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the Gekko Files: previewing Cal football in 2017

A familiar face has a tall task to tackle.

For all of you folks who have taken glee in the refrain of “Cal is ranked too high,” your discordance has now officially been heard (and I’m not just talking about these rankings).

For those of you who love all things Berkeley and see Cal as a favorite “little brother” program in the PAC, this is not the preview that will give you warm and fuzzies.

In fact, if Cal football were a PAC 12 basketball program, they may well just be Mike Hopkins’ Huskies. The mission for both is to stop the bleeding.

Consider the parallels. A depleted roster. A program coming off of a run of underachieving seasons. A handicapped first recruiting class. A first time head coach backed up by an experienced staff. A confused fanbase wondering if this was the best that the program’s PAC 12 Network-subsidized coffers could buy. The prospect of competing in a division where it seems just about everybody else has passed you by and gotten a headstart.

Caution: the preview ahead is not for the faint of heart. Names will be dropped. Feelings might just get hurt. But if you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find him...maybe you can read the Gekko.

Cal’s Offense

Cal Offense Highlights

Strengths Weaknesses Key Players Newcomers
Strengths Weaknesses Key Players Newcomers
WR playmaking QB play WR Demetris Robertson WR Jordan Duncan (TFr)
balanced RB corps pass blocking WR Marquise Stovall OT Jake Curhan (RFR)
OL Addison Ooms

For years, previewing Cal’s offense has been kind of fun. The “Bear Raid”: an offense that combines its stable of a gazillion identical receivers with a gunslinging QB. A philosophy that put a talented RB corps with an offensive line that believed that interfering with a tackler trying to make a tackle was more an ideal than an achievable goal. A coach who believed that giving up 45 was perfectly acceptable as long as your team could score 46.

Remember this greatest hit? In last year’s win over the Ducks, Cal and Oregon combined for an NCAA record 1,086 yards of offense, 203 plays and 101 points. Oh, and one turnover. That’s offense right there.

God, I’m going to miss the Sonny Dykes.

Sad Bear

Cal’s 2017 offense hasn’t actually been consumed by a sinkhole in the middle of Strawberry Canyon, but it is about to look a whole lot different.

It’s hard to not start with QB, where the Bears have enjoyed a stretch of highly competent play over the last several years. Jared Goff turned out to be the #1 pick in the NFL draft while Davis Webb created his own brand with a gunslinging style that produced numbers. Unfortunately, neither of those guys produced much in the way of wins for Cal and now Justin Wilcox is looking for someone to do just that.

The two players to emerge from the spring were Northwest native Ross Bowers and junior Chase Forrest. It’s hard to know what Cal has in either player, but I don’t think it’s a huge stretch to say “not much.” If pressed, I’d say that Forrest has a few more tools to work with - namely a decent arm - while Bowers might be the more heady of the two. Either way, the QB question at hand really isn’t about 2017. In 2018, Cal fans can expect a broad competition that features high-level recruit Chase Garbers (true freshman) along with incoming South Carolina transfer Brandon McIlwain, who will have three to play three. With both of their redshirts (former UW target Max Gilliam and Victor Viramontes) deciding to transfer, getting through the season ahead seems to be the strategy in much the same way Chris Petersen juggled his QB situation in his first year before moving on to Jake Browning.

The lack of competent QB play hinders what looks like an otherwise serviceable offense. I remain particularly bullish about the receiver corps, which features high upside talents like five-star sophomore Demetris Robertson and four-star sophomore Marquise Stovall. These guys might lack ideal size, but they both have ridiculous quicks and can turn short passes into big gains.

The running backs will miss the talent of leading rusher Khalfani Muhammad, but still return the dynamic duo of Tre Watson and Vic Enwere. These are competent running backs who can both grind and who have the experience to make the plays that are in front of them. Watson is also a decent pass-catcher and ought to thrive in a Beau Baldwin-kind of offense.

While I’m on the subject, I have to say that the hire of former EWU head coach Beau Baldwin was a stroke of genius for Wilcox. Baldwin is an established innovator who knows a thing or two about competing against teams with more firepower. The problem for Baldwin is that I’m not sure he ever had to go into a football game with an offensive line as overmatched as I think the Bears’ unit will be. Outside of C Addison Ooms, the Bears will be sporting a patchwork line made of veterans with very little field time and young players who might not be ready to stand up to PAC 12 pass rushes. That said, young tackle Jake Curhan is a possible breakout candidate and player to watch.

While they still ought to score some points, I’m not sure that there is an offense in the PAC that projects to take as far a step backward as the Bears might. And I say that with the utmost respect for what we all know that Beau Baldwin is capable of. If he can find a way to get a quick passing game going that minimizes the responsibilities of his tackles and exploits the talents of his WRs, things might not turn out so bleak. But that is a big if.

