.”

Cover photo Cal linebacker (27) Trey Paster by Al Sermeno, KLC fotos

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