Is it a from-the-studs remodel that overhauls not only talent but also identity? Or is it a poorly conceived change-for-change’s-sake reboot of a program that over the years has tried on many hats seeking a return to the path down which Jeff Tedford & Co. once had this program cruising?
The Cal rebuild has intrigued me over the last several years. It seems that whenever the coach du jour wanted to establish a singular strength to build upon as the core identity of the program, he has succeeded somewhat radically in doing so. Jeff Tedford, for all his warts, valued balance both in terms of offensive/defensive prowess and run/pass performance. For the most part, he delivered. Sonny Dykes wanted to emphasize a fast, score-first-score-often offense. He was so successful at it that #drop50 was actually a thing in Berkeley just a few years ago. The arrival of Justin Wilcox came with it a renewed emphasis on defense first. Lo and behold, the results on that side of the ball came far sooner than any of us “rational” fans would have thought possible.
But here is the thing: the wins haven’t come. In fact, you have to go all the way back to 2008 to find a Bears team that put up nine wins in a season. 2006 is the last time that they put up 10.
Why not more success? Other teams across the nation have been able to put together better runs emphasizing just one strength. But, obviously, the road in the PAC 12, complete with all of its talent and conflicting football schemes, is a little more competitive and a little more challenging than most other conferences. The key for Cal, and any team looking to rebuild in this conference, is to start with an identity and then to expand on that over time.
So, is Cal there? Are they in a position to begin to add to the “tough-up-the-middle” identity that Justin Wilcox has so brilliantly cultivated in such short order? Or is this a team that is stuck in second gear and unready to move to the next level?
It’s time to open the Gekko Files and look at the California Golden Bears.
Cal’s offense was easily the worst performing unit in the PAC 12 last season. Their 343 yards of total offense per game was nearly 40 yards lower than the 11th-place finisher (Stanford) and they finished ranked 118th in the nation in Offensive S&P+ (per Bill Connelly). Whether we are talking about the five interceptions thrown in the Cheez-It Bowl, the six games where they failed to pass the 20-point mark, the 35% third-down conversion rate, or the revolving door at quarterback, it was all a mess.
2019 will open with several changes. Former UW great Marques Tuiasosopo has been reassigned to coaching tight ends (OC Beau Baldwin will take over QBs), former starting QB Ross Bowers has transferred to Northern Illinois, receiver Kanawai Noa has transferred to Nebraska, and key players like RB Patrick Laird, WR Vic Wharton, and TE Ray Hudson have all moved on. Sometimes change can be good. But it can also be disruptive.
The greatest hope for the Cal offense will be the emergence of a quarterback to run Baldwin’s offense. Chase Garbers returns as the favorite to start the season. At his best, he’s a competent all-around kind of guy who is mobile, accurate enough, and owns good command of the offense. He’ll be trying to hold off UCLA transfer Devon Modster, who has both a bigger arm and comparable mobility to Garbers. Modster has started several PAC 12 football games and is a legit threat in the QB race.
The Cal passing attack will have to get by without any clear go-to receivers. The good news is that there is no shortage of bodies. Jordan Duncan and Michigan transfer Kekoa Crawford will be counted upon to carry the load on the outside. Jeremiah Hawkins is a decent slot receiver who will also garner a lot of snaps.
Beyond those guys, Cal will be breaking in a bunch of young players, including a tight end group that features no returning players who have ever caught a pass. Cal fans are excited about 6’3” true freshman WR Makai Polk and 6’5” RS freshman TE McCallan Castles.
Keep in mind that there really aren’t that many burners among the receiving corps. So if Cal is to move the ball, they will have to rely on efficiency. That is where the offensive line really becomes a factor. Unfortunately, there are a lot of questions to be answered.
Cal is replacing three guys with starting experience, including their star C Addison Ooms. In doing so, they are going to try to increase the level of athleticism across the line. Sophomore LT Will Craig at 6’5” and 270 lbs is a perfect example of this transformation. Craig is projected as a first-time starter along with C/G Michael Saffell. As these guys and their backups get broken in, much will be put on the shoulders of returning starters RT Jake Curhan and OG Valentino Daltoso.
The rushing attack will be a point of emphasis for Justin Wilcox given his challenges in the passing game. With Laird having graduated, Chris Brown Jr. will get his chance to become the featured back. Senior Marcel Dancy will likely be the backup. The real x-factor in the rushing attack will be QB Brandon McIlwain, who last year led the team with nearly 6 yards per carry and was second on the team with four rushing touchdowns. He’ll be strictly a wildcat QB in 2019 but may actually lose some of those carries to Garbers, who also can run the ball.
