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2023 Team Talent Preview: California

Will the offense finally function under Justin Wilcox at Cal?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 22 Washington at Cal Photo by Douglas Stringer/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Welcome to the 3rd part in our series looking at the rosters of every Pac-12 team as we head ever closer to opening day. The order is organized by my team talent rankings. For more information on how those numbers came about, check out the intro for the WSU post. And while you’re there, go ahead and read the whole thing then come back. We’ll wait for you.

Past Teams- 12. Washington State Cougars, 11. Stanford Cardinal, 10. Arizona Wildcats

(Names in bold are projected starters by Phil Steele. Otherwise, names are listed in order of scoring in the talent ranking system)

TOTAL OFFENSE- 921.9 (10th)

Quarterback- 62.7 (12th)

Starter- Sam Jackson (42.1)

Reserves- Ben Finley (41.1), Fernando Mendoza (13.2)

There are some occasions where this ranking system doesn’t completely mesh with conventional wisdom. Cal finishing 12th in quarterbacks is completely fair. Last year Cal brought in former Purdue starter Jack Plummer to be the guy but he had a so-so season and departed as a one and done (transferring to Louisville). Now Cal has a pair of transfers battling it out in the fall and neither has close to the experience of Plummer.

The presumed favorite is former 4-star TCU transfer Sam Jackson who has played all of 52 snaps although he’s an impressive 6/6/ for 125 yards in that small sample size. The slightly more veteran option is NC State transfer Ben Finley who started the Wolfpack’s final 2 games this year. In 241 career snaps he has completed 54% of his passes for 5.9 yards per attempt with more interceptions than touchdowns. It’s not hard to see why Jackson is the higher upside play.

It’s absolutely possible that Jackson turns into a star and vaults himself into the top half of Pac-12 quarterbacks. However, no team has a lower floor at the QB position than Cal given the lack of proven credentials anywhere on the roster.

Running Back- 131.9 (2nd)

Starter- Jadyn Ott (90.7)

Reserves- Byron Cardwell (82.5), Isaiah Ifanse (68.3), Justin Williams-Thomas (41.7), Jaivian Thomas (39.3)

It’s a completely different story at the running back spot which should immensely help whoever prevails in the quarterback competition. The Golden Bears were already in a great spot after true freshman Jadyn Ott burst onto the scene last year and was instantly one of the best running backs in the conference. He ultimately ran for 800+ yards at 5.2 yards per carry and added another 300+ yards and 3 TD through the air.

Unsurprisingly, Cal had a few players transfer out of the RB room since they knew Ott was the guy. It was a surprise though to see how much quality depth they were able to add through the portal as replacements. Oregon transfer Byron Cardwell looked like a future star 2 years ago but then got recruited over in the portal and sat out most of last year. Cal also brought in Montana State standout (and Bellevue High grad) Isaiah Ifanse who was one of the best backs in FCS over the last few years. Finally, Tennessee transfer Justin Williams-Thomas didn’t see much of the field as a true freshman last year but is just one year removed from being a 4-star recruit.

The system I used here only looks at the top-2 players at the running back position but when you look at the entire group it’s reasonable to argue that Cal has the best stable in the entire conference. They should be completely immune to injury at that spot with the next man stepping up.

Wide Receiver- 298.8 (6th)

Starters-Jeremiah Hunter (83.5), Brian Hightower (73.4), Mavin Anderson (67.3)

Reserves- Taj Davis (61.1), Nyziah Hunter (47.7), Marquez Dortch (40.4), Marquis Montgomery (40.3), Mason Starling (35.1), Monroe Young (31.8), Tommy Christakos (30.2)

When you consider that arguably Cal’s most talented receiver from last year, J. Michael Sturdivant, transferred to UCLA then it’s very impressive for Cal to finish in the top half. From a yardage standpoint they bring back the top guy in Hunter who finished just short of 1,000 receiving yards. They also return Mavin Anderson and Monroe Young who were 3rd and 4th among WRs in receiving yards on last year’s team. Phil Steele expects those 3 to end up the starting trio.

Cal did a great job adding depth through the portal on top of that. Brian Hightower provides a bigger body threat after putting up nearly 500 yards for Illinois last season (he was originally a 4-star recruit at Miami). They also add 4-star redshirt freshman Marquez Dortch who was at Mississippi State a season ago. Finally, Husky fans are very familiar of course with Taj Davis who caught the touchdown pass on the most important play of last season to tie the game late against Oregon. He’ll be heavily involved even if he doesn’t win a starting job in camp.

