post-spring-review:-defensive-line

Post-Spring Review: Defensive Line

Sports

With spring in the books, we’re taking a look at every position group from the spring and where they stand going into the 2021 season. Today, we’re looking at the defensive line

Previous Installments: Special Teams | Safeties | Cornerbacks | Quarterbacks | Wide Receivers | Running Backs | Tight Ends | Offensive Line

The defensive line was already the youngest position Cal had on their roster prior to Brett Johnson’s injury (who replaces him is a topic covered here). Now the Bears have to rely on their youth even more at a position that doesn’t have many tenured players.

What Cal lacked in depth in 2020 could be made up for by who defensive line coach Andrew Browning brought in over the last two recruiting cycles. The Bears added seven defensive linemen in 2020 and 2021, and all of them have the opportunity to play moving forward this year.

Ahead of that group are the two defensive linemen from the class of 2018 in JH Tevis and Aaron Maldonado. The two have played a bunch, with Tevis getting his first real action in 2020 and Maldonado playing for stretches in 2018 and 2019, but both are relatively young in terms of reps. Maldonado has been at the nose guard spot, but with the Bears bringing in a couple bigger noses in Stanley McKenzie and Ricky Correia, he could bump to the 4i spot with his quickness and interior pass rush ability. Tevis is known for being more fundamentally sound, and should start at one of the defensive end spots. Maldonado has been healing from an injury that kept him out of the 2020 season. Don’t rule out Erick Nisich from playing as well, as the former walk-on has been a consistent piece in practice and was versatile enough to move back from playing offensive line in 2019.

The big reason Maldonado could be able to move to a defensive end spot is due to the emergence of McKenzie and Correia during the spring. Injury kept the 325 lb McKenzie and the 350 lb Correia out of games a year ago, but both excelled in the spring game. McKenzie in particular has a fantastic punch out of his get-off, while Correia moves extremely well for his size. Cal ran what they called an ‘elephant formation,’ a nickel package with the two noses playing defensive tackle. It might be something the Bears use against some spread teams in certain situations.

With Johnson’s absence, the 2020 and 2021 recruits will have to step into bigger roles at the 4i, as 3 or 1 techniques in the nickel, and even on the edge:

Ethan Saunders – Saunders was the only 2020 DL recruit to play last fall, before suffering an injury that kept him out of the final two contests. Saunders was an active defender coming out of high school, moving fluidly at 6’3″ and 285 lbs. He impressed enough to play a year ago, though he did sit out this spring due to injury.

Jaedon Roberts – Injuries kept Roberts out in 2020 and during the spring, but at 6’3″ and 300 lbs, Roberts is a people-mover. He’s in need of more experience moving forward to show what he can do, but the size is already there.

Akili Calhoun – Relatively raw, due to not having a senior year of high school football, but the Liberty HS (Brentwood) standout has some power to him. During the spring game, the Bears used him as an edge player, and much like McKenzie, he has a great punch from his getoff. Some of the athletic tools will need to be honed, but getting him in early should pay dividends in his development.

Derek Wilkins – Arguably the top defensive player in Cal’s 2021 class, Wilkins has a lightning fast first step and excelled in the top football league in the state of California. At 6’5″ and 280 lbs, Wilkins has the length to excel against some of the longer linemen he’ll be facing at this level.

Myles Williams – A darkhorse in the 2021 class and the most likely to confuse media from the press box if him and Miles Williams are on the field at the same time. The defensive line Williams has a massive wingspan and some of the best pass rushing tools of the group. He sat out of the spring season in California to prepare for his freshman year at Cal.

In addition, De La Salle walk-on Gunnar Rask saw plenty of playing time in the spring game, and the third year lineman more than held his own in the contest.

At this point, there are plenty of unknowns for the Bears up front, unknowns that might lead to a bigger defensive line rotation than what the Bears had a year ago. Browning has been lauded by the rest of the Cal staff for his teaching ability, and this will be the year to show it.