The case for Cal as a Pac-12 North contender is fairly clear: they won 8 games in 2019 (7-0 when their starting quarterback played the full game), in their three road games against the division’s powers they won two and held the third to their lowest score all season, and they return almost everybody from last year’s team.
I remain skeptical. I don’t think this team has accumulated enough talent to make a push and I don’t like many of their recent coaching changes; the offense was mediocre even with their starting QB and the defense figures to continue its slide from its peak in 2018. I believe that HC Wilcox has built the program up enough to cruise through the non-conference and mop up the bottom-dwellers and teams in freefall in the Pac-12, but I predict they will still be looking up at the programs that are significantly more talented, and will lack the edge to sweep the teams of equal talent. Getting ASU and Utah from the South instead of Arizona and Colorado means there just aren’t enough easy conference wins on the schedule to stack up.
The starting quarterback, #7 QB Garbers, overcame a lot of challenges to get where he is: in 2018 he was unexpectedly shoved into the starting role as a redshirt freshman, then he rotated with a wildcat QB in a bizarre pattern that cost Cal several games, and in 2019 he missed all or most of five games with an injury. On the podcast, Rob indicated that Garbers has dealt with multiple injuries that have limited his confidence in his deep ball, and in film study I see a number of developmental issues when it comes to his reads, throwing motion, and eagerness to abandon the pocket.
Cal was the #118 offense in SP+ for 2018. That climbed to only #95 in 2019, doubtless hurt by Garbers’ absence. But in those seven full games he played, Cal only averaged 26 points per game, which would be #84 in all of FBS in raw scoring offense, and this was against the softer half of their schedule (it includes an FCS team and three defenses ranked #87 or worse in SP+, and excludes games against Oregon, Utah, USC, and ASU). Even assuming that everybody stays healthy and there’s some organic development of all those returning starters, it would take a dramatic jump in offensive prowess for Cal to get out of the scoring basement.
One reason that might happen is replacing their OC with veteran NFL playcaller and former Oregon QB Bill Musgrave. It was genuinely baffling that Cal’s OC of the past three years, Beau Baldwin, ran such a milquetoast and ineffective offense, since as head coach at Eastern Washington it was nothing but fireworks. On the podcast, Rob and I speculated on different offensive schemes that Musgrave might install, but it’s tough to divine because at three different NFL stops he ran fairly distinct offenses, and the issues as to why Baldwin was so unsuccessful (and whether those issues will survive him) remain unknown … we’ll just have to wait for Fall camp to get a clearer picture.
But a reason that an offensive jump might not happen is another coaching change: the retirement of offensive line coach and former Oregon legend Steve Greatwood. He’s been replaced by Angus McClure, who’s far better known as a recruiter than a line coach. McClure was the OL coach at UCLA for five years (2007-2011), a period marked by line ineptitude, finishing in the bottom three of the conference in scoring offense and yards per play every year, and the most losses over any five-year stretch in the Bruins’ history playing organized football. He was kept on at UCLA as a recruiter and defensive line coach for the next five years, then spent the last two as the OL coach at Nevada (Duck fans may remember seeing him on the sidelines during the Wolfpack’s trip to Autzen last season, a 77-6 loss).
The significance of that change is that Cal’s offensive line play absolutely has to improve for them to take any step forward as a squad. Cal finished #125 in sacks surrendered last year, and that was with two different quarterbacks who were quite mobile and broke the pocket at the first sign of trouble. In the 146 dropbacks I charted Garbers take in four of his five full Power-5 games, 58 of them (nearly 40%) ended in a sack, scramble, or throwaway … half that rate would still be an alarming number.
Hopefully former 4-star recruit #74 LT Craig will finally play a full season after both his true freshman and sophomore years were cut short by injury. He should be joined by longtime vet #71 RT Curhan, who had the lowest error rate in the six games I charted and is just plainly bigger than the rest of the linemen. But while Cal returns six of the seven remaining guys who played last year, there just wasn’t much raw talent here: the highest rated of those seven in the 24/7 composite was .8642 (a mid 3-star), three weren’t rated at all, and four were freshmen. That’d be a tall task for even the best line coach, and I don’t think Cal employs him.
A bright spot in Cal’s offense is the running back room, headlined by #34 RB Brown who’s a tough, hard runner and surprisingly effective (given this line’s weaknesses) at inside rushing efficiency. The challenge is that most of his successful runs given the down and distance came by fighting through tackles for extra yardage. Cal produces chunk and explosive rushes at below the Pac-12 average for the past two years, with a much higher rate of 1-3 yard runs (although they are significantly better than the average at avoiding stuffs and negative runs). From film study I think the chief issue is that, with or without Garbers, opposing defenses don’t respect the passing game much and there’s no receiver who threatens to take the top off, so they tend to play just one high safety and stack the box.
The most interesting personnel issue I’ll be watching for in Fall camp is whether Cal upgrades its receivers with some incoming true freshmen whom Rob raved about: WR Justin Baker, WR Jeremiah Hunter, and 4-star TE DJ Rogers (none of them enrolled early so Fall is the first time we’ll see them). If not, I just don’t have a lot of confidence in this receiving corps outside of the slot man #4 WR Remigio. There’s just no real speed here and nothing that competent DBs can’t lock down in cover-1, and the returning TEs weren’t often used as ball-catching threats to mess with the underneath coverage.
Cal’s defense in 2018 ranked #13 in SP+. It was headlined by a pair of future NFL linebackers in Jordan Kunaszyk and Evan Weaver, a pair of future NFL safeties in Ashtyn Davis and Jaylinn Hawkins, and enormous 340-lb nose tackle Chris Palmer. In 2019, Cal lost Kunasyzk and Palmer, and the defense slipped to #46 in SP+.
