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Duck Dive: California Football 2023 Preview

Going deep with the Golden Bears’ scheme, returning personnel, and unknowns

UCLA v California Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Special thanks to Rob Hwang of Write for California for joining me on the Quack 12 Podcast to discuss Cal’s roster. LISTEN HERE


Cal’s offense ranked 85th in F+ advanced statistics in 2022, the sixth straight year in the bottom half of the FBS under head coach Wilcox. He fired OC Musgrave with two weeks left in the season, and has hired OC Spavital to replace him. Spavital had been an OC for a number of different Power-5 schools with high-flying offenses from 2013 to 2018, including Cal for a year under Sonny Dykes, then became the head coach at Texas State for the last four years where his offenses averaged 112th in F+ through a 13-35 record before he was fired.

Other than a widely stated preference for vertical passing, it’s hard to read what exactly the structure of the new offense is going to be. On the podcast, Rob said that in their interviews with Spavital he thinks the installation was only about 50% complete by the Spring game, and he inherited a roster that seems completely backwards to what he was doing at his previous OC stops due to Musgrave’s multiple tight end, run-heavy pro-style offenses. In the literature I’ve found discussing what he wants to do there are plenty of vague references to ‘opening things up’ and the Spring game certainly looked very open with an awful lot of improvised passing plays, but as Rob put it on the podcast, “I don’t think we’ll really know until two weeks into Fall camp.”

All of Cal’s scholarship quarterbacks transferred out at the end of the season: Jack Plummer, Kai Millner, and Zach Johnson. We saw two new passers in the Spring game: transfer #5 QB Jackson, a low 4-star in the 2021 class from TCU whom 24/7 described as “a receiver who plays quarterback part-time,” and #15 QB Mendoza, a 2-star redshirt freshman who’s apparently a big fan of the Write for Cal staff and whom Rob described as “not a walk-on.” Jackson has seven attempted passes as a backup in his career, Mendoza has none.

It’s difficult to handicap this competition as it currently stands. The Spring game featured a couple of very pretty passes from both QBs when they got ideal looks, but mostly they were running for their lives since the line kept breaking down and the offense seemed half-baked. Jackson is certainly highly athletic and can extend plays, and Mendoza is all of 6’5”, but that’s about all I know about them. Rob says Cal is actively seeking an experienced QB transfer to add to the room – and I not only believe him but think if they got a decent grad transfer he’d instantly jump to the top of the order – but to my knowledge the Bears aren’t connected with any prominent names as of publication time. I expect this battle to either be decided the moment they get a clear QB1 from the portal or go all the way to the Fall opener.

EDIT: 36 hours after publication, Cal received the commitment of transfer QB Ben Finley from North Carolina State. Finley isn’t the experienced grad transfer I was expecting; he was a mid 3-star in the 2020 class who’s only started in two games over three years and thrown more than ten passes as a backup in just two more. Three of those were embarrassing losses for the Wolfpack but he does have a rather heroic performance in their double-overtime rivalry win against the Tarheels last year, a game I studied before Oregon’s bowl game vs UNC. He’s thrown a total of 152 passes over three years which makes him far more experienced than anyone else in the room and so I stand by my prediction that he’ll shoot to the top of the list for Cal, but his career NCAA passer rating of 107.1 is very poor (even his best single-game performance of 140.9 isn’t that inspiring), and I wonder if the Bears will keep looking in the portal for a fourth option.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 25 NC State at North Carolina Photo by David Jensen/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Cal brings back #6 RB Ott, the returner with the most carries in the Pac-12 last year at 170, as well as a backup who only got a couple of carries in 2022 but a lot of work in the Spring game due to almost the entire room being held out with minor injuries, #31 RB Stredick. (They also pressed #34 FB Alfieri and fourth-string #29 WR Lee into service as running backs on Saturday.) The rest of the unit all hit the transfer portal: DeCarlos Brooks, Damien Moore, Ashton Hayes, and Chris Street.

The Bears got two 4-star backs out of the portal: #21 RB Cardwell from Oregon and #4 RB Williams-Thomas from Tennessee. Both have great dimensions but they’ve had their careers limited by injuries and been squeezed out by very productive running back rooms, so it’s tough to guess how exactly they’ll figure in against the well established Ott. Their only freshman is a mid 3-star who doesn’t arrive till the Fall; given the injury history here I wonder if Cal doesn’t shoot for another portal addition or perhaps permanently switch Alfieri or Lee to this room.

