The Bears made a tangible step forward in Year 2 of the Justin Wilcox era, assembling one of the Pac-12's best defensive units, posting seven wins — including one over conference champ Washington — and reaching the program's first bowl game since 2015.
The defense, which returns 13 players who started a combined 155 games last fall, figures to be as good or better than the unit that ranked third in the Pac-12 in both points and yards allowed per game.
Whether the Bears can match or exceed last year's standing in the tough Pac-12 North will depend largely on progress they make offensively. The quarterback duel between Chase Garbers and newcomer Devon Modster is expected to continue into fall camp, and Cal will be inexperienced at most other skill positions.
Unless Cal can substantially improve its scoring output from a year ago — when it was last in the Pac-12 at 21.5 points per game — even a formidable defense will carry this team only so far.
Previewing Cal's Offense for 2019
No game represented the 2018 Cal Bears more vividly than their 12–10 win over Washington. The Bears prevailed despite failing to score an offensive touchdown. Wilcox knows that that formula is not sustainable. Garbers passed for 1,506 yards and 14 touchdowns while starting 10 games last season, but he also threw 10 interceptions — and Cal was ineffective in the red zone. The Bears brought in Modster, who began his career at UCLA, to create competition, and Garbers seemed to respond to it during spring drills.
"My game is definitely at the highest it's been since I've been here," Garbers said during the spring. "Just that comfort level that I didn't necessarily have [last] fall."
Cal fans are familiar with Modster, a former four-star recruit who came off the bench to complete 14-of-18 passes for 191 yards in the Bruins' 30–27 win over the Bears two seasons ago.
Christopher Brown Jr., a bruising 6'1", 230-pound sophomore, seemed to secure the No. 1 running back slot in the spring before a left ankle injury sidelined him during the final week. Marcel Dancy and junior college transfer DeShawn Collins also figure in the mix at running back.
The Bears suffered huge losses at wide receiver, where Jordan Duncan and Jeremiah Hawkins are the top returnees. Cal anticipates immediate contributions from summer arrivals Trevon Clark and Kekoa Crawford, who both bring size to the position.
It all works only if the offensive line takes another step forward. Jake Curhan and Michael Saffell will lead a unit that otherwise remains fairly young.
Previewing Cal's Defense for 2019
Ultra-productive inside linebacker Evan Weaver and Cal's best secondary in decades will anchor a veteran defense. Weaver had 159 tackles last season, most by a returning FBS player, and scored Cal's only touchdown (on a pick-6) in the win over Washington. The Bears were second nationally with 21 interceptions, and players who accounted for 20 of those are back, including safeties Jaylinn Hawkins (six) and Ashtyn Davis (four) and cornerbacks Camryn Bynum (two) and Elijah Hicks (one).
The Bears will benefit from the return of outside linebacker Cameron Goode, who had a pick-6 in the Week 1 win over North Carolina before suffering a season-ending knee injury. Goode, now up to 233 pounds, appeared fully healthy in the spring.
Newcomer Kuony Deng could fill Jordan Kunaszyk's inside linebacker spot next to Weaver, and the coaching staff has high hopes for sophomore nose guards Aaron Maldonado and Siulagisipai Fuimaono, who will compete to secure the job held last season by Chris Palmer.
Defensive end Luc Bequette says the Bears expect to take another step after allowing an average of just 14.9 points over the final seven games. "We want to be No. 1 in the Pac-12 in defense and hopefully not even close," he says. "After that, top-10 defense in the nation."
Previewing Cal's Specialists for 2019
Punter Steven Coutts averaged 41.5 yards and placed 37 kicks inside the 20-yard line. Placekicker Greg Thomas converted 12-of-17 field goal tries (missing just twice inside 40 yards) and was perfect on 32 extra points. Davis, a former track-and-field All-American, averaged 26.2 yards on kick returns and had an 89-yarder for a touchdown against Idaho State. The coaching staff hopes improved depth throughout the roster will translate to better overall play on coverage and return teams.
Defense should keep Cal in every game. Just two seasons after allowing 43 points or more nine times, the Bears gave up more than 24 points just twice last season. The problem is the Bears were so feeble offensively that they lost four times when they surrendered 24 points or fewer, including their 10–7 overtime defeat to TCU in the Cheez-It Bowl.
The schedule is challenging, with road games vs. Ole Miss, Washington, Oregon, Utah, Stanford and UCLA. And the Cal offense remains a major question mark. Until and unless that improves, it's hard to imagine the Bears making much headway in the Pac-12 North.