We predict that Cal will have an outstanding defense every season. And this year is no different. But are we taking too much for granted this time around, given that so many 2021 standout defenders are gone?
You can see why this presumption is made. Cal hasn’t finished worse than fourth in the Pac-12 in total defense in any of the last four seasons, a stat that’s more impressive when you consider that the Bears’ mediocre offense puts extra pressure on the defense, forcing to be active the field is longer without room for errors.
The best year under Justin Wilcox was 2019 when the Bears went 8-5. The Cal offense’s mission this year was simple: don’t lose the game; let the defense win. Which mostly happened despite having an offense that finished last in the Pac-12 in both scoring and total offense
Peter Sirmon, named the Bears’ 2019 defensive coordinator, contributes the defensive philosophy and execution, but it’s Justin Wilcox’s defense.
In Wilcox’s five seasons as Cal’s head coach, the Golden Bears have had eight players named to the first or second all-conference teams on defense, but none on offense. One, Evan Weaver, was even named Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year. This year, two Cal defensive players were named to the preseason all-conference team, but there were no first-team offensive linemen.
The respect for California’s defense was illustrated when Tim DeRuyter, who was essentially demoted from the 2019 defensive coordinator role at California, was named Oregon’s defensive coordinator in January 2021.
The image of the Wilcox football program is simple: outstanding defense, mediocre offense. That’s the opposite of Cal’s program under predecessor Sonny Dykes, when the Bears had a productive offense but no defense to speak of. Neither is a recipe for winning a Pac-12 championship, but the defense remains the unit Cal hangs its hat on under Wilcox, who was a respected defensive coordinator at five major college football programs before landing the head job Cal coach.
“We feel good about [defensive] product that we’ve put on the field since Coach Wilcox has been here,” Sirmon said in the video at the beginning of the story. “I think we do a good job of being consistent with our system and in turn you see the players develop in it. And we have thousands and thousands of repetitions in it.
“We’re very careful not to be a junk scheme team, but I like to use the term, I think we have a lot of durable calls. Durable calls, durable, shifts, different groupings of personnel. So I think the way this coach has built it has been — that’s his background and we’ve done well with that.”
And reputation provides its own momentum.
“And, you know, if the reputation is that we play great defense, that’s great,” Sirmon said. “These things tend to go on. Legacies, everything a program is known for, that’s a positive thing and we’ve got to keep going and we’ve got to get better.”
That reputation made an impression on sophomore inside linebacker Femi Oladejo when he was in high school.
“Cal’s defense was different,” he said. “They had dogs everywhere. . . . They were very intelligent, very clever, they had great schemes.
The expectation in 2022 is that Cal will have a good season if its offense can put up enough points because we know the defense will be strong.
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But will it?
Only three of the projected starters on defense were starters last season, and the Bears’ top two 2021 defenders — outside linebacker Cameron Goode and defensive lineman Elijah Hicks — are gone trying to make it in the NFL.
Reputation doesn’t make picks or pass interceptions, and that’s a lot of talent to replace from a 2021 defense that set a high standard, finishing second in the Pac-12 in scoring defense despite the Bears’ 5-7 overall record.
Regardless, there’s every reason to believe Cal will once again be among the top defensive teams in the Pac-12.
First and foremost is the scheme. As Sirmon pointed out, Wilcox’s scheme seems effective no matter which players run it. And Cal’s defensive coaches — with Wilcox’s support — have done a good job of executing well within that scheme despite numerous changes to the coaching staff and player personnel.
Almost as important is the talent of the players who replace the starters. Cal’s defense will benefit from the transfers it brought in. Inside linebacker Jackson Surmon, a transfer from Washington, is a preseason first-team all-conference selection, and UCLA transfer Odua Isibor has been better than expected at outside linebacker. Also, Brett Johnson, who missed all of last season after undergoing hip surgery, is back and figures to be among the best defenders in the conference.
Oladejo showed in the second half of last season that he could be the next great mud inside linebacker. You may recall that the inside linebacker spots, which were staples of Wilcox’s defense the previous four seasons, weren’t as productive as they usually are in 2021. Cal should be better at that position in 2022. with Sirmon and Oladejo.
Cal’s secondary has been arguably the best in the Pac-12 over the past five seasons, and despite the departures of Hicks and Josh Dryden, should be strong again. Lu-Maggio Hurns returns at cornerback after earning the starting job midway through last year as a true freshman, and cornerback Collin Gamble is back after starting eight games last season. Either Myles Williams or Craig Woodson figure to be a capable replacement for Hicks, along with returning safety Daniel Scott, a preseason All-Pac-12 selection.
The question remains, of course. Finding a suitable nickel back as well as players who can complement Johnson in the front three are unresolved issues, and we don’t know if Cal can get the same big-play potential from its outside linebackers that it got from Goode and Marquez Bimage last season.
However, somehow, some way, Wilcox and Sermon will find a way to create another stout defense.
Now if the Bears can score some points. . .
Cover photo by Kelley L Cox, USA TODAY Sports
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