- Kevin Gemmell, ESPN Staff Writer
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While watching Cal’s defense suffer last year, all defensive end Brennan Scarlett wanted to do was pitch in and give his guys a hand.
Yet in a cruel act of irony, it was his hand that was keeping him off the field.
After Scarlett broke the middle metacarpal bone in his left hand in 2012, he developed a staph infection that spread into the bone, forcing him to miss the entire 2013 season. All he could do was offer emotional support as his teammates stumbled through one of the worst seasons in program history. And on top of that, sweat out the future of his left hand.
“It was pretty scary,” Scarlett said. “The infection spread so quickly and got into the bone. If they hadn’t caught it as quickly as they did, it could have spread to the whole hand. I’m not sure exactly what could have happened. But there were plenty of worst-case scenarios.”
Fortunately for Scarlett and the Bears, the best-case scenario seems to have prevailed. And after 18 months, he’s back on the field for the first time, practicing with his teammates during spring ball.
Coming out of Central Catholic High School in Portland, Ore., Scarlett was a U.S. Army All-American and was a four-star player by multiple services. Some had him as one of the top 10 defensive ends in the country. But so far he has appeared in only 12 games over two seasons, starting nine. From those 12, there have been glimpses of his potential. He has 44 tackles, 6.5 tackles for a loss and 2.5 sacks. He also has forced a pair of fumbles. When he’s healthy, he’s a playmaker.
“It’s been real disappointing and frustrating,” he said. “I think this is the year to finally show what I can do and maximize my abilities and finally live up to the hype that I had coming out of high school.”
The Bears need it. They ranked last in the Pac-12 in scoring defense last year, yielding a scoreboard-scorching 45.9 points per game. They also ranked last in total defense, pass defense, pass defense efficiency, opponent third-down conversion, red zone defense, fourth-down defense … you get the picture. It was bad.
Scarlett’s injury wasn’t the only one the Bears suffered. They also missed the play of Stefan McClure, Mustafa Jalil and Avery Sebastian, among many, many others, in one of the worst injury rashes in the country last year.
“I’ve never seen that many injuries happen in such a small window of time,” said Scarlett, who spent most of his 2013 in the film room. “It’s one thing to lose a guy and then five or six weeks later you lose another guy. But this happened week after week after week. And then you’re throwing in freshmen and guys who have never had the chance to play and weren’t expecting to play. It was really difficult for us as a team to get them all caught up. And as you can see what happened, it took its toll on us. I’ve never seen anything like that. I don’t think anyone has.”
Naturally, when you’re giving up almost seven touchdowns per game, things tend to get a little down in the locker room. There was only so much Scarlett could do during that stretch.
“The media is all over you and you start seeing your fans fall off and people don’t show up,” he said. “You just have to take a step back and embrace your teammates and stick together and know that sooner or later things are going to turn around and the hard work is going to pay off. Being negative and keeping our heads down isn’t going to help anything. I think last season actually brought us that much closer together as a family and it will pay off.”
Sonny Dykes made the move in the offseason to reassign defensive coordinator Andy Buh and bring in Art Kaufman. Scarlett never got to be coached by Buh, but he learned the system anyway. He described Kaufman’s 4-3 scheme as similar but simpler than the one the Bears were running last season. And Dykes said he’s excited to finally see Scarlett's capabilities.
“To his credit, he did a good job of hanging in there,” Dykes said. “His attitude has been positive. He’s had some unfortunate things happen to him, but I thought his attitude has been good. He’s a guy I think we’re probably going to count on for some leadership as well. I think he’s become more comfortable in that role. I’m anxious to see him emerge and continue to get better.”