LOS ANGELES — Inside Camryn Bynum and Elijah Hicks’s apartment you’ll find the usual items associated with college-aged kids: hand-me-downs. There is a comfortable couch that was passed down by a family member and a small dining room table that Bynum’s aunt gave him. There is a 65-inch flatscreen TV—it wasn’t free, but let’s face it: what college guy’s apartment doesn’t have an oversized television? In the far corner of the room is where the décor gets weird. There are medicine balls and a dip rack for working out and foam rollers for stretching.
And on the wall, there is a white board. You know, the kind you might find in a math or English class, the ones that span full walls of football meeting rooms. This one is located inside the digs of the two Cal Bear defensive backs, used by them and their fellow DBs for film-watching, white board-drawing parties with the entire Cal starting secondary. Cornerbacks Bynum and Hicks and safeties Ashtyn Davis and Jaylinn Hawkins dissect offensive passing concepts as if they’re inside the DB meeting room, and they draw defensive formations as if they’re in front of pro scouts at the NFL combine. “It’s not normal at all,” says Bynum, the ringleader of the group. “It sounds crazy and sounds like we’re some squares, but that’s what we enjoy doing.”
If you’re wondering how a walk-on track hurdler (Davis), a receiver-turned-safety (Hawkins) and two three-star rated high school cornerbacks have converged to form arguably the best secondary in the nation, look no farther than that white board. You read that right: Here out west, overshadowed and underestimated, is potentially the top-ranked crew of defensive backs in college football, all of them returning starters from 2018’s stifling unit, including fifth man Traveon Beck. They are the opposite of a who’s who, individually garnering little notoriety while collectively producing a masterpiece in pass coverage. How masterful? Passing statistics tell part of the story. Cal intercepted more passes (21) than any defense except Utah State (22) last year, 19 of those coming from defensive backs. Against the Bears last season, no quarterback passed for more than two touchdowns in a single game (that only happened twice), and just three teams eclipsed the 200-yard passing mark. The Bears finished 2018 at No. 1 in respected football guru Phil Steele’s pass defense rankings, a mark achieved through a formula that combines two categories: a defense’s passing touchdowns allowed against its passes intercepted (for Cal, 13-to-21) and its passing yards allowed per game (in Cal’s case, 175.1). The Bears enter 2019 projected to finish second in the rankings, only behind LSU and its allotment of five-star talents. Five stars? There are none on this crew. Four stars? None of those either.
How such an underrated group has climbed to the top of college football’s secondary mountain is a lesson in the ole saying: brains beat brawn. “We call it playing above the neck,” Bynum says. “I don’t think other people know what we know about defenses and route concepts.” That white board in Bynum’s living room is at the center of it all, but so is the system in which they play. Head coach Justin Wilcox is a defensive guru who’s coordinated suffocating defenses at Boise State, Washington and Wisconsin. In keeping with the theme of this story, at the heart of Wilcox’s scheme is “smart football,” Bynum says. Wilcox humbly rejects any responsibility. “I’d love to say it’s coaching. We have a good system and coach it right, but it’s the guys,” he says. “That group of guys is different.”
Wilcox, entering his third season, inherited three of the four members of that DB group, but whether he signed them or not, the 42-year old has overhauled the way they play, resulting in an astounding defensive turnaround. In Sonny Dykes’s final season as head coach in 2016, Cal’s defense gave up 518.3 yards a game, better than just three other teams in FBS. In 2018, the unit allowed 200 fewer yards a game to rank 15th nationally, the best finish for the program since 1994. It also ended a nasty skid: For six consecutive seasons, from 2012 to 2017, the Cal defense didn’t crack the top 90 in total defense.
So, what kind of Xs and Os magic did Wilcox conjure in Berkeley to make such a turnaround? “That stuff gets really overstated. Nobody’s reinventing the wheel,” he says. “We try to teach the guys what the quarterbacks are looking at and hopefully we can disguise the best we can, teach them how they’re being stressed and how the offense is trying to manipulate them.” The way Bynum describes it, Wilcox’s defense is more aggressive than the one he operated in during his redshirt season in 2016. Under Dykes’s staff, the defensive mentality was “don’t get beat,” he says. “Now, it is make plays, don’t worry about not getting beat. You got to be more excited to win versus scared to lose.”