EDIT: Lee transferred out the day after publication.

Every tight end who’s played for Cal has transferred out at this point: Keleki Latu, Elijah Mojarro, Jermaine Terry, and Nick Alftin. There’s only one returner on scholarship, #46 TE Muller, but he’s never played and I didn’t see him in the Spring game … Rob says he may be hurt and he probably doesn’t figure into the order. I saw a walk-on in the Spring game playing with the twos, #87 TE Endries, and didn’t think much of it at the time, but based on how much Rob talked him up on the podcast I think he may well be the starter here (assuming Spavital wants to use a pass-catching tight end at all, I’m not sure he does or if he’s instead going to play primarily four-wide).

Cal got two tight ends out of the portal, #85 TE Alberding from North Texas and #88 TE Byrne from Oregon State, both low 3-stars. They have two catches between them in a combined six years of college football; I think they’re both blockers and would just be used to help shore up the offensive line. There’s also a mid 3-star freshman arriving in the Fall. I think the transfer portal exodus is a pretty significant indicator that Spavital doesn’t have big plans for this unit, but we’ll have to wait until the offense is fully installed to know how it shakes out.

UCLA v California Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

The Bears lose one of their top two receivers, J. Michael Sturdivant, but return the other in #3 WR J. Hunter as well as everyone else in a room filled with tall, productive wideouts: #11 WR Anderson, #14 WR M. Young, #18 WR Starling, and #22 WR Christakos. They also return a couple good-looking slot receivers in #22 WR Baker and #82 WR Mangum, plus three more scholarship and four non-scholarship wideouts I haven’t seen during regular competition but looked capable enough in the Spring game so there’s plenty of returning depth.

The wideouts have added #7 WR Hightower, a 4-star who originally played at Miami before transferring to Illinois last year and played as a possession receiver. Oddly, given his extensive experience, he was with the threes in the Spring game; Rob says he had a minor injury but I’m not sure that tracks as an explanation since about a dozen other players (including four receivers) were just held out entirely with injuries. They’re also looking forward to 4-star addition Nyziah Hunter in the Fall, so it’ll be interesting to see how the newcomers figure into an established wide receiver room.

I thought the wideouts were far and away the best part of Cal’s team last year, and quite a change given how much their predecessors’ inability to create separation was hurting the Bears’ offense during the first several years of Wilcox’s tenure. Given the depth, talent, and experience here, Spavital’s offense has the potential to do some real damage through the air … if they have a quarterback who can deliver and a line who can protect him. These were essentially the same issues as last year, and the answers to those questions weren’t happy ones in Berkeley, but the receivers weren’t the problem.

Wilcox fired OL coach McClure at the same time he fired Musgrave, and arguably had an even better case for doing so – every observer of the team agreed it was the weakest line in the league, and McClure didn’t live up to his reputation as a recruiter with a room that averages in the low 3-stars (.8483 in the 24/7 composite, to be precise). On my tally sheet every one of the nine linemen who got significant playing time during 2022 graded out with worse than 18% per-play error rates (most of them over 20%), which are FCS-caliber numbers in my experience.

New OL coach Bloesch was the OC and OL coach at North Texas for a couple of years and was nominated for a Broyles award in that time; he’ll have his work cut out for him developing the unit he’s inherited. With the exception of #71 RG Vatikani who was a true freshman last year (and interestingly, graded out the least poorly for me), all the returners are upperclassmen and have been starting for the Bears for years; I’m generally skeptical of linemen changing course once they’ve hit a certain point in their careers.

Cal loses Ben Coleman who’s transferred to ASU, he started out at left tackle then moved to left guard, as well as Spencer Lovell who started at right guard for the first two and a half games before missing the rest of the season with an injury. They return longtime starters #60 LG Driscoll, #73 C Cindric, and #63 OT Rohme, though all three moved positions during the year due to injuries. #72 RT Session, an unrated FCS transfer, came in for the back half of the season when Rohme moved to LT and Coleman went inside to LG; he returns as do #77 LG E. Johnson and #79 RT Aguilar who filled in for a few games.

During the Spring game Cindric was still recovering from an injury, but it was pretty straightforward to assemble what the starting lineup would be if they don’t get any portal additions: from left to right it’d probably be Rohme – Driscoll – Cindric – Vatikani – Session. But Rob thinks Cal is going after portal help pretty hard to replace Session in that lineup, and I understand why.

