Justin Wilcox enters his first spring as head coach of the Bears with plenty of work to do on both sides of the ball
In simple terms, a 5-7 showing by the California Golden Bears in 2016 wasn’t good enough for the powers that be. It didn’t matter that Sonny Dykes had inherited a mess and brought this program quite far in a relatively short amount of time.
Before Dykes took over, there hadn’t been much for Cal fans to get excited about. The Jeff Tedford mandate (2002-12) had run its course and the decision-makers wanted to bring in new blood to invigorate and stabilize the program. Dykes did that to some degree and could be considered a success for Cal, just looking at the caliber of athlete he’s brought in over the last couple of recruiting cycles.
But in the end, the on-field results just weren’t there, which is why the program is going in a new direction. After hiring a decidedly offensive-minded head coach in Dykes the last time, Cal has switched gears by turning to two defensive-oriented guys – new head coach Justin Wilcox and defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter. It will take time, but the hope is that these two can help the Bears change their identity on defense, while putting the program in position to not just qualify for bowl games, but also be more competitive in the Pac-12 and vie for championships. Considering Dykes made it just one bowl game in his four seasons, the task ahead of the new regime is no small one.
5 Storylines to Watch During Cal’s Spring Practice
1. Can Beau Baldwin replicate his offensive success at the FBS level?
This is one of the biggest keys to Cal’s success in 2017. Eastern Washington was a force in the FCS. Baldwin, the Eagles’ former head coach, was the primary reason for that. He runs a very fun and open offense, so Cal isn’t making a huge change from Sonny Dykes’ system to Baldwin’s. That’s important, but the question is how quickly it will take the talent already in place to adapt to what the new offensive coordinator wants to do.
The Bears have a talented crop of receivers from the previous classes and had a modest haul in the 2017 class, which is to be expected with the change in staff. Baldwin has the résumé to take the players on Cal’s roster and turn them into productive weapons. So Baldwin’s lack of experience at the FBS level is worth pointing out, but it also doesn’t mean he won’t be successful in his new role.
2. Replacing quarterback Davis Webb
One of the main tasks facing Baldwin this spring is finding a quarterback with Webb out of eligibility. Right now, Cal doesn’t have much on the roster by the way of game experience, but there are four guys ready to compete and make their case for getting the starting job. Whoever ends up with it won’t have the experience or leadership that Webb or his predecessor, Jared Goff, brought to the table.
Quarterback quagmires are never an easy thing to solve. There are ample occasions of schools bringing out one quarterback to start the year only to find out their backup was the guy who should’ve been starting all along. Cal fans can look to USC last year as an example. Should the Bears not identify the best guy right away, they have a roster full of guys who can put pressure on everyone else and that will breed and foster quality competition, which is never a bad thing in college football.
3. Was Justin Wilcox the right hire?
Wilcox’s tenure at USC was very much not what he or anyone else wanted. The fresh start with Wisconsin gave Wilcox the space to grow, mature, and eventually emerge as a leading candidate for the Cal vacancy. Some have questioned the hire, but it’s always important to remember that what a guy does with a defense isn’t necessarily what he will do with a whole team.
Looking at the staff Wilcox hired, it was apparent that he wanted to surround himself with guys that could handle their load. Tim DeRuyter is a known defensive commodity and Baldwin was responsible for developing Vernon Adams, who was Oregon’s quarterback in 2015. It really does seem like Wilcox understands that his role will be to delegate, not call defensive plays. If he does end up trusting his staff, which is something every first time coach must learn to do, then there is no reason Cal can’t become a contender.
4. Defensive struggles for Cal still a major concern
This was an area of concern headed into last season and nothing has changed. The Bears have been abysmal on defense and it’s part of the reason Dykes was dismissed. It also can’t be ignored that Cal hired a defensive-minded guy to be the next head coach, and he in turn immediately brought on DeRuyter. The Bears want to change their identity on defense, which isn’t a bad plan if you consider that most Pac-12 teams can score in bunches.
DeRuyter is known for relying on his linebackers, using guys on the outside as edge rushers. It’s a 3-4 alignment meant to isolate the cornerbacks on an island and get pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Paramount to DeRuyter’s defense are turnovers, whether that be recovering a fumble, picking off a pass or putting teams in bad field position and forcing them to punt. DeRuyter coaches a fast, physical, and fanatic brand of defense. In fact, that’s literally the motto he used while he was head coach at Fresno State. This spring will be an early look to see how soon the players embrace this new approach and if DeRuyter has the personnel to make it work.
5. Finding a way to compete with the conference’s elite
During Dykes’ four seasons, Cal was 2-14 against Oregon, Stanford, UCLA and USC with both of those wins coming in 2016. The Bears beat Oregon in a double-overtime thriller at home and dominated UCLA 36-10 in the regular season finale. But it also should be pointed out that those two teams were each 4-8 last season. But even though the Ducks and Bruins were down, it’s still important that Cal becomes more competitive in Pac-12 play. The Bears were just 10-26 in Dykes’ tenure.
Wilcox doesn’t just want Cal beating Oregon or UCLA were either is down, he wants to make big conference wins a part of the program’s culture – become more the norm rather than the exception. Should he succeed, he would have done what few have been able to do. The last time Cal competed in a bowl of significance was 1959, unless either the Holiday Bowl or the Armed Forces Bowl is considered a major postseason game. Wilcox wants to improve upon the Bears’ standing in the Pac-12 and national landscape as a whole, and he’s brought in a staff capable of doing exactly that.
Pre-Spring Outlook for Cal in the Pac-12
All things considered, the Bears are sitting in a good spot. There won’t be too many expectations for them and that will allow them to get comfortable with the new coaching staff without too much scrutiny or attention paid to them. But there is always plenty of work to be done when going through a coaching transition.
Trusting the process is hard. In fact, it can be downright stupid sometimes. But it’s also easy to overlook things when a program like Cal has been down and out for so long. People almost expect the other shoe to drop and that’s the way it has been with the Bears. Those who have followed the Pac-12 closely have seen Stanford rise. They have witnessed Oregon play in two national championship games and watched Washington make the College Football Playoff last season. And now they’re seeing Washington State develop into a contender under Mike Leach. The only two teams in the North division with nothing to show for it in the past decade are the Bears and the Oregon State Beavers. This is why Cal hired Justin Wilcox and this is the challenge he faces not just in 2017, but also beyond. Fortunately for Cal, he’s been around and knows a thing or two.
— Written by Josh Webb, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Webb is the host of Turf Show Radio on @TurfShowTimes and a contributor and comic book reviewer for @TheMarvelReport. Follow him on Twitter @FightOnTwist.
(Justin Wilcox photo courtesey of @CalFootball)