Cal had big ambitions for 2020, including the belief that a Pac-12 North title was within reach. Then the COVID-19 pandemic knocked the Bears off their stride. They managed to play just four games, had linemen in quarantine for two of them and self-destructed in two others.
Finally intact, the Bears believe they showed their true colors in a 21–17 win over then-21st-ranked Oregon in what turned out to be their final game. Linebacker Kuony Deng, while noting all the challenging circumstances the Bears faced, said after the win, "I think we understood that we have a really good football team."
From that bizarre 1–3 season, the Bears return with less fanfare but more depth and experience. Ten players return as "super seniors," replaying their final season of eligibility per a one-time NCAA waiver. A total of 28 players who accounted for 74 of 88 starts on offense and defense are back. There was more turnover among the coaches than players, with Geep Chryst (tight ends), Keith Heyward (outside linebackers) and Tre Watson (defensive backs) joining the staff.
The Bears expect the biggest improvement to take place on offense. Says senior center Michael Saffell, "The leaps and bounds that have occurred in my five years here, this is the most confidence we've played with."
Previewing California's Offense for 2021
Quarterback Chase Garbers and his offensive teammates had just three practices with new coordinator Bill Musgrave in the spring of 2020, then had a short training camp and used a slimmed-down playbook in the fall. That won't be the case this season.
"Our defense is always going to be good," says Musgrave, who spent 20 years coaching offense in the NFL. "We've got to pick it up on offense so we can get to the defense's level. Then we'll be cooking with gas."
Musgrave thinks he has the right guy in Garbers, who has passed for 4,049 yards and needs just 282 rushing yards to become the first Cal quarterback to reach 1,000 for his career.
The line returns four starters, and the Bears have grown depth at the skill positions. Running back Christopher Brown Jr. ran for 914 yards in 2019, but Cal needs to keep him healthy after he carried the ball just 21 times last fall.
Kekoa Crawford and Nikko Remigio lead the returnees at wideout, and the Bears hope they can stretch the field more effectively with sophomore Jeremiah Hunter, who missed last season with a shoulder injury, and incoming freshman J.Michael Sturdivant, who picked Cal over LSU, Oklahoma and UCLA.
Previewing California's Defense for 2021
This has been the Bears' backbone, but head coach Justin Wilcox believes there is room for growth. "We've had some really good moments," he says of a unit that has ranked no lower than fourth in the Pac-12 in total defense three straight years. "Now it's just doing it down in and down out. We've got the guys to do it."
Anchoring the defense will be a linebacker corps led by seniors Cameron Goode, who averaged two tackles for a loss per game in 2020, and Deng, who moves from the inside to join Goode on the outside. Deng has accumulated 150 tackles in 17 career games. "Probably his natural position," Wilcox says. "Also makes us better as a defense."
Moving Deng was easier because Muelu Iosefa was good enough last season to start twice at inside linebacker, the Bears' only true freshman to start a game.
The defense suffered a blow in the spring. Defensive end Brett Johnson, the team's best D-lineman, suffered a broken hip that required surgery and will cause him to miss the entire 2021 season.
Defensive backs Elijah Hicks and Josh Drayden, back for their fifth and sixth seasons, respectively, have combined to play 85 games with 44 starts. Florida State transfer Raymond Woodie III impressed coaches during spring ball.
Previewing California's Specialists for 2021
The Bears lost twice in consecutive weeks last season, thanks primarily to breakdowns by special teams. In a four-point loss at Oregon State, they had punt and kickoff returns totaling 184 yards wiped out by penalties before a blocked punt set up the Beavers' winning touchdown. A week later, a fumbled punt, blocked field goal and blocked PAT led to an 11-point swing in a one-point loss to Stanford. Eliminating those gaffes will be critical this fall. Dario Longhetto and Jamieson Sheahan return as placekicker and punter, respectively.
Picked second in the Pac-12 North a year ago, the Bears may not face the same outside expectations, but they hold themselves to a high standard that they didn't achieve in 2020. Garbers, in his fourth season as the starting quarterback, says a Pac-12 title is the Bears' goal in 2021. While Wilcox won't go there specifically, he says standards are established and the foundation laid. And, he acknowledges, the team has "a chip on our shoulder, so to speak, like we have something to prove."
But there is no whining from Wilcox about bad breaks in the 2020 COVID season. "The reality was we had two games where we made critical errors and had every chance to win the game and we didn't," he says, noting the thin margin between winning and losing. "Those are the hardest margins to overcome."
National Ranking: 54
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(Chase Garbers photo courtesy of California Athletics)