Unpacking The Pac-12: Cal Grinds Out Struggling Trojans

I was on the road this weekend for Iowa/Northwestern -- a game which was decidedly non-Paccy. As such, my Pac-12 exposure this week was a little light.

Cal v. USC

As it was the latest of night games, I caught Cal v. USC, and walked away impressed once again with the job that Cal HC Justin Wilcox and DC Tim DeRuyter do making in-game adjustments. Cal absolutely suffocated the USC offense (zero second-half points) en route to an impressive 15-14 victory.

Wilcox is willing to get creative and multiple on the back-end, which is what makes his defense tough to suss out for opposing quarterbacks. But you need the players to execute that. Two stood out to me: Ashtyn Davis and Traveon Beck.

Davis was the more impressive of the two...so we'll wait on him and talk Beck first. An undersized junior nickel at 5-foot-9 and 160 pounds, Beck proved mighty sticky when dealing with USC's slot WRs, and USC was rotating talented players like Tyler Vaughns and underclassmen Amon Ra St. Brown into his area.

Beck's interception on the day -- he also had a high-quality PBU -- was really eye-popping. In an off-alignment with disguised safety help over the top, he had the freedom to play downhill into a quick-breaking route. And when his responsibility alerted to a quick slant against the soft coverage, Beck shot downhill and robbed the cradle for an INT in USC territory. It eventually turned into the go-ahead score.

But Davis is the player I'm really intrigued by off the cuff. True centerfield range is a rare commodity, and Cal is deploying an All-American in the 110-meter hurdles and national bronze medalist in the 60-meter hurdles in the middle of their defense.

It ain't tough to tell that this cat is fast.

But the hurdling success also tells you he's a high-waisted player, and those long strides really let him burn when he's on a straight line. Closing downfield, Davis (6-foot-1, 195 pounds) delivered multiple strong shots, and also affected a PBU by curling back from short zone into a deeper area of the field. That zone awareness stands out.

On multiple sideline deep shots, Davis was on time with arrival of the football from a centerfielding position. On one, he was early -- woulda been a pick if the ball wasn't deep into the sideline. I still have a few ball skill questions accordingly (only one INT this season), but he clearly has the traits.

Other notes:

  • For my money, the best Cal offensive prospect is RB Patrick Laird or iOL Addison Ooms, but possession receiver Vic Wharton III. He had a killer sequence for Cal's first touchdown: after chirping with a USC corner on three consecutive plays, he absolutely toasted him with a sharp route in the near red zone for an uncontested TD. Then he let that same corner know exactly what just happened. I respect it
  • Cal CB Camryn Bynum has some buzz right now, but man, he looks small. He stayed nicely in phase on a few downfield routes, but he didn't have much of a shot affecting the catch point on accurate passes.
  • Gotta talk about a USC player, huh? This team underwhelms from top to bottom, but WR Tyler Vaughns saw an increase in volume in the absence of teammate Michael Pittman Jr. I like his catch radius and ability to work a back-shoulder fade with late adjustments; I worry about his physicality.

Fresno State v. Boise State

I'm sorry, what was that? Fresno State and Boise State don't play in the Pac-12? Yeah, but they also played a really good game chock-full o' pro prospects, and it was on the West Coast. And we're gonna talk about it.

My focus for this game has to be the illustrious KeeSean Johnson, senior wide receiver for Fresno State. Currently sixth in all of college ball in both receptions and yards, Johnson was profiled as a sleeper prospect by our Brad Kelly earlier this month. Well, it's morning, and we're all waking up on Johnson.

KeeSean made three plays I can remember off the top of my head in which his hand strength made my eyebrows jump. He has "attack hands," head coach Jeff Tedford calls them: he aggressively addresses the football away from his frame, with the presumption that contact and contest is coming.

Johnson had a scramble-drill touchdown on the day on top of eight receptions for 95 yards, but he generally outclassed a decent Boise State secondary and could have gone for more with better quarterback play.

He also did this.

I like that.

KeeSean is a listed 6-foot-2 200-pounder, but his catch radius and alpha ability make him play bigger. I'd love to see him do a bit more intermediate work, as that will likely be a requirement for his NFL play. How sharp are his routes? Can he win with leverage across the middle?

If Fresno is able to make the conference championship game, they'll play in four more games this season. Johnson is 33 catches off of the MWC record for career receptions, and averages seven receptions a game. He's in striking distance.

Other notes:

  • Because we talked flashy safety prospects in the top with Cal, we'll talk flashy safety prospects here. Fresno State has a redshirt junior by the name of Mike Bell Jr. -- he's 6-foot-3 and 205 pounds, and made a couple impact coverage plays, though dropping an easy interception never looks good on film.
  • Boise QB Brett Rypien threw a God-awful pick -- a fluttering prayer in the red zone when under pressure -- and besides that played one of his best games I've seen. He knows his limitations when throwing into the boundary, but can hit practically every throw on the field with anticipation, arm slotting, and great placement.
  • I don't know if Alexander Mattison is going to be good in the NFL. The Boise running back is a bit of a plodder and doesn't often take the path of least resistance, but you gotta love his unwillingness to go down and excellent pad level in the mess. I respect his game.


Written By:

Benjamin Solak

NFL Draft Analyst

NFL Draft Analyst for The Draft Network. Deputy Editor of Bleeding Green Nation. Undergrad at UChicago.