Tight End- 62.6 (11th)

Starter- Asher Alberding (44.6)

Reserves- Ben Marshall (36.1), Elijah Mojarro (27.5), Andy Alfieri (20.3), JT Byrne (16.2)

Given the horses available in the running back room it shouldn’t necessarily be a surprise that Cal’s tight ends may be more focused on blocking this year. North Texas transfer Asher Alberding is by far the most experienced tight end on the roster with more than twice as many career snaps as Elijah Mojarro. However, he also only has 2 career catches and was a psuedo-6th offensive lineman for them. Last year’s leading TE receiver for Cal, Keleki Latu, transferred out which leaves Mojarro and his 88 receiving yards as the leader.

Steele thinks that Oregon State transfer J.T Byrne will ultimately win the top job but he has 0 career catches in just 18 snaps. The Beavers have had an impressive tight end group in recent years so playing time there isn’t easy to come by but it’s tough to see anyone in this room making an all-conference team. True freshman Ben Marshall will have a chance to break into the rotation right away as well.

Offensive Line- 365.9 (11th)

Starters- C Matthew Cindric (66.9), LT Matthew Wykoff (62.7), RG Sioape Vatikani (56.9), LG Brian Driscoll (47.0), Brayden Rohme (46.0)

Reserves- RT TJ Session (43.0), Trent Ramsey (36.4), Everett Johnson (35.2), Tyler Murphy (29.7), Martin Tine (28.8), Bastian Swinney (28.7)

(A note that my listed starters here are the 5 highest scorers even if some of them play the same position. If the backup right tackle has a higher rating than the starting left guard, the LG gets bumped to reserves above.)

This isn’t a star-studded group but there’s plenty of total experience. The long-time mainstay is center Matthew Cindric who has 33 career starts and is a Phil Steele pick to make 2nd team this upcoming season. Also on Steele’s preseason 2nd team OL is RG Sioape Vatikani who started 9 games last year as a true freshman but PFF thought he really struggled. That’s of course the default expectation for freshman OL players.

Every member of the projected starting group has at least 7 career FBS starts. LT Matthew Wykoff transferred in from Texas A&M this spring after starting 9 games in College Station last year. Left guard Brian Driscoll started all 12 games a season ago and RT TJ Session started 7 after transferring in from FCS Montana State.

The reason why Cal suffers in this ranking methodology is that Cindric is the only one to have a career PFF grade that’s above average. That includes among the projected backups. It’s also not a highly recruited bunch as none of them were even at a 4-star level coming out of high school. But continuity and experience can be powerful factors on the O-line and if the group comes together especially in the running game then this offense could surprise some people.

TOTAL DEFENSE- 1,014.1 (7th)

Defensive Line- 185.5 (7th)

Starters- Brett Johnson (79.6), Nathan Burrell (57.3)

Reserves- Ricky Correia (48.7), Ethan Saunders (48.4), Jaedon Roberts (40.3), Darius Long (36.7), Tiumalu Afalava (35.0)

This is a group that has been snake-bitten by injuries in recent years and is hoping to finally be healthy. Brett Johnson has been the primary culprit having missed each of the last 2 years due to injury but he was finally healthy in the spring. If he returns to his form from way back in 2020 then he’ll be a big upgrade.

It’s somewhat of a toss-up who fills out the rest of the rotation. Saunders, Correia, and Burrell have all played between 360 and 465 defensive snaps and each graded out as below average by PFF. Saunders had the best season last year with 2 sacks but Burrell is the youngest and was the most highly recruited out of high school. All of them will see plenty of playing time no matter who ends up getting the title of starter. The high end talent may not be here but bringing back 39 career FBS starts along your D-line is pretty good.

Edge Rushers- 155.7 (12th)

Starters- Xavier Carlton (66.8), Myles Williams (50.4)

Reserves- David Reese (40.0), Myles Jernigan (37.1), Tidiane Jalloh (35.3), Frederick Williams (35.0), Ryan McCulloch (34.1)

The edge position is a particularly strong one across the conference this year so it’s not necessarily a massive indictment for Cal to finish last. They do have some returning depth as Carlton and Jernigan combined to start 20 games last season and each has at least 3 years of college under their belts. Each tied for the team lead with 4 sacks apiece. Myles Williams was a backup on the outside as a redshirt freshman and had a higher PFF grade than either Carlton or Jernigan in less playing time.

