Sports » Paul Gackle

Give Sonny Dykes time to build a defense at Cal

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Cal coach Sonny Dykes' defense has struggled mightily the first three games, but injuries are a big part of that. - CARY EDMONDSON/USA TODAY SPORTS
  • Cary Edmondson/USA TODAY Sports
  • Cal coach Sonny Dykes' defense has struggled mightily the first three games, but injuries are a big part of that.

Sonny Dykes can't be dishing out excuses this early in his tenure as Cal's football coach, so allow me to explain why his defense is surrendering an average of 556.3 total yards per game right now.

The knee-jerk reaction is to assume that Dykes simply packed up his Louisiana Tech defense and brought it with him to Strawberry Canyon last winter.

The Bulldogs finished the 2012 season ranked dead last in the nation in total defense and after three games the Bears are No. 122 out of 125 teams.

This offensive guru is obviously oblivious about what happens on the other side of the ball, right? The Bears gave up 608 total yards to Ohio State and 434 yards to Portland State in the first half alone; what will happen when they travel to Eugene to take on No. 2 Oregon on Sept. 28?

Spoiler alert: it's going to be ugly. The Ducks could realistically rack up 800 yards against the Bears considering the pace that both teams play with.

Nevertheless, it's way too early to assume that a porous defense is the natural kid sister to Dykes' Bear Raid offense.

Dykes inherited a defense that is young and thin, especially in the secondary, and then the injury bug swept through the team.

The Bears opened the season with three new starters in the secondary and that was before safety Avery Sebastian was lost for the season with an Achilles injury after making 11 tackles and recording an interception in the first half against Northwestern.

Junior Chris McCain, who leads the defense in active starts, also missed the Portland State game and much of the Ohio State game (head), 2010 four-star recruit Brennan Scarlett is out with a hand injury and linebacker Michael Barton, the team's leading tackler after two games, was sidelined against the Buckeyes (knee).

And that's just the beginning. Starting linebacker Nick Forbes has missed all three games with a back injury and safety Alex Logan left Saturday's game with an undisclosed injury. Consequently, the Bears played a true freshman cornerback, Cameron Walker, at safety, and they've converted sophomore wide receiver Joel Willis into a corner.

At this point, the Bears' season is about gaining experience for next year and the year after that. The team needs to live through some growing pains before it can compete with the likes of Ohio State, Oregon and Stanford.

Next year, this unit could actually be strong if McCain, Scarlett, Barton and Sebastian stay healthy. Redshirt freshman Hardy Nickerson Jr. is already becoming a presence in the middle at linebacker, sophomore Stefan McClure could wind up being the best shutdown corner is school history and junior Viliami Moala is a load to handle on the line at 315 pounds.

It might seem as if Dykes' teams are destined to get swallowed whole on defense, but in 2011, Louisiana Tech was ranked 57th in total defense (376.5 yards per game) and 41st in scoring defense (23.2 points per game) because the Bulldogs had the right pieces on the field.

At this point, Cal backers need to give Dykes a couple of years before they start drawing drastic conclusions about his defensive aptitude. But if the Bears are still coughing up 600-yard games in 2015, he'll have a lot of explaining to do.

Paul Gackle is a contributor to The San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at pgackle@sfexaminer.com and followed on Twitter @GackleReport.