As the Bears prepare for Saturday’s spring practice finale — the Cal Spring Football Experience — there is improved depth and experience almost everywhere on the field.
Except defensive tackle.
With junior Mustafa Jalil shelved while recovering from offseason knee surgery and sophomore Jacobi Hunter out for personal reasons, the Bears have no one at the position with any Division I game experience who will participate on Saturday.
“That’s going to be the big position that’s up in the air for us,” coach Sonny Dykes said Wednesday after practice.
Cal released a depth chart earlier in the day, and redshirt senior Harrison Wilfley and redshirt junior Marcus Manley are listed as the starting defensive tackles.
Wilfley was recruited as a tight end, then moved to defensive end, the position he played at American River College. The 6-foot-5 Sacramento native redshirted last season because of a shoulder injury, and this spring was moved to defensive tackle.
Manley came to Berkeley from City College of San Francisco a year ago, and was redshirted.
Trevor Kelly, who arrived this spring as a transfer from College of San Mateo, also is playing the position, along with redshirt freshman Tony Merkari. Kelly, at 6-2, 315 pounds, needs to drop about 20 pounds, Dykes said.
The total D-I game day experience of those four players: Zero.
The Bears’ experienced player at the position is Jalil, once a top-10 national recruit at his position. He remains a question mark after missing all of last season.
Dykes said Jalil underwent surgery to alleviate pain in his knee caused by a lack of cartilage. Doctors tell the coaching staff the surgery was a success, but Jalil was held out of spring ball to let the knee recover fully.
“He’s feeling much better, but he hasn’t done much,” Dykes said. “He’s got to get in shape, get his weight down and give himself a chance to be a player.”
Still, Jalil was enough of a question mark that the Bears signed JC defensive tackles Kelly and David Davis, who will arrive in August.
Wilfley said he was approached prior to spring ball by new defensive coordinator Art Kaufman, who suggested the position change.
“I’m a fifth-year senior so this is my last year to prove myself,” said Wilfley, who wants to add 15 pounds to reach 280 by August. “He saw a lot of potential in me, said he saw a lot of good future in me. Things are looking pretty good so far.”
Manley acknowledged he wasn’t disciplined enough last season to earn playing time after arriving from Santa Monica College. The game was too fast, his technique wasn’t good enough.
Redshirting last spring, Manley said, “definitely prepared me for the intensity. I’m just more prepared now than coming in last year.”
Conceding that none of them has played, Dykes said the coaching staff feels encouraged by what they’ve seen this spring from their defensive tackles.
“Obviously those guys have a chance to be good players, they just haven’t done it yet,” he said.
Neither Wilfley or Manley intends to give up the spot he worked for this spring.
“I definitely earned it,” Wilfley said. “I just need to keep working on what I’m doing and gain some weight and I feel like I’ll be in a good spot.”
Said Manley of his spot, “This is mine to keep.”
There is no resolution on Hunter’s excused absence from team activities. Dykes said the Bears expect him back, but that Hunter was granted a little more time to sort out his personal issue.
Junior WR Chris Harper, who wasn’t going to participate on Saturday anyway as he continues to rehab offseason shoulder surgery, sprained his left ankle and was on crutches Wednesday. Dykes said it’s not serious.