The Cal Essentials

Cal BearsWith help from my Cal lurking friend and our own Ian Boyd, here’s the basics of the Cal Bears as they prepare for the Longhorns on Saturday.

1) How has their OL been in picking up blitzes?

So-so. Both Grambling and San Diego State run 3-3-5 schemes, and both opted to bring a lot of pressure in Cal’s first two games. The offensive line has looked confused at times, but in 74 drop-backs, Cal QB’s have only been sacked three times. Part of that is because Goff gets the ball out so damn fast…helps an OL look a lot better. But the OL is really a work in progress, specifically at the left tackle and center positions, where Cal has new starters in Brian Farley (#59) and Dominic Granado (#55). Farley has looked up and down in particular.

2) Is the Cal run game getting better or is it more of an afterthought for if teams sell out to stop the pass?

It’s definitely not an afterthought. Offensive coordinator Tony Franklin wants to run the ball. A balanced attack, or one that even leans heavier on the run game is the goal. The fact of the matter is Cal’s offensive line wasn’t good enough to effectively and consistently run the ball in 2013…the first season of Franklin’s offense. Last year, senior RB Daniel Lasco (shoutout to The Woodlands!) became Cal’s first thousand yard rusher since 2011. He dinged up his hip last week, but should play on Saturday. Grambling State sold out to stop the run, so Cal was content to find open men through the air and dissect them. The Aztecs wore down and Cal averaged 7 yards per carry in the second half of last Saturday’s win.

I think everyone expected Cal to look better running the ball than they have through two games, but Lasco is a talented back with good vision and burst. He’s backed up by another Texas product, sophomore Vic Enwere. Enwere is a bigger back at 6’1/225, and while he can definitely move a pile he doesn’t have the same burst as Lasco. He’s more of a glider in the open field but a handful to bring down.

3) Who are the most dangerous receivers for the Bears?

Trevor Davis is the guy who can really stretch the field…probably Cal’s best deep threat. Kenny Lawler may be the most talented of the bunch; he’s a major red zone target with big mitts and a penchant for circus catches. Stephen Anderson, Cal’s de-facto tight end (Y receiver) is a security blanket-type that makes his bones in the middle of the field. He’s a bigger body at 6-foot-3, 230, who just manages to get open. On the other side in the slot, Bryce Treggs is a very solid route runner and leader. There’s 15 different guys who have caught a pass through Cal’s first two games though. The ability for Goff to pick his poison is one thing that keeps defenses honest. Those four are likely the most dangerous though, all in slightly different ways.

4) How has Cal done against dual-threat QBs under the new DC?

Mixed results I’d say. There’s not a huge sample size since Art Kaufman is only in his second season as Cal’s DC. I guess Grambling’s Johnathan Williams could be considered a dual-threat, but citing FCS opponents feels like cheating to some extent. So looking back to last season, Anu Solomon (Arizona), Brett Hundley (UCLA) and Marcus Mariota (Oregon) all had big days against the Bear defense. Of course, everyone did…they were historically terrible.

I will say the 2015 incarnation of the Cal defense certainly appears bigger, faster and more physical than the hideous mutations of a defense they trotted out in 2013 and 2014. They’re also much healthier at the moment, which has allowed them to develop some depth. But they won’t have seen a QB with Heard’s speed. His running ability is definitely cause for concern.

5) Is Cal playing better zone pass defense this year?

Yes. The cornerback play has been night and day better thus far, with both Darius White and Darius Allensworth (The Darii) having impressed. Safety play is still a bit of a concern, but they do return a nickel corner in Caleb Coleman that really came into his own last season. Of course, the bar was awfully low based on last season.

Granted, neither Grambling nor San Diego State presented the most trustworthy sample size thus far in the season.

6) Does Cal typically use safeties to stuff the run or is the front 7 able to handle that task just fine on their own?

It depends on the offense a bit. Run defense was one thing Cal was mediocre at last year, versus being terrible everywhere else on that side of the ball. If there is a strength along the defensive line, it’s defensive tackle. Mustafa Jalil and James Looney are a good tandem, and depth behind them has proven a pleasant surprise thus far. Consistent play from the DE spots has not been very good as of yet. The linebacking corps is probably Cal’s deepest group on the defensive side of the ball. They struggled some with finishing their tackles early in the San Diego State game but improved as the game went on. Beside MLB Hardy Nickerson Jr, the other linebackers can run as well. Cal will play a fair amount of 4-2-5 against spread offenses, and typically will have senior Jalen Jefferson and junior Michael Barton on the field then. But watch for sophomore Devante Downs. He’s 6-foot-3, 240, and tends to make plays when he’s on the field.

7) How is the Cal pass rush this year? Can they get consistent pressure with a base rush or do they need to blitz?

Five sacks through the first two games takes them almost a 1/3 of the way to their 2014 season total of 16 sacks. For as poor as the secondary was last year, they were made to look that much worse by Cal’s inability to pressure opposing quarterbacks. I think the pass rush is improved from 2014, but again…the bar was set very low. So far, Cal hasn’t been able to get consistent pressure with a four man rush. Their defensive ends are a bit undersized and haven’t been able to run free much. Kaufman has dialed up some corner and nickel blitzes with good results, but as Cal faces more spread-style options, they’ll need to find a way to generate pressure without blitzing.

Jerrod Heard. (Will Gallagher/IT)
Jerrod Heard. (Will Gallagher/IT)

8) Does Cal have DBs they trust to play on an island against a deep threat receiver?

I’d say they feel better about both starting CB’s at this point than they have in the past three years. They haven’t been consistently tested deep yet, though. And certainly not by a dude like John Burt. Neither of Cal’s corners are true speed guys, and speed is one of the things that the defense as a whole could struggle with. They haven’t really seen it yet this season.

9) Which Longhorn offensive player concerns Cal the most?

That’d be Heard. Not yet a known commodity, but the threat to run adds a wrinkle to the Horn offense that Cal will have to account for. It will also put additional pressure on the defensive ends to mind contain and not bite on a zone read…a consideration that will only diminish the pass rush that much more. I’d add here that Cal’s kick coverage has been poor through two games, so Daje Johnson is a concern for Cal as well. Special teams is an area where the Horns will likely hold an edge.

10) Which Longhorn defensive player concerns Cal the most?

I heard some kid named Malik Jefferson is pretty good. Given his role in the defense, he’s a guy Cal will have to neutralize, or even exploit, where possible.