I’m not going to lie: this has the potential to be an even worse offense than last year. The Bears are really depending on the health of some of their top guys (Duncan, Brown, Curhan) and a few breakout-level performances. They are also going to be betting heavily on reducing turnovers and moving chains, as there just isn’t enough playmaking on this team to score from out deep. It’s a tall order.
Earlier this week, I previewed USC and noted how odd it was for both the offense and the defense to have down years in the same year. Such is not the case for Cal. Their awful offense was definitely counteracted by a very good defense— 13th in the nation per S&P+. It was that defense that led Cal to bowl eligibility and their monumental upset over UW (which, incidentally, featured perhaps the worst coaching decision in Chris Petersen’s storied career).
The formula for Justin Wilcox’s defense is familiar to UW fans: Strong and tough up the middle, long and lean on the perimeter. The Cal linebacking corps definitely features all of those attributes. The star is preseason All-American and known Husky killer ILB Evan Weaver. With his partner in crime Jordan Kunaszyk having graduated, Weaver is the unquestioned captain of the defense and its most important cog. He’ll be complemented by OLB/DE Tevin Paul, a big man who can create havoc in breaking gaps and rushing the passer, and the very talented, very versatile Cameron Goode who missed most of last year due to injury. With transfers like Kuony Deng and Hawk Schrider helping to fill gaps, this unit looks like it will be elite once again.
What the LBs don’t do well is cover passes. Fortunately, Wilcox has built a pretty good secondary. It returns just about everybody who contributed last year and will feature a rotation made up almost entirely of upperclassmen. The stars are safeties Ashtyn Davis and Jaylinn Hawkins who, combined, counted for 10 interceptions last season. Both are bigger DBs who feature the kind of role-filling versatility that Wilcox covets.
Senior Traveon Beck, junior Camryn Bynum, and junior Elijah Hicks round out the starting secondary. None of these guys possesses elite capabilities, but all are technically sound, good tacklers, and strong in run support. Depth might be a bit of concern, as the next wave of players are all very young, but on paper it is a good-looking unit.
The D-line is stocked with several similar-sized bodies who all pretty much have the same kind of game. The strength will be at the defensive end positions where Luc Bequette (6.5 TFLs in 2018), Paul, Lone Toailoa and Zeandae Johnson all return. Of bigger concern will be inside positions, where the returning contributors Siulagisipai Fuimaono (305 lbs) and Aaron Maldonado (285 lbs) have far less on-field experience. Keep in mind that Cal’s defense depends on the line to tie up their opponents to give the outside backers (Paul, Goode, Chinedu Udeogu) chances to pressure the passer. In that regard, I think Cal should be pretty good. But they may not be as stout up the middle against the rush as they were a year ago.
One Breakout Player
LT Will Craig
All eyes will be on the sophomore currently slotted by Cal OL coach Steve Greatwood to start on the blind side. UW fans may not recall it, but Craig’s first substantial playing time last season came in the second half of that upset. He was particularly effective on that last Cal drive that chewed up so much clock and ended UW’s hopes of getting the ball back for a quick score.
Craig is an athletic guy who has already demonstrated skills in pass protection. He’ll need to continue to get more aggressive in run blocking as a next step, but he has all the physical tools to do it. He’s certainly going to get an opportunity and, if he stays healthy, should have much success.
Projecting Cal in 2019
The Bears are certainly North division contenders in 2019. On the strength of their defense alone, Cal has the potential to compete in every game on their schedule.
However, Cal has some issues that are are sure to hamper them. For starters, this is a team that seems destined to spend another season in QB controversy hell. That is never a fun thing. Secondly, Cal’s lack of playmaking on offense is going to put a ceiling on its ability to score points in any given game, making the defensive margin for error just as small as it was last season. UW fans might be able to relate to this issue.
Finally, there is the schedule.
I noted in my USC review that I didn’t like the Trojans’ schedule because of how early they play Stanford and how they don’t really benefit from the second bye like everybody else. Cal at least will benefit from the second bye, but everything else pretty much sucks for them.
The Bears will only play six home games in 2019 and only a couple of those (USC, WSU, ASU) are against teams where the home field advantage matters. Their road games include Washington, Oregon, Utah, and Stanford. What? That’s just brutal. And to add insult to injury, their last two weeks will be spent on the road playing at Stanford and UCLA.
I don’t like how the chips are falling for Cal despite the fact that I like the nucleus of the team. There are too many factors working against them even as this continues to be a team on the rise. I’m seeing the Bears as an eight-ish win kind of team with maybe the upside to get to nine (which would be a great accomplishment). I do see them, however, being a factor in deciding both the North and South races, as I fully expect them to pull off one or two upsets—not unlike how they took out UW in 2018. Something like that would go a long way toward sustaining momentum and setting up the Bears for a big 2020 season.