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Cal Football Review and Preview: Defensive Line and Outside Linebackers

In the wake of Cal's 7-6 season in 2018, we're taking a look at every position group, looking at how they're stocked for the future, how they performed for the season, and the expectation level for each group. Today it's the defensive line and outside linebacker groups, who we're pairing together because they're paired together during practice.

2018 Recap

The defensive line made a jump in 2018 for multiple reasons. Another year of experience certainly helped, as Luc Bequette, Tevin Paul, Chris Palmer, Rusty Becker Chinedu Udego and Zeandae Johnson all upped their level of play. Various defensive linemen noted that DL coach Tony Tuioti built upon what Jerry Azzinaro taught in their first year under the Wilcox regime. Paul specifically noted that Tuioti was working on their mental game, after Azz focused a lot on improving the group's physicality. While the numbers weren't big, the line opened up a lot for the inside linebackers to make plays.

The outside linebacker situation was a bit different though, as Cam Goode looked to be the best player on defense during fall camp, and through the first three quarters of 2018, he showed it with an athletic pick-six. His season ended with a foot injury not long after, and the Bears didn't really find a replacement for him. Outside linebacker Alex Funches played a ton, but Tim DeRuyter improvised, using Paul and Udeogu as bigger OLB types, mixing in speedier OLBs like Evan Rambo, Deon White, and Malik Psalms for coverage, and mixing in freshman Joseph Ogunbanjo as a pass rusher (along with Nick Alftin getting a handful of reps). It's a group that's going to see an infusion of talent moving forward, bringing in three freshman and a junior college standout who can bolster the position with the athleticism.

The defensive line also had a few newcomers making impacts, as Aaron Maldonado and Siu Fuimaono got their first action, and Lone Toailoa was utilized mainly as a pass rusher as well.

Of note:

- Luc Bequette and Alex Funches tied for the team lead in sacks with five apiece. Bequette also won Pac-12 defensive player of the week honors for his performance against USC, forcing a key fumble before halftime along with two sacks. Bequette also blocked a kick against Idaho State

- Chris Palmer had 6 pass breakups, good for second on the team (tied with Evan Weaver)

- Evan Rambo is credited by Pro Football Focus as not missing a tackle all year

- Paul tied for the team lead (with Jordan Kunaszyk) with 11 TFLs

2019 Preview

Who's Leaving:

DL: Chris Palmer, Rusty Becker

OLB: Alex Funches

On the defensive line, two players who weren't exactly well known before the year started, but both started multiple games for the Bears. Palmer's going to be difficult to replace, just because effective 325 lb nose guards are hard to come by, but he grew into his role very well. For Becker, he might have been the hardest worker in turning himself into a productive football player at Cal, something Justin Wilcox echoed when talking about him.

Funches came to Cal never having played stand-up OLB, and leaves after two years playing every game at it. Consistently someone who the Cal media throng enjoyed interviewing, Funches was on the field for 834 of a possible 921 reps (over 90%) in 2018. He also sacked two top 10 picks in 2017, taking down Sam Darnold and Josh Rosen.

Who's Staying

DL: Bequette, Johnson, Paul, Udeogu, Toailoa, Fuimaono, Gabe Cherry, Maldonado

OLB: Psalms, Goode, Rambo, White, Ogunbanjo, Ben Moos, Alftin, JH Tevis

Lot of returning players who now have experience at this level. Bequette and Paul are probably the two strongest returners in terms of skill right now, while Maldonado and Ogunbanjo have a ton of upside as pass rushers moving forward. There's a lot of pieces to play with for DeRuyter and Tuioti moving forward, including a healthy Cam Goode for 2019.

Who's Coming In

DL: Brett Johnson, Ben Coleman, Braxten Croteau (EE)

OLB: Kuony Deng (sort of) (EE), Orin Patu (EE), Curley Young, Myles Jernigan

This is probably the strongest group of recruits for the Bears in the 2019 class. Everyone is high on the potential of Brett Johnson, who won ArizonaVarsity's Defensive Player of the Year award for 6A football. Deng has ideal size for OLB (though he's spent time at ILB so far), and should be a player at both. Coleman and Croteau both have some nice size, with Croteau coming in early. Patu's got the same measureables as Cam Goode coming in, though he's a bit higher rated than Goode was coming out. Both Young and Jernigan have shown pass rushing ability, with Jernigan doing a bit more in coverage, but both are highly productive high school players.

Projected Starters

DL: Bequette, Maldonado, Paul

OLB: Goode, Rambo

The starting group here really depends on the personnel that the other offense is running, as Cal likes to match based on packages. Without a true nose (at the moment, either Maldonado, Fuimaono, or Coleman can develop into one), they're going to have to get creative, and there were a few packages that used the three best defensive lineman, and Maldonado looks ready to take the leap. Also, Wilcox has noted that they wanted Maldonado to play some nose when they recruited him.

At OLB, if Cam Goode gets back to how he looked during fall camp, he should be a shoo-in to regain his job. Rambo got a couple of starts for the Bears at OLB, showing some ability in setting an edge and rushing the passer. They may choose to go with a bigger player at the other OLB to complement Goode, but a lot of it is situational. Rambo may be the best candidate as an all-around player.

Spring Storyline: Who Makes the Leap

There's a lot of youth here, specifically at outside linebacker with Ogunbanjo, Alftin, White, and Tevis entering their second year in the program, and Orin Patu coming in early. Goode made a leap last spring and fall, and someone like Ogunbanjo, who has some of the most impressive athleticism on this team, could be the guy to do that.

Defensively, it'll be interesting to see how Tuioti and DeRuyter compensate for losing Palmer, specifically how they fill the nose spot.