The Cal defense wasn't exactly invincible in the early portion of last season. The Bears had given up more than 45 points in weeks three, four and five. Still, the Bears were 4-1 and the defense, even despite those ridiculous point totals, was considerably improved over 2013.
Then safety Griffin Piatt sustained a season-ending knee injury against Washington in mid-October. That seemed to take the heart out of the defense as the Bears lost six of their last seven games and limped home with a 5-7 record. The defense certainly missed the 6-3, 205-pounder.
"He was really starting to come into his own," Cal coach Sonny Dykes said Monday at the Bay Area College Football Media Day at Levi's Stadium. Piatt had been leading the team in tackles with 25 and had three interceptions. Alas, that latter figure stood as the team season high, no other Bear had more than two and the team totaled just ten all year. And all Piatt could do was watch.
"It was very frustrating," Piatt said yesterday. "I played the first half of the season, and I tried to be a big player on the defense, and then to go out right in the (season) middle. We had some depth issues and I wanted to be out there with my teammates. … It's tough to watch from the sidelines."
But now Piatt is back, even as he will be handled gingerly during the early days of Fall Camp starting this Friday. "It's coming along," he said. "I have been rehabbing it for awhile now, doing a lot of work over the summer to get it ready. I probably won't be going full go when camp starts, But I will ease into it."
He figures about two weeks of light duty should be enough. "It will take a little bit of time once I put the pads on," he said.
He came to Cal as a walk-on wide-receiver from Campolindo High in nearby Moraga. Bothered by injuries as a high school junior, he attracted little attention from recruiters. "Smaller schools like Brown had some interest," he said. "But I decided to walk on to either Cal or UCLA."
It really wasn't much of a choice. Piatt's grandfather had played basketball for the Bears in the 1930s and he grown up watching Cal sports. He says current Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch was his favorite player.
He made the team as a wide receiver, spending his sophomore year on the scout team. Then the injury big struck again, shortening his season and leading to the position switch. When Piatt was on the shelf, Dykes summoned him to his office. "They said they had a lot of wide receivers and needed help at safety. They asked me if it (moving to defense) was something I'd be willing to do; I said yes."
Piatt felt it was his best way to get on the field. "I played some safety in high school, but it had been awhile since I had been on that side of the ball,."
He won the starting safety job the next spring, and was doing fine until his knee injury.
"As a converted wide receiver, he's got good ball skills, good anticipation," Dykes said. "He goes up and competes well for the football. He creates a lot of turnovers. We didn't have anybody who really did that for us after he went out with an injury. We're excited to get him back.
"He is a solid guy, a good athlete, a better athlete than people think he is. He's got a good knack for knowing where the ball is going to be. One big thing for our defense this year is going to be creating turnovers. If he is healthy and playing back there we certainly have an opportunity to create more turnovers."
Piatt agrees that coming from the wide receiver position is a definite help. "It definitely carries over," he said. "I can do some ball hawking from the safety position and a lot of that stems from my having been a wide receiver."
He felt his ability to anticipate the opposing quarterback figured in his interceptions. "They all were fairly similar; they put a little too much loft on the ball," he said "Two of them I ended up on the ground so I couldn't return them, but I was able to read the quarterback and put myself in that position."
While he was injured he still tried to make himself part of the team. "I was on the sidelines every game," he said. "And I tried to stay involved. I went to meetings, stayed engaged, did mental reps. While I was on the sidelines, was trying to help the guys, tell them what to look for."
Piatt's wasn't the only injury to hit the Bears secondary; he believes the Bears paid the price for having to use newcomers.. "I think there were a lot of mental breakdowns due to lack of experience. There were a lot of guys playing for the first time," he said.
He added that having a second year under defensive coordinator Art Kaufman will definitely lead to improvement. "We are familiar with the defense and able to react to situations," he said. "We have to know what to do before the ball is snapped.