In 2020, Cal loses Weaver, Davis, and Hawkins, as well as the rest of the rotation at safety and two backup defensive linemen. From what I can tell about the personnel who’ll be replacing them, I think it’s more likely that the slide continues rather than reverses.
I think the coaching changes on this side of the ball are problematic too. Former DBs coach and possibly the biggest rising star on the staff Gerald Alexander left for the NFL, and he was replaced by Marcel Yates, who was fired in the middle of 2019 as the Arizona DC … I think this constitutes a downgrade. I’m also not sure what to make in the switchup of defensive playcaller from Tim DeRuyter to Peter Sirmon. I think DeRuyter is a high quality DC and due for a head coaching job soon, and Rob thinks that swapping their roles now is in anticipation of DeRuyter being hired away so that they already have their future DC in place. Even if that winds up being true, Sirmon is a perplexing choice for DC, since he ran both Mississippi St’s and Louisville’s defenses into the ground at his previous two stops. Cal has a defensive-minded head coach and DeRuyter is still on staff for the moment, so perhaps the overall braintrust isn’t falling off, but it’s hard to see the net effect of these changes as positive.
How the DBs fare going from Alexander to Yates in Fall camp is the most interesting defensive issue to me, since this defense has in many ways been led by the DBs since Wilcox’s arrival in Berkeley and it’s now going through a lot of change. They return both senior starting corners who have been great since 2017, #24 CB Bynum and #3 DB Hicks. But intriguingly, Hicks’ position on the official roster has been changed to safety, and Rob says there’s discussion about plugging in a different guy at corner instead so that the entire safety unit isn’t made up of inexperienced players.
If that happens, it would probably be backup #7 CB Anusiem taking Hicks’ former spot (I didn’t see much of him in 2019 and when he was on the field I charted a few breakdowns, but he was a freshman), or possibly #20 CB Drayden who’ll be a senior but didn’t take his redshirt until last year.
At safety, there are a couple of returning juniors in #32 DB Scott and #18 DB B. Smith, though I didn’t see them break very often into the typically 4-man rotation of Davis, Hawkins, and graduated seniors Traveon Beck and Trey Turner. Rob says to look out for redshirt freshman #26 S Woodson and true freshman early enrollee #27 S Paster, as well as the possibility that they develop a hybrid LB/S STAR position for Scott or Paster. That would make sense, since Cal really only has one true outside linebacker returning, the talented #19 OLB Goode.
The biggest defensive blow is losing Weaver at inside linebacker, who was the FBS leader (by a wide margin) in total tackles at 181. Weaver played virtually every snap for the last two years, meaning his replacement will be selected from one of eight young ILBs on the roster who have a grand total of 15 career tackles between them (probably #54 ILB Tattersall). The other starting inside backer is possibly even more problematic, #8 ILB Deng - he’s a Juco transfer who has the long, spidery limbs of an outside backer, but after a year of watching him on film at the inside, I’m convinced he’s playing out of position and simply doesn’t understand his pass coverage responsibilities or appropriate run fits and angles. Deng was by far the poorest performing Pac-12 linebacker on my tally sheet in 2019, and that’s with Washington’s ILBs giving him stiff competition.
Cal received some good news on the defensive line: both #93 DL Bequette and #44 DL Z. Johnson received their 6th year of eligibility from the NCAA. That’s a big deal because they’re the only returners on Cal’s roster capable of good interior line play. The d-line also returns senior #96 DE Paul and #90 DL B. Johnson (the latter was a true freshman and broke into the lineup playing tackle, though that’s clearly out of position for him given that he’s built as a 5-tech).
So the Bears will have a decent and experienced 4-man rotation in their 3-3-5 defense (usually two down linemen, a stand-up end and an OLB on the line, and two ILBs at depth, but sometimes adding a third down lineman if the offense is in a heavy run configuration). The issue is that this defensive structure desperately needs a big nose tackle anchoring it; they didn’t have one in 2019, and I doubt they will in 2020 either. I think this was the main contributing factor to Cal’s poor rushing efficiency defense: in the six Power-5 games I charted, Cal successfully defended less than 42% of opponent runs, and was particularly vulnerable to inside power rushing with just a 26% success rate. Losing Weaver as a tackling machine and the safeties who prevented chunk runs from going explosive doesn’t bode well for keeping up their overall rush defense stats.
The fact that the freshman Johnson broke into the lineup at tackle is a pretty distressing sign, since it means he jumped all four of the other scholarship linemen who are older and/or bigger than him. Rob pointed out that Cal recruited two 300+ lbs true freshman in 2020, Ricky Correia and Stanley McKenzie; I’ll be watching to see if they might finally fill the missing nose spot in Fall camp.
In last summer’s preview of Cal, I thought they’d have a hard time with their six-game road schedule, but they only lost two of them, and those were to both division winners and without their starting QB. I thought that the 2018 rotation at QB meant the staff didn’t have confidence in Garbers and would replace him with UCLA transfer #6 QB Modster; that’s an embarrassing-looking prediction now. But I nailed the talent problems with the offensive line in predicting that, despite returning a lot, they would continue to significantly limit the offense. I also think I accurately described the speed and separation issues that the WR and TE groups had.
Over the summer I thought that Cal would replace their nose tackle on defense without difficulty, but by the time the game rolled around, I noted in my in-season preview that neither candidate had actually done so (one of them has left the team entirely, for reasons I don’t understand), and that the interior of the line and its ability to stop the run had accordingly collapsed. I expressed skepticism at how well they’d be able to replace Kunasyzk at ILB despite bringing in the #1 rated Juco that year and I think that was well borne out. The secondary performed nominally.