The depth here looks fine, plenty of experience with Johnson and Aguilar (plus Session if he’s bumped down by a portal addition), and Rob says the staff is eager to move high 3-stars #78 OL Brown and #68 OL Ramsey into the two-deep even though I don’t believe they’ve seen the field yet.

EDIT: A couple days after publication, Brown hit the portal. The Bears still have three linemen who got some experience playing tackle last year in Rohme, Session, and Aguilar, and Johnson was playing RT with the twos in the Spring game. But I think Brown bouncing amplifies the need for an additional transfer tackle, and may be an indication that one may be in the works soon.

I was shocked to see that, by the Spring game, Cal had failed to add a single new player to the offensive line room since 2022 – no one in the portal yet, only one Juco (a low 3-star who doesn’t arrive until Fall), and astonishingly, zero freshmen in the 2023 class. Obviously it remains to be seen if and whom any transfer additions may be, but not having them practice with the rest of the unit during the Spring while a new offense is being installed is far from optimal. And while it’s not a 2023 problem, the idea Rob communicated on the podcast that Bloesch would want to wait to 2024 to begin rebuilding the worst and slowest-to-develop part of the team beggars belief.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 05 Cal at Oregon Photo by Brian Murphy/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images


Cal ranked 62nd in defensive F+ in 2022, the lowest point yet of a four-year slide since their peak in 2018 and nearly matching Wilcox’s first year after taking over from the defense-free Dykes era.

Philosophically, Cal wants to take away explosive plays and get off the field in long-yardage situations. They’re mostly successful at those things, though explosive pass defense suffered something of collapse in 2022. But the Bears had defensive success rates of 54.5% on 2nd & long, 77.5% on 3rd & medium, and 69.25% on 3rd & long, which are all very good numbers, and they limited opponents to 10+ yard rushes on only about 12.5% of their designed runs, which again is a pretty good number.

The problem for DC Sirmon was everything else. The Bears were absolutely terrible at preventing conversions in any short-yardage situations or 2nd & mediums, with only about 25% success rates at any of them (and unless that was 4th down, the offense could just go again in another short-yardage situation with high odds). And since Cal only defended 1st & 10 at a 38% success rate, they were in 2nd & medium or short-yardage (or another 1st & 10) far more often than they were in the long-yardage situations at which they excelled. These numbers made it clear to any opposing offense with even a glancing interest in analytics that if they wanted to methodically march the field, Cal couldn’t stop them.

I’ve written the same thing in my Cal previews twice a year since 2019, which is that they simply don’t have enough healthy personnel in the defensive line in terms of size, depth, and talent to effectively operate their 3-4 front. As Rob and I discussed on the podcast, that means that they can’t stop the run up the middle and they can’t command interior double teams to free up the OLBs off the edge to rush the passer without blitzing. The Bears haven’t had an effective nose tackle since 2018 and spend almost every snap in a 2-4-5, and when opposing offenses go to heavy run looks with multiple tight ends in short-yardage situations it’s a virtually guaranteed conversion. Cal also suffers from a pretty classic indicator of fatigue in the defensive line: a big falloff in third quarter success rate, from around 45% in the first two frames to only 36.5% in the third.

Cal hasn’t lost any significant contributors from last year’s line, but they haven’t yet added any transfers or Jucos, and the three freshmen from the 2023 class are all low-to-mid 3-stars and don’t join until the Fall so I don’t expect them to figure in right away.

The primary returners who saw action last year are #98 DL Burrell, #91 DL Correia, and #99 DL Saunders, along with rotational linemen #49 DL Long and #75 DL Roberts. Burrell was a true freshman last year (and Rob says he wasn’t fully filled out) so the jury’s still out for him. But the rest have been in this system since 2020 and it seems very clear that if they’re the only guys Cal has again in 2023 then they’re going to get the same results.

However, five potentially high-impact d-linemen didn’t play for all or nearly all of last season but Rob says should be good to go in the Fall, and in my opinion any defensive improvement for the Bears rests wholly on how many and how much of these guys they get. I think the most significant two are #90 DL B. Johnson, whose 2019 and 2020 film is incredible but missed the last two seasons with injury, and #58 DL McKenzie-Saole who might truly be capable of playing nose tackle for the Bears but has been away from the team for personal reasons until recently. Cal should also get back former low 4-star #95 DL Calhoun who missed eight games last year with an injury, and high 3-stars #19 DL C. Thomas and #96 DL Wilkins may be ready to play after redshirting. One caution is that I didn’t see Calhoun, Johnson, or Wilkins playing in the Spring game, and McKenzie and Thomas were playing with the twos and threes behind the returning starters.

