After a twelve day layoff due to spring break, Cal is back in practice tomorrow afternoon, getting back to focusing on a defensive turnaround. Defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter and his staff have one of the toughest jobs in the country in turning the Cal defense around, after they finished near the bottom in a number of categories, allowing 272.8 rushing yards per game (putting them at 127th out of 128th), allowing 42.6 points per game (also 127th out of 128th), and allowing 6.15 yards per carry (last in the country).
“Again, I’ve been in this business for a while," DeRuyter said in a post practice interview on March 20th, "and when teams don’t have success the year before, they’re looking for something new. I think it’s easy to brush that aside, but if you doubt yourself, you’re not going to play as well as you can. So our big challenge as coaches is getting guys in position where they can make plays, so they gain confidence, and then that multiplies.”
Reclaiming the confidence of defensive players is where they've started in the spring. They've worked numerous form tackling drills, with wrap and drive tackling drills, work on sleds , and using some giant rolling onion ring pads to help players get their heads on the right side when making tackles. Beyond the fundamentals, the teaching of which has been embraced by the staff and players from the looks of it, there's a few changes in the system that look to help shore up some of the problems the Bears had stopping the run.
The Outside Linebacker Position
Transitioning the defensive ends necessary for the position isn't a walk in the park, as five players have made the transition (Cameron Saffle, Evan Weaver, Alex Funches, Trevor Howard, and Russell Ude), but the positioning of the OLBs helps out the defense. First and foremost, they'll be positioned on the outside edge of the line or lined up on the slot wideouts, giving them the contain responsibilities. From a pass rushing standpoint, they get to use their speed off the edge, something that Funches looked especially comfortable with during the last open practice.
With the contain responsibilities, it's going to be up to those guys to be comfortable in space when in coverage, as they're going to have to make plays on swing routes out of backfield, and that's the next challenge. As those linebackers are not necessarily playing over the top of a lineman or tight end, it makes it easier to get out and funnel any runs back to the inside guys
From the inside linebacker spot
Since those contain responsibilities have been given to the outside guys, it makes the inside linebacker's responsibilities that much more simple. Hamilton Anoa'i explained it like this.
"It was a little difficult at first, but I think what makes it a lot easier is that in this defense, you're closed down in a space as a linebacker," Anoa'i noted about the change in scheme, "as compared to our last defense, where you're running basically sideline to sideline a lot. But in this defense you're kinda just worried about your little area and it's either here or there rather than in a 4-3 where we were always running around. I like that a lot better that we've just got a little less responsibility and we can focus on just being ourselves."
This change basically allows the inside linebackers to play straight ahead, fill the holes and clean up, much like Utah has done in the past with their linebacker core. This also helps out the safeties, who will hopefully have an easier time cleaning up with the linebackers focusing on working more inside the box.
What's still a question:
Along with the newly-minted outside linebackers having to go into coverage and adjusting to playing more in space as opposed to playing more straight ahead in a 4-3, the defensive line will have to do a bit more in the way of taking up space and eating up gaps. It's a new scheme for a lot of different guys, who either haven't played in a 3-4 before, like Anoa'i, or are far removed from playing in a 3-4, like Devante Downs and Cameron Saffle. Same with the defensive linemen. It's still early enough that a lot of this won't come into play for a while, but the changes speak toward the goal of DeRuyter and Justin Wilcox to put players in a position where they can make plays.