As hard as it may be to believe, the California Golden Bears improved in the win column in 2019 even though they took several steps backwards in one respect. Justin Wilcox's team finished last season with an 8-5 mark that included a Redbox Bowl win over Illinois, and more importantly, a victory over Stanford to bring the Axe back to Berkeley for the first time in a decade.
Cal finished 4-5 in Pac-12 play for the second straight year, but last season that was good enough for second in the North division, the Bears' highest since the conference split into its current alignment in 2011.
However, all of this success didn't come easy as Cal struggled all season on offense. It's become somewhat of a hallmark with Wilcox's teams — stout on defense, limited on offense. Last season, the Bears finished 117th in the nation in total offense and scored a total of 35 touchdowns in 13 games. Injuries did play a part in this, especially at the most important position on the field, but it's clear there's work to be done on offense.
Wilcox is certainly aware of these as well, which is why he has revamped his offensive coaching staff. But while offense may be the focus this spring for Cal, it's not the only pressing need the Bears will have as preparations for the 2020 season get underway out in Berkeley.
5 Storylines to Watch During California's Spring Practice
1. Back to the drawing board on offense
As has already been mentioned, Cal struggled on offense throughout the season. The Bears were last in the Pac-12 in the four major categories, except rushing offense, where they finished eighth. Fans will be quick to point out that injuries hampered the team's development on offense, as starting quarterback Chase Garbers missed four games last season.
The end result is that after finishing the season ranked 99th or lower nationally in total, scoring, rushing, and passing offense, changes had to be made. Offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin left to be the head coach at FCS Cal Poly, with Wilcox hiring longtime NFL assistant coach Bill Musgrave as his replacement. Musgrave, who was a four-year starting quarterback at Oregon, has more than 20 years' worth of coaching experience, including serving as OC for five different NFL teams, most recently the Denver Broncos (2017-18).
Besides Musgrave, other new faces on staff include offensive line coach Angus McClure, who was at Nevada last year, and running backs coach Aristotle Thompson, who spent the last 11 years at Cal Poly. Additionally, Burl Toler III has moved from coaching running backs to wide receivers, and Marques Tuiasosopo has shifted from passing game coordinator/quarterbacks to tight ends.
There's much more turnover with the coaching staff than there is with the roster, as every key contributor on offense is back with the exception of wide receiver Jordan Duncan. But it's pretty much back to square one for the entire unit.
2. Can Chase Garbers take that next step?
While his numbers may not jump off of the page, one thing is hard to ignore when it comes to Garbers. When he played, Cal was a different team. The Bears were 7-2 in the games he played in last season (and undefeated in those he started and finished), 1-3 when he didn't. He may have averaged less than 200 passing yards per game and tossed a total of 14 touchdown passes in those nine games, but he still got the job done. Three other quarterbacks (Devon Modster, Spencer Brasch, Robby Rowell) who saw action last season are back as well, but it certainly appears that the job is Garbers' to lose.
Now it's just a matter of new offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave getting the most out of the rising redshirt junior and finding out if his numbers were more a product of the offense rather than a true representation of the quarterback's capabilities. As a team, Cal was last in the Pac-12 with 101 passing plays that gained 10 or more yards and collectively averaged 12.6 yards per catch. It'll be up to Musgrave to assess Garbers and the other quarterbacks on this roster to see what he has to work with and to tailor the offense from there.
3. Finding more playmakers
It's not fair to put all of the blame for the offense's shortcomings on the quarterbacks. For Cal to reach its full potential on offense, it will take more than one player to step up. Fortunately, the Bears return pretty much all of their offensive production from last season, starting with leading rusher Christopher Brown Jr.
As a sophomore, Brown finished sixth in the Pac-12 with 914 rushing yards last season, finishing the campaign with back-to-back 100-yard efforts in wins over UCLA and Illinois. The biggest question for him this spring is whether or not can he prove capable of handling an even heavier workload after averaging 16 carries per game in 2019.
Brown and Garbers also have the benefit of working behind an offensive line that returns all five starters along with several others who have starting experience. This gives the coaching staff plenty of pieces to work with as they seek to find the best combination that can help the offense find its footing.
It also would help if some reliable targets emerged in the spring as well. Cal returns all but one of its leading pass catchers from last season, but the player atop this list, Nikko Remigio, finished with just 38 catches in 12 games. Five other players who posted double-digit catches are back, but they totaled 83 receptions and nine touchdowns in 2019. Brown's four touchdown catches out of the backfield were the most by any Bear last season. That needs to change, and spring is a good a time as any to start the process.
4. Maintaining that defensive edge
Justin Wilcox's teams have become known for their defense, and while eight starters are set to return, there are some big shoes that will need to be filled. It starts in the middle with consensus All-American linebacker Evan Weaver exhausting his eligibility. Weaver was the nation's leading tackler (182 total stops), but his impact on the field went beyond his stats. Fellow inside linebacker Kuony Deng (121 tackles) is poised to fill Weaver's role as the anchor in the middle, but others will need to step up.
Additionally, Cal loses both starting safeties in Ashtyn Davis and Jaylinn Hawkins, as well as secondary coach Gerald Alexander, who left in January to become the Miami Dolphins' defensive backs coach. Former Arizona defensive coordinator Marcel Yates has hired to replace Alexander, and it remains to be seen how the Bears' secondary will look following the turnover. Yates does have some pieces to work with, namely second-team All-Pac-12 cornerback Camryn Bynum.
Between the loss of Weaver and the changes in the secondary, Wilcox and defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter have some work to do as Cal seeks to maintain the level of play that resulted in the Bears finishing 2019 ranked 27th nationally against the run, 33rd in scoring defense, and 65th in yards allowed per game.
5. Opportunity knocks
Cal is similar to the rest of the teams in the Pac-12 North in one respect. Change is afoot. It starts atop the division with defending champion Oregon moving on without quarterback Justin Herbert and several other key players, as well as the Ducks bringing in former Mississippi State head coach Joe Moorhead as offensive coordinator. Stanford saw former starting quarterback K.J. Costello enter the transfer portal and land at Moorhead's former school, where he will presumably play for former Washington State head coach Mike Leach.
Hawaii's Nick Rolovich was hired to be Leach's replacement up in Pullman, but he'll be making the leap to the Pac-12 without the benefit of prolific quarterback Anthony Gordon at his disposal. Washington also saw its starting quarterback (among others) leave for the NFL and head coach Chris Petersen head off into retirement. And don't think Oregon State is spared from this turnover ripple either, as the Beavers are looking for a new starting quarterback and No. 1 wide receiver this spring.
The overall picture for the Pac-12 is uncertain at best, as the conference continues to fall further and further behind in the conference arms race. The changes referenced above just cover the North, but several teams in the South are dealing with similar situations, namely defending division champion Utah.
What it all means is that while Cal has plenty of questions to answer this spring, the North division, if not the conference as a whole, appears to be there for the taking. The Bears have taken tiny steps forward in each of Wilcox's three seasons at the helm and return plenty of pieces from last year's team that went 8-5 and finished second in their division. This spring could lay the groundwork if Cal is serious about competing for its first Pac-12 championship.
— Written by Josh Webb, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @FightOnTwist.