Another installment of the Bear Essentials series today, continuing with Cal's other representative at Pac-12 Media Day (along with Tre Watson), defensive tackle James Looney.
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Looney, who was just named to the Bronco Nagurski Trophy watchlist on Thursday, has been the most consistent defensive player over the last two years. As a transfer from Wake Forest, Looney tore it up on the scout team in 2014, and with the defensive line needing a difference maker, he's been the one called on. With that, he's been the best player on the defensive line, though the defensive results have shown that one person can't do it alone on every play.
Looney's played in 24 of 25 games since he became eligible after his transfer, with 23 of those being starts. In that time he's racked up 89 tackles, 11.0 tackles for loss (-49 yards) and 4.5 sacks (-26 yards). A season ago, Looney recorded 54 tackles, 8.0 tackles for loss (-38 yards), 3.5 sacks (-22 yards), two quarterback hurries, one fumble recovery that he returned 25 yards and one forced fumble.
Looney, who was a bit undersized as a 4-3 DT, gets to move a bit outside as a 3-4 DE, and at a listed 6'3" and 280 lbs, he'll be in a better position with his ability, which is to be a two gap player from the four technique (inside shoulder of the tackle). Looney's been able to take up space, most notably in stopping Utah's Zack Moss at the one yard-line to preserve a Cal win against the Utes a year ago.
What makes Looney important this year is partially because he's individually talented, but also has a better setup around him. Linebacker play should be improved behind him, with new defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter working with that group. New defensive line coach Jerry Azzinaro has improved the collective technique on the defensive line (Zeandae Johnson being a prime example of this), so when Looney gets a push on the offensive line, the rest of the line won't get pushed back, opening up a hole. The players around him have improved, Tony Mekari and Johnson looking faster, with Ray Davison and Devante Downs having their responsibilities focused more in the box. Even with Looney missing spring ball with an injury, if he can play up to the same level as a year ago, he should be able to up his production. That production is what a defense in transition absolutely needs.