BERKELEY -- When California moved from a 3-4 alignment to a 4-3, there were more than a few moves that had to be made on the roster in order to get the numbers to jibe with the new scheme. Some outside linebackers had to move to defensive end, some defensive ends had to move to the interior, and now, players who had spent their entire football lives as inside linebackers have moved to the outside.
The fact that both defensive coordinator Andy Buh and defensive ends coach Garret Chachere have extensive experience coaching linebackers has helped smooth the transition, as several of the projected regulars -- Kyle Kragen, Sione Sina, Chris McCain and Brennan Scarlett -- all came in as outside linebackers.
“Coach Sash is coaching our defensive ends, and a lot of times, those guys turn into outside linebackers, rush-type guys, so he brings a wealth of knowledge to that position,” Buh said. “That gives us a lot of things that we can meet on, in between.”
On Monday night, redshirt junior Khairi Fortt -- who came up as a true Mike linebacker at Penn State before transferring prior to last season -- seemed to have locked down the No. 1 Sam linebacker spot, and, Buh says, has taken to the position with great gusto.
“Actually, Khairi is having a really good start to spring,” said Buh. “He’s one of the guys that can play all three positions, and it’s really just hats off to him, that he’s capable of playing the outside position.”
Nick Forbes has been a mainstay in the middle after coming into his own last season, ranking second on the team with 85 total tackles, adding 4.5 TFLs, 1.5 sacks, one pick for 26 return yards, three breakups, three fored fumbles, one blocked kick and three fumble recoveries.
“Everybody’s competing for a job right now, and he’s doing the same thing,” Buh said. “No one has been penciled in to be a starter right now, and it’s just where we want it to be. But, he’s obviously doing a great job, out here on the practice field. We love what he’s contributed and how he’s contributing every day, both on and off the field. He’s really having a great spring.”
and Jalen Jefferson -- who had a breakout season last year as an inside linebacker, with 47 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, two quarterback hurries and one pass breakup -- at the Will.
“He really hasn’t missed a beat,” Buh said of Jefferson. “He started off as a two early on, and it didn’t take us about a day to figure out that he should be contributing to the first group.”
The second linebacking unit consisted of former Concord (Calif.) De La Salle middle linebacker Michael Barton playing the Sam, David Wilkerson returning to the outside at the Will and Hardy Nickerson in the middle.
Those spots, though, were far from set in stone, as all six -- along with Jason Gibson (limited while still recovering from a foot injury), Lucas King and Nathan Broussard -- rotated in at all three positions.
“All the guys that are playing the position right now, each one of them brings a different talent to the position,” Buh said. “Most of them are interchangeable, from outside to inside. That’s why we’re capable of doing that.”
Broussard, in particular, surprised at the Mike, after coming in as a speed-rushing outside linebacker.
“He was making some plays just the other day at the Willy linebacker position, so we kicked him inside to see if we could build some more depth at that position, instead of just having two guys rotating,” Buh said. “We’re training different guys for different positions, just for future purposes.”
With four practices out of 15 now in the books, Buh is moderately pleased with how the defense has adjusted to the new system, but, he says, it’s still early, and many of the concepts being introduced are quite simple.
“We’re keeping it simple, trying to let them play fast, get some basic techniques down, basic eye progression, basic communication skills,” said Buh. “What we’re seeing is that they’re doing it at a high level right now, so we’re anxious to move forward with more stuff.”
Buh – who had shoulder surgery the week before signing day to repair a torn rotator cuff suffered during a fall while jogging on an icy day in Madison, Wisc., while still coaching for then-Rose Bowl-bound Wisconsin – has been as energetic as any of his assistant coaches, at times flailing his still-slinged arm while trying to make a point. Clearly, he laughed, he’s not the world’s best patient. But, his own health is secondary to preparing the Bears for a comeback year after a 3-9 campaign that spelled the end for the previous staff.
Between Buh, Chachere, defensive tackles coach Barry Sacks and the whirlwind that is defensive backs coach Randy Stewart, the staff has been running around almost as fast as their charges, and that energy level has certainly filtered down. Even while coming off the field after a nose-nippingly frigid, three-hour practice on Monday, nearly every defensive player had an ear-to-ear smile.
“The people that were before us did a nice job recruiting football players,” Buh says. “That’s what we have here. We’re enjoying being around them, and hopefully, we can point them in the right direction.”