Cal’s Defense

Cal Defense Highlights

Strengths Weaknesses Key Players Newcomers
Strengths Weaknesses Key Players Newcomers
edge control up-the-middle strength LB/DE Cameron Saffle DE/LB Russel Ude (Soph)
overall experience DB play DT/DE James Looney LB Aaron Funches (Txfr)
new system S Luke Rubenzer

Let’s face it, Justin Wilcox wasn’t hired to make Cal’s offense great again. That’s just pure covfefe. Wilcox is the head coach at Cal because of the number 1,381. That’s how many points Cal has given up in just the past three seasons - an average of 460 points per season. To put that number in perspective, 460 points surrendered in 2016 (Cal actually gave up 517) would have ranked them 115th in the nation last year (just ahead of WSU) in points surrendered.

Grambling v California
S Luke Rubenzer is all of a sudden a key veteran on the Cal defense.
Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Needless to say, things have been bad-bordering-on-putrid with Cal’s defense over the entirety of the Sonny Dykes era.

Enter Wilcox - an experienced defensive coordinator with stops at Tennessee, Washington, Wisconsin, and USC - and former Fresno State head coach Tim DeRuyter playing the role of dutiful defensive coordinator. The two of them will undoubtedly install a defense that will look remarkably similar to the one that Husky fans are used to looking at every Saturday (in form if not in function). It’s not surprising given that a) the shit works and b) Cal even tried to hire UW co-defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake for the DC role.

The bigger question is whether or not Cal can do anything with the talent they have on hand. My quick assessment is “not really.”

The not-quite-so-horrible news for Wilcox is that he has bodies to work with - particularly in the defensive secondary. CB Darius Allensworth and former QB-turned-S Luke Rubenzer are both back for the Bears and bring with them a great deal of experience. Former WR Jaylinn Hawkins (remember him?) and safety Evan Rambo are another pair of names that people might recognize as quality players around which to build a unit.

The rest of the defense is clearly a work in progress. I’ll be paying particular attention to a linebacking corps that has some good players but hasn’t been very good as a unit. Seniors Devante Downs and Raymond Davison are back to provide leadership. Maybe coaching will unleash their potential. Or, perhaps, room will have to be made for young players like sophomore Russell Ude or RS freshman Cameron Goode.

The defensive line has more patchwork than the repairs made by Gilligan and the crew to the USS Minnow after that fateful trip. It’s just not serviceable. James Looney and Tony Mekari are both seniors and will handle the middle of the line. Cameron Saffle has been a particularly effective rush end kind of player. Depth comes from players like Noah Westerfield and end Zeande Johnson. The big issue here is that Tim DeRuyter is installing a four-man front and there just are not enough able bodies to make that a smooth transition in Year One.

One Breakout Player

OLB/DE Russell Ude

It is kind of a weird year for Cal in that there is a coaching change happening but in the context of a roster that actually has a lot of experienced players. In such a situation, you might imagine that a player who might have been overlooked by the previous staff all of a sudden flourishes under the new staff. In particular, a four-man-front defense could really pay off for one of the experienced linebackers. A guy like Devante Downs could really see his production explode this year. Ditto Cameron Saffle, although with 8.5 TFL and 4 sacks a year ago, it would be hard to call him a breakout kind of guy.

Since I think that this is going to be a difficult year for the Cal offense, I’m going to avoid picking an obvious name like a Marquise Stovall or Demetris Robertson in favor of the defense. My first instinct was to go with Jaylinn Hawkins, who played a lot as a true freshman in a new position without making a ton of impact.

It might still be Hawkins, but I’d keep my eye on OLB/DE Russell Ude. The 6’3” 245-pounder is a natural pass rusher who looks a lot to me like a long-armed Psalm Wooching. He’s quick if not fast and looks like the kind of player who keeps motoring all the way through a play. Guys like that seem to find their way on to the field. For whatever reason, and maybe a Cal fan can chime in here, Ude didn’t seem to get much run under the Dykes/Kaufmann regime. Ude ought to get such an opportunity this year. I’d be looking for him to generate somewhere around 10 TFLs and four or five sacks in his first full year of playing time.

Projecting Cal

Cal is already playing from behind given the change in coaching and the huge questions they have at QB. The story gets much harder to read once you consider the kind of schedule that Cal has play - a schedule that ESPN has ranked as the most difficult in the nation in 2017.

The obvious thing that jumps out with the Cal schedule is the presence of two OOC Power 5 teams in vs Ole Miss and at North Carolina. Those are two tough games, neither of which look like wins.

The fun continues for Cal with a conference schedule that:

  • has no bye week until November 11
  • only has four home games, including an almost certain L against USC
  • has misses against Utah and Arizona State
  • features an early four-game stretch of vs Ole Miss, vs USC, @ Oregon and @ Washington

I don’t think that the PAC 12 stretch by itself is the worst I’ve ever seen. However, the difficult early stretch, the two Power 5 OOC opponents, and the late bye seem destined to put Cal into a short-handed and slow-start situation.

I’m having a hard time seeing how anything really comes together for the Bears in 2017. They are not necessarily bereft of talent - there are some really good pieces to build around. But coaching transitions are difficult and the schedule doesn’t provide any favors. I could see the Bears racking up two wins in conference with an upside opportunity at four. Either way, a bowl game seems out of reach.