But as Cal’s defense has improved, the offense has regressed. It’s gone from one of the best (ranked 10th in 2016) to one of the worst (115th last season). The unit is holding back a program that Wilcox is attempting to make a consistent winner again. The Bears last advanced to consecutive bowl games in 2008–09, the back end of the Jeff Tedford years, and to end that streak, they’ll need to maneuver a 2019 schedule that includes trips to arguably the top four teams in the league (Washington, Oregon, Utah and Stanford), as well as a game in SEC territory (Ole Miss). Don’t worry, Bynum and the boys are there to potentially save the day. They’ve proven, above anything else maybe, that they don’t allow big plays (sixth nationally in giving up plays of 10 yards or more). They are one of the strongest final lines of defense. And, yes, these are the same defensive backs who were so lightly recruited that not one was inside the top 30 at their position in recruiting rankings.
“It’s a unique thing that happened here,” explains Hicks, the cornerback and, as a junior, the youngest of this veteran group. “So many people go underrated. I chose Cal because of the school and the power of the school. I think we all have the vibe—low recruited and go to Cal because it’s a good school. The type of guys we get at Cal are humble, smart and people who just work hard.”
As a high school senior, Hawkins rated the best of the group, but not as a defensive back. He was the 32nd-ranked receiver in the 2015 class. He’s evolved into such a fearless, ball-hawking safety (he had six picks last year) that he’s developed a nickname on the team: J-Hawk. His fellow safety, Davis, signed with the Cal track team after breaking high school records in the 110-meter hurdles, then walked onto the football squad and has evolved into the most celebrated of this group of defensive backs. He landed on a few All-Pac 12 teams for a performance last season that included four interceptions, one of those a pick six, and some snazzy return skills. He took 24 kickoffs back for an average of 26 yards and scored on an 89-yarder. Wilcox calls Davis an “anomaly,” a kid who arrived at Cal without any football game tape from high school. “They didn’t have a film guy,” Bynum says. Davis is from the Bay Area, the only one of the five who isn’t from near Los Angeles.
Hicks is the physical and aggressive one, so bold that Wilcox says of him, “He’ll fight you.” Beck is the fifth man, a rotational nickelback who, while away from the facility, hangs out with a separate crowd—not that it’s a bad thing. He just has his own clique. “He’s got the jewelry, drives a black Range Rover,” Bynum says smiling. “We call him Deion Sanders. He’s flashy and he plays flashy, which is good.” Bynum, meanwhile, is the technician of the group, priding himself in footwork. He’s the coach of the secondary when outside the football building. Inside it, the group’s leader is Gerald Alexander, a former NFL safety who Wilcox coached at Boise State. At 35, he’s relatable to his own players. He gets their jokes and understands their social media habit. “He’s on Twitter,” laughs Bynum. Alexander orchestrates a group that moves so seamlessly together that Wilcox compares their flow to that of the connected pieces on a foosball table. There’s no secret scheme behind their success, Alexander claims. Wilcox’s method concentrates, more than anything, on teaching the why behind the defense. “Giving the kids a deep understanding of what it is that we’re asking them to do,” Alexander says. “You understand not just the answer but how you got to the answer.”
That, of course, transpires in Bynum and Hicks’s living room on that white board, next to the medicine balls, dip bar, freebie couch and dining room table. Players get so immersed in these film-watching, white-board sessions that they forget they’re home, Hicks says. “It has a film room vibe like being at the school. We get lost in it.” But this group still dabbles in fun college stuff. They’ll compete in video games. Davis, for instance, is a Fortnite master, and Hicks can dominate a game of Madden NFL. Bynum is best at the now-defunct NCAA Football. He loves it so much that this offseason he purchased a PlayStation 3 so he can play NCAA Football 2014, the last released version.
The duels between Hicks and Bynum get intensely competitive. Hicks likes to play with Oregon and electric receiver De’Anthony Thomas. Bynum counters with LSU so he can patrol the secondary with safety Tyrann Mathieu. They sometimes play with Cal. The game is updated with current roster numbers so, despite the absence of names on jerseys, they can actually play as themselves. On the game, most of the Cal defensive backs are rated in the 70s and 80s on a scale that runs to 100. Yes, even in the digital version of life, this crew is undervalued. “That’s just somebody’s opinion,” Hicks says. “We know how we’ve been overlooked and underrated. We just want to win. We have a chip on our shoulder.”