There was no greater disparity between offensive and defensive quality in the Pac-12 than Cal in 2018, and I doubt the size of that contrast will change much next year. There are however quite a few interesting prospects to look out for in Fall camp as they head into a pivotal third season for Coach Wilcox.
I’m not sure I could design a tougher schedule for Cal in 2019 – they only get six home games and waste three of them on a pair of FCS-caliber opponents and UNT without Graham Harrell, miss probably the two weakest teams from the South in Colorado and Arizona, and play Washington in Seattle, Ole Miss in Oxford, Oregon in Eugene, and Utah in Salt Lake.
Thanks to Rob Hwang of ATQ South, sometimes known as California Golden Blogs, for his insights into the team. Check out the podcast for the full interview and a lot more detail, with some great stories and a lot of funny moments.
Offense - #118 in S&P+
I’m not optimistic that Cal’s offensive troubles last season will improve much in 2019. The Bears’ widely noted follies at quarterback were so dramatic that they obscured deficiencies at nearly every other position, and while there’s always hope for pleasant surprises from young talent, in my opinion there are no sure bets for markedly better play at any position next year.
In one sense I’m sympathetic to Cal’s QB situation in 2018 - with returning starter #3 QB Bowers out for nearly the entire season (I’m left to conclude that this was for an off-the-field issue, because a simple thumb injury wouldn’t have sidelined him through the end of December or caused him to transfer to FCS Northern Illinois against his competition in that QB room), they were left with subpar options in #5 QB McIlwain, #7 QB Garbers, and #14 QB Forrest. These all had different strengths and weaknesses, but none had the overall arm talent or savvy decision-making to excel at this level.
And most of all, they lacked consistency and experience, because as Rob said, the coaching staff kept making the bewildering decision to swap McIlwain and Garbers whenever the other would make a mistake, and then finally allowed Forrest to play in the bowl for his final eligible (and memorable for all the wrong reasons) game. McIlwain and Garbers both return, although apparently the former, who began playing some extended wildcat packages before being a serious starting option, has been switched to a RB/WR and is no longer in the QB competition.
Rob highlighted two shakeups Cal has made to the QB situation: first, the transfer in from UCLA of #6 QB Modster, a backup to Josh Rosen who I thought was pretty competent in 2017 but had to sit out 2018; and second, OC Baldwin taking over QB coaching duties from recruiting coordinator and now TE coach Tuiasosopo, who’s a familiar name to Pac-12 fans but has yet to impress me as a coach. Although I haven’t done serious film study of Modster, I have to believe he’s a better option than Garbers because in my film study of the latter I noted far too many problems in his game. Even if we’re to believe that Tuiasosopo was solely to blame for those QB problems, his superiors on the org chart who signed off on them are still in place, and I’m not confident that they’ll make the right selection or stand by him at the first sign of trouble.
It’s difficult to assess the skill players Cal will have in 2019. Cal loses their top three receivers in #17 WR Wharton, #18 WR Ways, and #9 WR Noa (the last transferring to Nebraska, doubtless for the scenery), as well as their only two tight ends who caught a pass, #83 TE Bunting and #11 TE Hudson. The challenge for a film reviewer seeing a poor passing output is differentiating QB play from receiver talent, but from what I saw it seemed these guys were misused as they were recruited to play in an air raid system and weren’t getting the consistent separation on their routes that this kind of offense requires. I think the cluster of transfers out here speaks to some mismatch between the recruits of the previous staff and this one.
The Bears return their next three receivers in #2 WR Duncan, #10 WR Je. Hawkins (amusingly, the uncle of a safety on the team), and backup #25 WR Remigio. There’s a lot of speed here but none has the body, in my opinion, to be the outside deep threat this offense requires or Baldwin had at EWU. Rob tells us to be on the lookout in Fall camp for two transfers, a Juco named Clark and a Michigan transfer named Crawford who had to sit out a year (neither are on campus yet, I believe), as well as three freshmen he’s excited about in #17 WR Polk, #86 WR Young, and #82 TE Castles.
Rob tells us there’s another staff shakeup here: 2018’s RB coach Toler and WR coach Edwards are switching jobs. I’m not sure I understand why; Toler doesn’t have a particularly impressive resume and while Edwards put some very good receivers on the field at EWU, I don’t believe he’s ever coached backs before.
Cal’s rushing output was somewhat disappointing considering how much they returned from 2017, foremost being #28 RB Laird, a tall, hard-charging back I’ve always liked watching and who’s now graduated. Rob solved one mystery for us by revealing that Laird had an undisclosed nagging injury the entire season, but created another in that it’s hard to understand why his backup, #34 Brown, didn’t replace him or why two more backups are transferring out from a wide open competition. Brown returns and figures to get the starting spot, as well as a raw but talented back I saw in the first couple games but who ultimately redshirted last year in #29 RB Dancy, plus the Juco transfer #26 RB Collins and a true freshman named Brooks (no jersey number yet) about whom Rob raved.
