RETURNING STARTERS: Ernest Owusu
WHO TO WATCH OUT FOR: Gabe King
POSSIBLE SURPRISE: Keni Kaufusi
THE BREAKDOWN: Of all positions on the field, this is the unit where the least could be decided in the spring. That’s because the Bears are bringing in one of the nation’s top defensive line classes in the fall, and whatever movement there is this spring could certainly be adjusted when training camp begins.
It would be in the best interest of nose tackles Kendrick Payne and Aaron Tipoti to put their best foot forward this spring, because five-star recruit Viliami Moala arrives in the fall, and he could compete for playing time right away. Payne beat out Derrick Hill for the starting job at the beginning of last season but struggled with his health and didn’t emerge into the type of player the Bears were anticipating. Guys like Payne, Tipoti and Kaufusi will use this spring to position themselves for the competition looming in training camp.
For the first time in a few years, the Bears don’t enter a spring with a proven, dependable defensive end. Defensive line coach Tosh Lupoi has had the luxury of coaching players such as Tyson Alualu and Cameron Jordan in recent years — talented, accomplished players who could anchor the line. Owusu started nine games last season, but he may not even be the top returning defensive end.
Trevor Guyton came on near the end of last year and should enter the spring as a leading candidate for a starting role. And Deandre Coleman flashed his immense potential at times and Cal should be looking for him to make a big jump this year. Redshirt freshman Gabe King has the combination of size and athleticism comparable to Jordan and could make a push as well.
As with the nose tackle position, the Bears will be welcoming some highly regarded defensive ends in the fall, most notably Brennan Scarlett and Todd Barr. Again, the returning players at that position will need to use this spring to make their best case heading into training camp.