Justin Wilcox and the Bears look to take a step forward after winning seven games last season
The California Golden Bears are coming off a season where even though the record says 7-6, the effort was closer to 10-3. Four of their losses were by seven points or fewer, including a 10-7 overtime loss in the Cheez-It Bowl to TCU. It’s easy to see why Cal offered head coach Justin Wilcox a contract extension prior to the bowl game.
Among the highlights from the 2018 campaign was the Bears' first victory over USC since Aaron Rodgers was at quarterback. One could argue that the Cal's struggles on offense were the reason the final win tally was just seven. The lack of offense in the Cheez-It Bowl served as the final illustration to Wilcox that his team still has to improve on that side of the ball if the Bears want to compete for Pac-12 championships.
The defense, however, was a pleasant surprise and the clear strength of the 2018 team. Cal finished the season ranked 15th nationally in total defense and 22nd in scoring defense. Contrast that to the offense, which was near the bottom in both total (114th) and scoring (115th) offense.
So with the bar now raised higher in Berkeley what does this spring hold for Wilcox and company?
5 Storylines to Watch During Cal's Spring Practice
1. How does Chase Garbers progress?
Garbers returns for his sophomore year and said experience will be huge as the Bears need better quarterback play if they want to take the next step forward as a team. Garbers completed better than 61 percent of his passes last season, but it was the overall numbers (1,506 yards, 14 TDs, 10 INTs) that leave plenty of room for improvement. Remember, Cal lost four games by no more than a touchdown.
Garbers also struggled down the stretch, tossing more interceptions (six) than touchdowns (five) in the final five games. With UCLA transfer Devon Modster now eligible, he will compete with Garbers for the starting job. Even though the Bears had success with Garbers at the helm, you have to think Wilcox will give Modster a chance if he turns out to be the best option.
2. What are the Bears going to do at receiver?
The total returning production at wide receiver for Cal doesn’t look great on paper. At present, the Bears only have five scholarship receivers going into spring. That’s not ideal for a program looking to build off a seven-win season. There’s the likelihood that the Bears will dip into the graduate and transfer market to address their needs at both wide receiver and tight end. This is something Wilcox and his staff did last year and will likely look to do again.
To give you an idea of just how much of a priority this will be in the spring, the leading returning receiver is Jordan Duncan, who finished with 267 yards in 2018. He did average 13.4 yards per catch (and had four touchdown grabs) but he recorded a total of 20 receptions. Guys like McCallan Castles, Nikko Remigio, and Jeremiah Hawkins are going to have to step up for Cal or the passing attack could struggle once again in 2019.
3. Can the secondary lead the way?
Even with some questions up front, Cal's secondary should serve as a nice anchor for the Bears' defense. Defensive backs coach Gerald Alexander is one of the most underrated coaches and recruiters in the college game. A beloved teammate during his playing days at Boise State before moving on the NFL, Alexander is loved by both players and fellow coaches. His guys also get the job done on the field, which is why Alexander received a raise during the offseason as some other schools reached out to him.
Last season, Cal was ninth in the nation in passing yards allowed per game and No. 11 in passing efficiency defense. Defense is Wilcox' background, so it's no surprise the Bears have developed a defensive mindset. Cal will have a veteran secondary to rely on this season with Traveon Beck, Cam Bynum, and Elijah Hicks at corner, and Ashtyn Davis and Jaylinn Hawkins at safety all returning. This is a group that can lock down opposing receivers and gives the rest of the defense time to do their job.
4. Who will play nose tackle for the Bears?
While the secondary is in excellent shape the picture for Cal's defensive line is much more uncertain. Coordinator Tim DeRuyter employs a 3-4 alignment, which places a lot of responsibility on the guys up front. DeRuyter already knows he must replace a couple of starters in Chris Palmer and Rusty Becker but the impact related to their departure may not be truly known until the season gets going.
Cal fans certainly don't want to see a repeat to what happened to DeRuyter when he was the head coach at Fresno State (2012-16). After losing defensive tackle Tyeler Davison to graduation following the 2014 season, DeRuyter didn't have anyone who was capable of stepping into that role. As a result, the Bulldogs' play on defense declined dramatically and less than two seasons later, DeRuyter was fired. Not saying history will repeat itself with DeRuyter at Cal (since Wilcox is the head coach), but you have to think filling the holes up front is at the forefront of his mind.
Fortunately for DeRuyter, he has some options in Siu Fuimaono and Aaron Maldonado. Both appear to have the necessary size (each at least 6-foot-3 and 300 pounds), but experience is more of a concern. Fuimaono has only been playing football a couple years and that was in Japan, so there's a steep learning curve in play. If Fuimaono can make the transition smoothly then DeRuyter may have a serviceable enough defensive line to pair with his veteran secondary that could make the Bears' defense one of the best in the Pac-12, if not the country.
5. Will the Bears be mentally prepared for a much tougher year?
Cal is coming off of a tremendous season, but some of that success could be attributed to scheduling. Last season, the vast majority of their toughest opponents were at home. That is not the case for 2019. The Bears' must go to Seattle in Week 2 to face defending Pac-12 champion Washington and make the cross-country trek to play Ole Miss in Oxford in Week 4. Cal's conference slate also includes road games at Oregon, Utah, Stanford, and UCLA.
From a home standpoint, the Bears' toughest games at California Memorial Stadium this fall appear to be against USC, Washington State, and Arizona State. Cal's defense led by a veteran secondary can help the Bears navigate their tough schedule but the difference between matching or surpassing last season's seven wins could come down to the improvement on offense, specifically quarterback play.
The spring will be a good indication of whether the players are content with replicating last season's results or are motivated to take the next step forward and establish themselves as one of the best teams in the Pac-12.
Thanks to Trace Travers of Cal Rivals for his help with this article.
— Written by Josh Webb, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @FightOnTwist.