But the most difficult unit to parse is probably the offensive line. In 2017, Cal had eight linemen start games, and they returned every one in 2018 and added a pretty good true freshman, #75 LT Craig, to the rotation as well. While the injury bug did hit these guys later in the season, it was clear to me in film study even early on that they weren’t blocking as well as that much experience would predict. I think the issue was the blocking scheme change: those eight returners were all recruited under former air raid coach Sonny Dykes and they’re not quite the body type that OL coach Greatwood prefers – they’re more of the stationary, long-armed pass-pro guys rather than the athletic, mobile linemen he was a legend at Oregon for producing.
Cal loses two starters and two backups from that nine-man rotation in 2018, leaving the most likely lineup to be #75 LT Craig, #71 LG Daltoso, #53 C Saffell, and #71 RT Curhan, with either returner #74 OG Williams or a new player taking the RG spot. Even if we assume these veterans make strides, I would be concerned about depth here: this unit has had significant injury disruptions over the last two seasons, and besides two upperclassmen I observed in the Idaho St game and don’t think will see playing time, the rest of the roster here is made up of two redshirt sophomores and four redshirt freshmen who have zero collegiate experience. That group of underclassmen (plus three true freshmen from the 2019 class) may well represent the future as Greatwood recruits, but we probably won’t see returns on those investments until 2020 at the earliest.
So I’m not sanguine about Cal’s prospects to bounce back offensively, at least not this year. A scenario certainly exists where this array of problems all gets fixed — they select a still-competent Modster and stick by him, the transfers and new skill players all pan out, and the offensive line finally clicks. But I think it all needs to happen, and it won’t take much going wrong to keep them from getting off the mat. As Rob put it: “That’s the scary nightmare version of all of this, if we have a worse offense and we waste what’s probably a generational defense.”
Defense - #13 in S&P+
It’s remarkable to see this much returning from such an excellent defense. DC DeRuyter’s is ostensibly a 3-4 defense, but they mostly played out of the nickel in what looked more like a 4-2-5 … a nose and two ends down, an OLB up on the line who might rush or drop, and two very large ILBs in the middle.
This is a great group with a ton of depth; returning seven of the eight guys on the two-deep: #24 CB Bynum, #22 CB Beck, #3 CB Hicks, and #20 CB Drayden, as well as #27 S Davis, #6 S Ja. Hawkins, and #5 S Turner. They’re also returning a rising star in DB coach Alexander.
There’s not much to say here besides praise, the only note I have is that I thought at the beginning of the year they were (literally) hit-or-miss in run support, occasionally coming down pretty hard at the back and then whiffing at his ankles, but with this many veterans and another year in a stable system I expect that to improve as well.
I think the defensive front will continue to be very good as well, although with a few more interesting moving pieces.
The defensive line loses the big nose anchoring it, #98 DT Palmer, who played nearly every down that I saw. The candidates to replace him are #99 DT Fuimaono and #97 DT Maldonado, who both got a bit of playing time last year but not much. The other concern here is that they’ve lost one of my favorite position coaches, Tony Tuioti (originally from Hawai’i during some of their best recent seasons), to the same job at Nebraska; his replacement in DL coach Browning just has five years at UTEP on his resume.
The DEs are in great shape, returning five of the six on the depth chart who got significant playing time. These are all big 3-techs or 4i’s, who impressively will sometimes drop into curl/flat coverage. The headliners in my opinion are #93 DE Bequette and #96 DE Paul, as well as a good second line in #44 DE Z. Johnson, #91 DE Udeogu, and #55 DE Toailoa.
I noted in last year’s film study that there wasn’t much of a pass rush here unless they were blitzing most of the front, and I think a big part of that was somewhat mediocre play from #36 OLB Funches. He’s now graduated and Cal is getting back from injury the excellent #19 OLB Goode, and I think that constitutes an upgrade as such. But I’m concerned about depth here, because no one else got significant experience in the drop end spot – I didn’t see much of anything from #43 OLB White, and the other two backups #23 OLB Psalms and #21 OLB Rambo are transferring out. Rob tells us there are a few new guys to keep an eye on in Fall camp: sophomore #13 OLB Ogunbanjo, freshmen #52 OLB Alfin and #48 OLB Patu, and two guys who aren’t on campus yet in true freshman B. Johnson and FCS transfer Schrider.
The most interesting position group is definitely the inside backers. Last year they had an almost indistinguishable pair in #59 ILB Kunaszyk and #89 ILB Weaver; I noted in film study that their unusual size (for the position) meant that they were excellent tacklers, and sure enough they finished with 300 tackles evenly split between them - that’s an almost unbelievable total. One weakness I saw was that they weren’t great in intermediate pass coverage simply because of the physics of changing that much momentum. Weaver returns but Kunaszyk is off to the pros, and his likely replacement is an intriguing transfer, the nation’s top Juco #8 ILB Deng. He’s stated repeatedly that, despite being built like a prototypical outside backer, he’s 100% committed to playing inside … Rob and I are both a bit skeptical of that and think he’ll be used more liberally on the perimeter. Depth is if anything a bigger concern here – Kunaszyk and Weaver played almost every snap, with only a few that I saw going to #54 ILB Tattersall against UNC and even he wound up redshirting along with absolutely everyone else listed as an inside backer on the roster.
I’m not sure there’ll be any problems at all on this defense and it looks to be an elite one again, but if something does crop up I think it’s most likely to be an injury to a DT or one of the linebackers that throws an untested player into the fire against offenses desperate to find any weakness.