California showed improvement in Justin Wilcox's first season as head coach, but the Golden Bears still missed out on a bowl game with a 5-7 record. The offense returns every starter and could take a major step forward depending on the quarterback play. The defense returns seven starters but most of that experience is in the secondary. Cal has plenty of experience and getting back to the postseason is a realistic goal for Wilcox and company.
Previewing California Football's Offense for 2018
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The Bears' offense returns nearly intact from a year ago but is determined to improve this fall. Junior quarterback Ross Bowers, who passed for 3,039 yards with 18 touchdowns last season, is expected to duel South Carolina transfer Brandon McIlwain through fall camp for the starting job. McIlwain provides an extra element with his running ability, but Bowers has a better grasp of the Cal offense.
Former walk-on Patrick Laird was the team's most pleasant surprise a year ago, rushing for 1,127 yards and eight touchdowns and catching 45 passes for 322 yards and another score after replacing injured starter Tre Watson in Week 3. Beyond Laird, the Bears have virtually no experience at the position after Watson and two backups transferred in the offseason. Freshmen Johnny Adams Jr. and Christopher Brown Jr. both will get the chance to play early.
Receiver should be a strength. Demetris Robertson, a Freshman All-American in 2016 who played just two games last season before undergoing surgery to repair a sports hernia, decided to transfer in June. However, Kanawai Noa and Vic Wharton, who combined for 123 catches and nine TDs a year ago are back.
All five offensive line starters are back, led by seniors Addison Ooms at center and Patrick Mekari at left tackle, but the Bears need more consistency up front. Cal was 11th in the Pac-12 in total offense.
Previewing California Football's Defense for 2018
Cal's scoring defense ranked seventh in the Pac-12, allowing 28.4 points per game a year ago, a huge improvement from 42.6 points per game the year before and the Bears' best mark in six seasons. But there were major losses in the front seven. "Can we hold up up front with a bunch of guys who don't have a lot of playing time? That's one of the questions we have to face," defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter says.
Senior Chris Palmer figures to anchor the line at nose guard, but ends Luc Bequette and Rusty Becker can also slide inside. Senior insider linebacker Jordan Kunaszyk finished strong last season to wind up as the team's leading tackler (74) and should again be the unit's most productive player. Outside linebacker Alex Funches, the team's best pass rusher, will try to spark greater pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
The secondary should be the strength of the defense, led by sophomore cornerbacks Cam Bynum and Elijah Hicks. "They didn't play like freshmen," DeRuyter says. Ashtyn Davis, a hurdler on the track team and the fastest player on the football roster, is set at free safety after starting the final six games last season.
Previewing California Football's Specialists for 2018
Gabe Siemieniec and Chris Landgrebe will compete through August for the placekicker job held the past three seasons by Cal career scoring leader Matt Anderson. There is more clarity at punter, where Steven Coutts is set to replace Dylan Klumph.
The arc of the Cal program is headed in a positive direction, but second-year coach Justin Wilcox knows the Bears aren't where they need to be. "It's not good enough. We can say we have all these returnees, but we were 5-7," he says. "Every one of us has got to show improvement."
A year ago, the Bears dramatically improved the Pac-12's worst defense and inched close to bowl eligibility. But the stretch run was a study in frustrating close calls, a 1-4 finish that included three losses by a combined seven points. "Those are the margins that are toughest to overcome," Wilcox says. That will remain Cal's challenge in the tough Pac-12 North.