The wildcard of this group is David Reese who has pedigree as a former 4-star transferring in from the SEC (Florida). But Reese has only 1 career quarterback pressure after 5 years in college so expecting him to step in and start seems like a bit of a stretch to me. Beyond that foursome the rest of the rotation will be made up by mid-3-star true freshmen as Jalloh, Williams, and McCulloch were all rated between 0.85 and 0.86 in the 247 Sports Composite.

Linebackers- 187.2 (4th)

Starters- Jackson Sirmon (85.3), Muelu Iosefa (59.6)

Reserves- Nate Rutchena (46.0), Cade Uluacve (38.4), Sergio Allen (37.2)

Husky fans as a group weren’t exactly sad to see Jackson Sirmon leave. But he was always a little underrated by the fanbase and was named 1st team all-conference last year in his first season in Berkeley. He ended up the 2nd highest ranked inside linebacker in my rating system and helps Cal finish 4th overall at the position.

Besides Sirmon there are definitely some question marks. Iosefa has 15 career starts but was limited to just 3 games last year due to injury and hasn’t been great when he’s been on the field. Rutchena filled in with 3 starts last season but has been similarly ineffective. Cal brought in Clemson transfer Sergio Allen to hopefully fill the hole alongside Sirmon. He is a former 4-star recruit but played just 36 snaps in 3 years for the Tigers so certainly isn’t a sure thing by any stretch.

Cornerbacks- 310.0 (4th)

Starters- Collin Gamble (74.9), Nohl Williams (71.3), Jeremiah Earby (71.0)

Reserves- Lu-Magia Hearns (64.9), Isaiah Young (61.4), Kaylin Moore (59.3), Tyson McWilliams (51.5), Sailasa Vadrawale (34.3), Marcus Scott (33.9), Matthew Littlejohn (33.3)

This is one of the deepest position groups not just for Cal but in the Pac-12. There’s not a star among the group. None of them made Phil Steele’s first 3 preseason all-conference teams and only Jeremiah Earby made at least preseason honorable mention from the media. But there are 7 players that would at least heavily compete for if not win a starting job were they on Washington’s roster.

The Bears are bringing in 64 career Pac-12 starts which doesn’t include Nohl Williams who transferred in from UNLV where he started 24 games. All seven of their core group had a PFF grade of at least a 62.0 and qualify as above average when on the field. Plus six of them have played more snaps than you’d expect for someone in their class. The one thing holding them back is the lack of raw athletic talent as only one player on the roster was a 4-star out of high school and none who have played a snap in college yet.

Phil Steele has true freshman Matthew Littlejohn starting as the nickel back but whoever wins any of the starting jobs will have earned it with this group for competition.

Safeties- 175.7 (8th)

Starters- Patrick McMorris (67.4), Craig Woodson (58.3)

Reserves- Miles Williams (51.5), Raymond Woodie III (48.5), Fatuvala Iosefa (12.6)

The starting spots here seem fairly secure. McMorris is a transfer from San Diego State where he was a 2-year starter and has 5 career interceptions. He should step comfortably into a starting job. Woodson started alongside Daniel Scott last year and tied for 2nd on the team in tackles while chipping in with a pair of interceptions and pass break-ups. Woodson was on the media’s preseason 2nd-team all-conference list while McMorris was honorable mention.

There’s also some reasonable experienced depth. Both Williams and Woodie are 5th-year seniors and have 350+ career defensive snaps to their names. There’s a reason neither of them are starting but Cal won’t have to worry about throwing a true freshman into the fire if there were an injury. It wouldn’t be a surprise at all to see this group perform better than their ranking here especially in combination with the rest of the secondary.

OVERALL TEAM- 1,936.0 (9th)

You can at least say this about the 2023 Cal team: they have an identity. This team is built to run the ball (when hopefully opposing teams aren’t as prepared for it) and to defend the pass (when everyone else in the conference is trying to throw it constantly). It’s a valid strategy. The question is whether it’s going to be sabotaged by their own QB play even if they minimize the passing attempts. Cal needs to be able to put out a credible throwing game to keep opponents from loading up the box and we won’t know for probably several games whether that’s possible.

The schedule certainly doesn’t set Cal up for success to try to make a bowl game. They’ve got a non-conference home game against Auburn under new head coach Hugh Freeze and really need that to be a win. That’s because Cal misses Arizona and Colorado so they have to play all 6 of the teams expected to once again make up the top-half of the conference standings. It wouldn’t be a shock for Cal to pull an upset somewhere on the schedule but they’re going to have to do it to have any chance at becoming bowl eligible because this is a brutal road.