NCAA Football: Stanford at California Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The outside linebackers return both of the starters, #44 OLB Carlton and #33 OLB Jernigan. They also return one of the backups, mid 3-star #92 OLB My. Williams, but they lose the other three backups in the rotation, Braxten Croteau, Odua Isibor, and Orin Patu.

Cal brought in an OLB from Florida through the portal, former low 4-star #7 OLB Reese, who was playing with the ones in the Spring game. Reese was recruited as a DB in 2018, redshirted and switched to OLB but was limited by injury for the next couple of years, and for the last two seasons essentially hasn’t played from scrimmage for the Gators. (Incredibly, his time in Gainesville overlapped with another linebacker there who shares the same first and last name. The other Reese was a starter and very productive, but has graduated and is now a GA at Indiana; unfortunately some online stat records mix the two up.)

Cal’s Reese has played practically no college football, and his 24/7 evaluation was for a different position, so it’s difficult to project how he’ll do. But based on his extensive Spring play and talking to Rob on the podcast, I suspect he’s probably going to get the starting spot opposite of Carlton (another former 4-star transfer, he’d come in from Utah). Rob thinks Jernigan, a mid 3-star, will be the plan B if the ostensibly higher ceiling Reese doesn’t work out. Backup spots will have to go to #47 OLB Tuitele, a low 3-star redshirt freshman who’s the only other scholarship player currently in the room, a couple of walk-on redshirt freshmen in #93 OLB Diaz and #46 OLB Ross, and true freshman mid 3-star Ryan McCulloch when he arrives in the Fall.

Carlton was playing with a club on his hand for half of the season, so if that comes off and the interior defensive line starts doing their jobs then the pair of 4-stars in this room could start living up to billing. But in the past it’s been pretty easy to block these guys, and this unit has a lot to overcome – Reese’s inexperience, modest talent ratings for everybody but the top two, and four freshmen on the depth chart.

The inside backers return one starter, #8 ILB Sirmon, but lose the other to the portal, #43 ILB Oladejo. Those two were on the field for about 80% of snaps since Cal doesn’t rotate this unit too much, but they do return the three guys who got the most of those rotations in #51 ILB Antzoulatos, #55 ILB M. Iosefa, and #42 ILB Rutchena, plus they’ve converted a backup DB to the position, #31 ILB Barth.

The Bears brought in a transfer from Clemson, former low 4-star #10 ILB Allen, who will almost certainly replace Oladejo next to Sirmon as the new starter. Allen was part of the 2020 class and had plenty of opportunities to play for the Tigers despite a late 2021 injury and hitting the portal two weeks into the 2022 season, since he was still healthy and available for 24 games (13 of which I would describe as blowout wins), but he only has three solo tackles in his career. It’s difficult to parse why that is and I can’t find any reliable explanation for it, charitable or otherwise.

As Rob and I discussed on the podcast, we have neither particularly high nor low expectations for the inside backers. There’s enough experience here that they shouldn’t embarrass the team, but they were the fulcrum of a mediocre-at-best defense last year and given how much of a question mark Allen represents it’s unrealistic to expect them to take a big leap forward.

Usc vs Cal in Los Angeles, CA

Cal’s pass defense efficiency numbers remained about the same in 2022 as they have for the last couple years, about 46.5% of opponents’ designed passing plays successfully defended. However, what changed in 2022 is that offenses were much more likely to hit explosive passes against the Bears, with the frequency of 15+ yard gains on passing attempts climbing to 20%, which is a fairly poor number in my experience. I think secondary really missed Elijah Hicks and Josh Drayden, DBs who’d been great in coverage for a long time and finally moved on at the end of 2021, and I’m not sure I saw anyone in the backfield in 2022 who played at their level.

For 2023, Cal loses another longtime starter, safety Daniel Scott who’s a projected 5th round draft pick. They also lose a couple other backups who didn’t play much (including Kaleb Higgins to the transfer portal after we recorded, he had played with the twos in the Spring game but Rob seemed disappointed on the podcast he hadn’t played up to his talent rating so far and wondered if he’d move on, presciently). Otherwise, the secondary returns everyone who played last year, although with the number of portal additions the Bears have taken (and Wilcox’s barely contained anger with the secondary last year, as we told some fun stories about on the podcast), it looks like several returners are probably going to stay buried on the depth chart.

