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Cal DBs: The Takers

Meet 'The Takers': Cal's Elite 2019 DBs

Ashtyn Davis (27) flies in to break up a pass against North Carolina receiver Roscoe Johnson last season.  |  Getty Images

By Kam Azemika, SportsPac12

In just two years as head coach at Cal, Justin Wilcox has established one of the most intimidating defenses in the Conference. On the surface, the Golden Bears appear to have built their fortress around a tenacious front seven that relies on elite middle linebacker play. But the Bear defense wouldn't be among the best in the nation without also having a top-flight ballhawking defensive back unit.

Cal linebackers coach Peter Sirmon has a knack for finding and developing tackling machines: Devante Downs, Jordan Kunaszyk, and Evan Weaver have led both on and off the field, in tackles and by example, earning them All-Conference honors. Not to be outdone, secondary coach Gerald Alexander has assembled an equally intimidating group of defensive backs. 
After watching the unit snatch away 21 interceptions last season—a mark matched by only two other Pac-12 teams since 2013—Alexander dubbed them “The Takers.”

But everything the Bear secondary did last year pales in the face of what motivates them this season. 

Bryce Turner's Passing a Special Source of Inspiration

Bryce Turner, 1998-2019
Cal's defensive backs have developed a special bond after losing a teammate they loved like a brother. Bryce Turner, a 20-year-old sophomore cornerback and St. John Bosco alum, was hospitalized during an individual workout in early January, and passed away as a result of an undisclosed medical emergency. 

The secondary joins the entire Bears team is wanting to keep his legacy alive. They've devoted themselves to playing with his heart on their sleeves, and his memory in their hearts throughout the season. The Twitter hashtag “#RipBT” made waves on social media in the aftermath of his passing, revealing the extent to which Turner touched the lives of his teammates, coaches, and fans. The term “family” has taken on new meaning for Cal football in 2019: It means giving Bryce Turner’s legacy a permanent place in Bear football history. 

Yes, this Cal secondary has a chance to be one of the best ever to play in Strawberry Canyon, but more importantly, it has a special purpose. 

The Unlikely Genesis of Cal's Defensive Back Unit 

To some, it may seem like Cal's talented secondary appeared out of thin air, rising to greatness overnight. But that’s hardly the case. The group came together in a way few could have predicted. 

Jaylinn Hawkins
Safety Jaylinn Hawkins was the starting unit’s only four-star recruit, according to the 247Sports Composite rankings. It's not a stretch to say he has performed more like a five-star, leading the Pac-12 in interceptions two years later. Recruited as a wide receiver because of his 6-foot-1 frame and playmaking ability, Hawkins possesses characteristics not often associated with top safeties. His high school film shows him playing offense about 80 percent of the time, primarily on receiver screens, while also running an occasional deep route. Either way, he could be seen beating his man with burner-speed. 

Ashtyn Davis
While Hawkins is the highest-touted recruit in the Bear secondary, fellow safety Ashtyn Davis comes from the other end of the recruiting spectrum. The Santa Cruz High School product was unranked in every obtainable recruiting database. So as a football recruit with no stars, he switched his focus to track and field. But Davis still aspired to be a Division I wide receiver, and Cal’s track coach granted him permission to try out for football as a walk-on. His career on the track culminated with a Pac-12 championship and second-team All-American honors in the 110m hurdles in the spring of 2018. But he wasn’t done competing just yet. 

In the fall of that year, Davis started all 13 games at safety for the Bears, earning a spot on the Associated Press All-Conference First Team. He also earned Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week honors in the penultimate Conference game against Colorado. Davis returns for his senior year with a chance to make a bigger splash at Cal, hoping to show he belongs in the NFL.

Three-Star Prospects, Three Tough Corners

While safeties Hawkins and Davis form complimentary opposites in the paths they took to their college football careers, Cal’s three starting cornerbacks—Camryn Bynum,  Elijah Hicks, and Traveon Beck—took eerily similar routes to Bear stardom. All three made their way to Berkeley as three-star recruits, and have since played well above their rating. 
Camryn Bynum

Bynum, out of Centennial High School in Corona, Calif., is arguably the best of the three. A vastly undersized player for most of his high school career, he now plays at 6-feet tall and 190 pounds. Those measurables belie his pervasive role as a human blanket. Beyond his reputation as a smothering tackler, Bynum seems to glide across the field in his coverage, making it difficult for receivers to find separation. Though he grabbed just two interceptions last year, his opportunities were limited by the preference of quarterbacks to target guys who were open—and that tended not to be the guys Bynum was covering. 

Traveon Beck
Traveon Beck and Elijah Hicks are Bynum’s returning counterparts. With all three returning as starters, the experience of this unit is scary. Like Bynum, Beck and Hicks were both three-star recruits. 
Elijah Hicks

Beck has become a key part of the defense with his play at the nickel corner position due to his pit bull tenacity when the ball is in the air. Beck may have the best and most aggressive ball skills of all the Cal corners. Hicks is a slightly bigger-bodied corner who plays opposite Bynum at the other outside corner. At 5-foot-11 and 195 pounds, Hicks seems to have twice the open-field tackling ability he was projected to have as a prep, and has the coverage skills of a high-end starting outside corner. 

Josh Drayden
Josh Drayden, a transfer from Oregon State, should serve as the primary backup for the group. As the first man off the bench, the senior cornerback can play outside or inside at the nickel spot, given his agility and technique. Drayden is agile enough to develop into an elite inside corner. His versatility makes him an ideal plug-and-play guy for any of the other corner spots. 

Bottom Line: The Cal secondary will be loaded once again this year. Everyone will need to do their part to keep the Bears in winnable games, as they did last year, until the revamped offense finds its footing.

Kam Azemika (@CalKam19) covers Cal football and basketball for

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