BERKELEY, Calf. -- California's defense needs to replace both starting defensive ends from 2011. And both safeties. And both inside linebackers, including Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Mychal Kendricks.
Looks like the Bears won't have much of a chance to lead the conference in total defense a third consecutive season, right?
Looks, however, can be deceiving. And, in fact, looks are also a good reason to suspect the Bears are going to be pretty salty on defense this fall. During a scrimmage-heavy and rare open practice last weekend, they looked big up front, fast in the back half and athletic everywhere. This is a young but fairly experienced unit with plenty of upside. It would be surprising if it doesn't rank near the top of the Pac-12 in most categories in 2012.
"I see us playing faster and faster every practice," coordinator Clancy Pendergast said.
Young? Based on conversations with Pendergast and head coach Jeff Tedford, the Pac-12 blog has calculated that about 28 guys are in line for action next fall. Six are seniors and 17 are sophomores or younger.
Experienced? Eight of those youngsters saw significant action in 2011. Five started games.
Further, this will be the Bears' third year using Pendergast's 3-4 scheme. Unlike the previous two seasons, the Bears have mostly grown up with this system while landing three consecutive top-25 recruiting classes that were particularly strong on defense.
"The biggest thing to me is this is the third year in the system," Pendergast said. "These guys know a lot more about this system than they did two years ago and even a year ago. We've got it built here now where as guys come up through the program, they are learning the defense, and when it's their time, they understand what they are supposed to do by learning from guys ahead of them."
Start up front, where Pendergast and Tedford are practically giddy over the maturation of 6-foot-5, 311-pound end Deandre Coleman. Said Tedford: "He may be one of the best that we've ever had." Keep in mind that Bears have produced two first-round NFL draft choices at end -- Tyson Alualu and Cameron Jordan -- over the past three seasons.
At the other end is true sophomore Mustafa Jalil, who surged late last season. Kendrick Payne and 347-pound sophomore Viliami Moala give the Bears a good combo at noseguard, while 2011 noseguard starter Aaron Tipoti is playing nose and end.
While this line might not have a dominant edge pass-rusher, it's deep with guys who will be difficult to account for with just one blocker, which should make things much easier for the linebackers.
As for replacing Kendricks and D.J. Holt at inside linebackers, veterans Robert Mullins and J.P. Hurrell, both seniors, are battling to hold off a youth movement that includes David Wilkerson, Nick Forbes, Jalen Jefferson and Jason Gibson, who are all sophomores or younger. This is the most competitive spot on the defense.
"It's not really like the well is empty there, but it's which guy or two is going to step up," Tedford said.
At outside linebacker, Chris McCain had six tackles for loss as a six-game starter in 2011. Returning starter Dan Camporeale holds down the opposite side, but true sophomore Brennan Scarlett could make a move when he returns in the fall from a knee injury. Scarlett's potential as a pass-rusher should get him on the field, and the same can be said for Cecil Whiteside, who started three games in 2011 and recorded three sacks.
Finally, there's also talent, depth and experience in the secondary, even with two 2011 safety starters to replace. Pendergast is particularly high on Josh Hill, who moves to free safety from corner. Alex Logan leads the competition at strong safety, but Avery Sebastian (who changed his last name from Walls) and the injured Michael Lowe (who changed his last name from Coley) saw action last year and could push for starting jobs.
Of all these guys, only Payne, Tipoti, Hurrell, Mullens, Anthony and Hill are seniors. So the future looks perhaps even brighter than the intriguing 2012 present. For one, Coleman, Moala and Jalil across the defensive front look like a troika of potential All-Pac-12 performers in 2013, if Coleman opts to return for his senior season.
This depth and veterans vs. youth dynamic can be constructive, too. The fluidity of the depth chart ensures players take competition seriously this spring and into fall camp. Serious competition means quality reps in practice, which means you have a two-deep full of guys who are ready to play because they were forced to practice hard in order to stay in the mix.
Or as Sebastian, a true sophomore, explained it: "We want to come out and be better than the people who are in front of us. We want to take their spots. That's our mentality."
In 2010, Pendergast and then-Stanford defensive coordinator Vic Fangio brought 3-4 schemes from the NFL to the Pac-12 when everyone else was running a 4-3. It's meaningful that six conference teams will be base 3-4 in 2012 (including Arizona with its 3-3-5) and a couple of others will extensively use odd-front looks. The 3-4 seems to work well against the proliferation of spread teams in the conference, and it's easier on the West Coast to find linebacker recruits than defensive tackles.
But no matter how many teams adopt the scheme, it's reasonable to project that this Cal defense will remain atop the conference pecking order.