Stan Szeto - USA Today Sports
If you hadn’t known otherwise, Alex Funches looked like a natural at the outside linebacker position during the spring.
By the end of spring ball, Funches was the first name out of Beau Baldwin’s mouth when he was asked about defensive players that were wreaking the most havoc. With that, you wouldn’t know that Funches hadn’t really played outside linebacker before.
"For maybe that first day," Funches said, "I might have been just like,’oh I don’t know if this is for me,’ because I’ve been hand-in-the-dirt since high school, but I think I began to like it."
In fact, Funches came into Cal expecting to play defensive end, where he’d played at Trinity Valley Community College for the previous two years. Even on his first day in a meeting, he was with the defensive line. That changed very quickly.
“I moved in one day, and I had a D-Line coach, coach Tate," Funches said,"and then the next day he was gone, and there was not a coach on staff. I was just like, ‘oh, ok, can’t let that take you down.’”
It didn't, as Funches was listed as an outside linebacker almost immediately, and despite his self described troubles adjusting early, he almost immediately made an impact with defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter.
"Really thankful that the previous staff was recruiting him," DeRuyter said back in April, "and had him here in January when we got here. He's a guy that, had we gone out and wanted to look for a guy to play outside linebacker, he has the skillset to do that, and so he's probably the most natural."
What's made him so natural in the position? A guy who's had to block him in practice understands.
"He came from a JuCo, he came here showing everyone up," left tackle Patrick Mekari said, "he has speed, he has power, he plays with effort. I think that's something huge that college football players need to have."
That speed and power was on display during the USC's first drive last Saturday. Funches, as part of a set that showed a 6 man blitz but only rushed 3, took on SC left tackle Toa Lobendahl, pushing him back despite the 65 pound weight disparity, ripped through and got a sack on Sam Darnold. Funches ended up with his highest play count so far on the young season, outside linebackers coach Tony Tuioti noted he played around 60 of the 76 defensive snaps, and he graded out highest among Pac-12 edge rushers for the week, per PFF College.
PFF Week 4 - Pac-12 Team of the Week - Defense pic.twitter.com/r5h46gs2Lc
— PFF College Football (@PFF_College) September 26, 2017
"Alex has done a nice job since he’s been here of improving week to week," Cal head coach Justin Wilcox said, "He’s a good pass-rusher first foremost, he does a good job in the run game, setting edges, he could be better, but he’s, for a mid-year guy, I think each week that he’s been out here, throughout the off-season and even the season, you see the growth."
The growth and adjustment has been a consistent theme for Funches, as the junior linebacker had to transition to the new position and to a new home in Berkeley.
"I feel like you could split the state in half and just call (Northern California) something (else)," Funches, who spent his childhood in Bellflower and Carson in Southern California, said, "because it’s very unique, unique in a good way though. The city I lived in, Denton, they called it a weirder place compared to Texas cities, but it’s something that I’ve grown to love and I came here and kinda vibed with the place."
That's more comfort than he had early at outside linebacker
"It was kinda funky maybe the first day," Funches remembered, "footwork and being out there and standing the whole time and realizing you’re on a wide receiver right now.
I think the first practice, they put me out there and I was like 'who do I got, who do I got, who do I got?' I was running, turning around, and I think just getting my hips into place and my drops, being aware of your help (has helped). So if I have a guy and this guy goes deeper, I don't have to follow him, because there's someone helping and I have to look for a crosser in a different direction."
Now, with Cameron Saffle officially out for the season, Funches is the main rush OLB, with Hamilton Anoa'i and Russell Ude backing him up. He has to be the guy there now. He's coming along, with two sacks in the past two games, but Tuioti feels like the best is yet to come from Funches.
"He’s picking it along, if he continues it’ll be fine," Tuioti noted, "but understanding the concepts for him, some people pick it up right away, some guys are high rep guys, and Funches is one of those guys, he’s got to rep it out to feel comfortable in terms of what we’re asking him to do.
He’s productive, he’s handled it well, and I think he can take on more."
He's going to have to going forward.