Exponential growth can be a pretty enviable thing, especially when it comes to improvement. Going from 16 total tackles in one season to 182 over the years indicates huge, game-changing strides; but what happens when that kind of production suddenly stops?
This is a question Cal football has found itself asking in the wake of star linebacker and tackler extraordinaire Evan Weaver’s departure for the NFL’s main stage. He left some immensely large cleats to fill, and what was once the only certainty of Bears football is now one of its biggest unknowns.
Cal has relied on its defense to keep it afloat amid some of its most tragic offensive failures. Weaver notched 22 tackles, tying his career high during the embarrassment of a game against Utah last season in which the Bears were shut out for the first time in two decades. Cal’s offense was in absolute tatters, but its defense prevented what could have been an even more nightmarish ending against a spark plug of a Utes team.
Now, the script has flipped, as the Bears’ formidable defense suffers unforeseen blows from the departure of many players who kept it so impenetrable. Of course, Weaver’s goodbye was expected in only a matter of time. The real damage lies in the hands of players such as outside linebacker Tevin Paul and redshirt sophomore Ben Moos, and their pending decision to opt out of the season. Paul was likely to start this season, a role that will now be relinquished to a greener player such as sophomore Braxten Croteau or redshirt freshman Orin Patu.
At the inside position, a slightly more experienced Evan Tattersall will likely earn the start. The redshirt sophomore played in 11 games off the bench last season and notably made the Pac-12 Academic Honor Roll as well.
“I just try to communicate, do my job, be positive out there and be a great role model for the younger guys,” he said. “I’m not the most outgoing and vocal guy, but I’m still making the calls and everything, so I have to be myself but also just a great teammate to everyone.”
Tattersall will play alongside the seasoned Kuony Deng, who will look to hold down the fort as the most mutually experienced player. The junior college transfer started all 13 games in his first season with the Bears and was honored as a second-team preseason All-Pac-12 standout this year. Deng totaled an imposing 119 tackles and three sacks last year, trailing Weaver by an impressively slim margin. He’s also made a point of bulking up for the season to be able to body up against even more opposing players.
“I feel like I’ve improved my game in every single aspect,” Deng said. “I’ve been trying to work on everything, and I think I’ve taken steps forward in every category.”
Redshirt freshman Blake Antzoulatos and freshman Muelu Iosefa are both viable options for inside linebacker, a position that will likely see more rotation than last season given the relative freshness of Tattersall and his backups.
With a novel mix of wisdom and novice among the linebackers this season, the Bears must remain flexible and levelheaded as they clash with the potent offensive forces of Pac-12 opponents such as Oregon and USC. Outsourcing some defensive heavy lifting to the secondary and defensive line as the linebackers get settled will benefit the Bears, but to contend for a spot among conference royalty, this position group will be crucial to Cal’s success this season.