Rob and I both think that #15 CB Hearns will keep his starting job, though I’ve never been overly enthusiastic about his play, and I think he’s simply the best of some modestly talented options. #3 CB N. Williams, a low 3-star starter from UNLV, has transferred in, and given his play with the ones in the Spring we think he has the other spot, though it remains to be seen how he’ll do in Pac-12 play. Returners #29 CB Earby, #41 CB I. Young, and #11 CB McWilliams, plus Colorado transfer #4 CB Moore, should round out the backups. Earby was a true freshman last year and picked on a bit by opposing QBs, the rest of the group have had a couple years to show they’re better than their mid 3-star talent evaluations and in my opinion haven’t yet done so.

The nickel position looks pretty straightforward, a split-time situation between returner #21 DB Gamble and incoming Juco #22 DB Littlejohn. The former was being held out in the Spring game so it’s hard to read who’s ahead between those two right now.

He wasn’t available for the Spring game, but it seems like the San Diego St transfer and Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year Patrick McMorris will probably slot right in to Scott’s starting safety position, next to the other returning starter #2 DB Woodson. That leaves the two primary backups from last year in place, #13 DB Mi. Williams and #5 DB Woodie, with a couple of young guys who didn’t play much last year but I saw in the Spring game behind them in #23 DB Butler and #20 DB Sidney.

That’s a snapshot of how the room looks at the moment, and I wouldn’t have thought there’d be more changes given there’s appropriate depth and experience at all positions and I don’t have Wilcox pegged as a very aggressive roster manager (and it’s not like there are any new coaches here with fresh eyes on these players, there were no defensive staff changes at all). But Rob seemed pretty convinced on the podcast that there’ll be a couple more portal arrivals and departures before the window closes at the end of the month, which I’ll be on the lookout for.

Accountability Corner

I started last year’s preview opining of Musgrave, “I don’t think their playcaller has learned the lesson that an NFL offense without NFL players throughout the roster doesn’t work in the Pac-12.” Sure enough he was fired before the season was over, as well as the offensive line coach whose unit I described as the “likely bottleneck for this offense”. I predicted the quarterback correctly as well as his lack of scrambling ability, though he did attempt more deep shots than I was expecting. Even though the running back room was full of returners I liked, I made the guess that Ott would jump all of them which wound up being true, and now most of the rest are in the portal. I expressed skepticism that the tight ends would be big enough to handle all the blocking that Musgrave’s offense would call for (not that it would stop him from calling such plays) and I think that turned out to be accurate as well. The wideout unit went just as predicted, a pretty obvious call given the talent upgrade. I got three of the five initial starters on the offensive line right and mentioned as possibilities three other guys who wound up playing as starters at one point or another, but I whiffed on Driscoll and thought it’d be Swinney instead. The former is two years older, the latter is a much higher rated talent … I should have known better with this staff.

On defense, I noted that Cal had the potential to get substantially better with some bigger and seemingly healthier bodies in their defensive line, and I think the framework of that prediction was a correct one, it just turned out that the facts within it were wrong – after publication both Johnson and McKenzie became unavailable for the entire season, and none of the new guys I thought might pan out turned out to do so very effectively. Predictions like these are about assessing the realistic range of possibilities and making a call in the center of the bell curve, and I think this one just fell on a pretty far extreme of bad luck. I correctly called that the transfers Carlton and Isibor would be OLBs, not DEs as they were listed, and that Carlton would get a starting spot while Isibor would have to fight for time among a large group of unimpressive options, which I think was about the right take. I nailed the ILBs, both Oladejo as a sure starter and the transfer Sirmon being a likely candidate to jump the remaining returners, though I was a little skeptical of him as a Bob Gregory product. The only two secondary starter predictions I got right were the easy ones, Hearns and Scott, while I whiffed on the other three – I didn’t mention Earby at all, I thought Woodie not Woodson would get the starting safety job, and I thought Fatu Iosefa would be the starting nickel and instead he transferred out without ever playing. I don’t have much defense other than that I did say this was a very green group and I was just guessing based on talent rating and Spring game play, and that I thought the position was strangely under-recruited given Wilcox’s background. I suspect all the unpredictable moves in the secondary – and this year’s heavy portal action – stem from the same thing.

Justin Wilcox