The California Golden Bears are coming off a mixed campaign in head coach Justin Wilcox’s inaugural season, but one that showed incredible promise. This year’s iteration of the Bears will look to build off that promise and qualify for a bowl.
The 2017 season was full of ups and downs for Wilcox’ debut. Wins over Ole Miss and Washington State went together with losses to Colorado, Oregon, and heartbreakers against Arizona, Stanford and UCLA. If the Bears can turn a couple of those tight losses into wins, the team could be looking at eight or more victories in 2018.
First-year defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter will have some work to do after the Bears finished 95th in the nation in yards allowed per game. A solid recruiting class, plus a little more time with his players, and DeRuyter should have the defense markedly improved. While things didn’t work out for him as a head coach, he has proven himself more than capable of fielding a tough, unrelenting and turnover-happy defense.
Likewise, offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin will have had one more year with junior quarterback Ross Bowers. One would expect that he will look to improve upon an offense that finished 89th in the nation. Baldwin’s pedigree at Eastern Washington speaks for itself, but the Bears will need a bit more on both sides of the ball if they’re to win those close games.
That’s really what the 2018 season is about for Cal. The first year under any head coach is about understanding the basics and demands of the new staff. The second year is about building upon that and taking more individual responsibility as players. In an ideal setting, trust and the relationships between the new staff and the players was forged over the previous year. With that in mind, let’s take a look at some things to watch as the Bears get back to the field.
5 Storylines to Watch During Cal’s Spring Practice
1. Who starts under center for the Bears?
Last year the Bears got by with rather limited quarterback play and coordinator Beau Baldwin will look to build up the offense. Whether Ross Bowers remains the starting quarterback or the job is claimed by Chase Garbers or South Carolina transfer Brandon Mcllwain remains to be seen. Regardless of which way he goes, Baldwin has depth at the position.
Mcllwain has starting experience from his time with the Gamecocks. He also is a dual-threat quarterback, an added dimension he brings to the competition. Bowers was the starter last season so he has the edge in terms of experience learning and executing Baldwin’s offense. Garbers has a chance to make his own claim to the job should McIlwain be slow to get acclimated and Bowers not show any noticeable improvement.
2. Significant depth in the backfield
Before we even get to the running backs, it is worth mentioning that the Bears return all five starters on the offensive line. Provided this group shows growth, Cal could have one of the most dominant running games in the Pac-12. It all starts with Patrick Laird (above, right), who finished eighth in the conference with 1,127 rushing yards last season. Laird averaged nearly six yards (5.9) per carry and scored eight times on the ground.
Redshirt freshman Biaggio Ali Walsh is expected to back up Laird. Walsh was Nevada’s Gatorade Player of the Year in high school in 2015. He’s as talented as they come, as are Chris Brown and Johnny Adams. The diversity of styles will give running backs coach Burl Toler a bevy of options to choose from.
3. Managing a potentially rocky schedule
Cal’s schedule in 2017 was about as tough as you can get for a first-year head coach, but Wilcox and his team did well to prepare the Bears for the road ahead. The 5-7 record may not look that impressive, but on the whole Cal was in a lot more games in 2017 compared to the year prior even though the won-loss tally was the same. The difference between Wilcox and former head coach Sonny Dykes seems to be competitive games. This is something the Bears can build upon in 2018.
The Bears no longer have an SEC opponent on their schedule, instead replacing that game with BYU. The opener at home against North Carolina looms large, but Cal beat the Tar Heels in Chapel Hill last year and that was when Wilcox was still figuring things out as a rookie head coach. As always, the Pac-12 will likely eviscerate itself. Of course, the Bears improving isn’t likely to change this fact for the Pac-12, but Cal fans have been waiting for a contender long enough that they’re not likely to care if the conference cleans itself out again.
4. Has Wilcox grown as a head coach?
The problem for Cal has been a series of promising coaches never delivering on that initial optimism. It can be tricky to tell these things, but Cal appears to finally have found a winner. This staff has the potential to hold its own when it comes to recruiting. Between long-time stalwarts such as DeRuyter and offensive line coach Steve Greatwood and younger upstarts like Gerald Alexander, the Bears will start recruiting top athletes. For now, though, this staff is focusing on gaining a footprint within the conference’s recruiting hotbed.
Focusing on handling basic business out of the gate is a far more pragmatic approach than you see many coaches try when hired. Folks tend to try and punch above their weight and forsake the simple things in the process. Wilcox has made no such error, so now the question is whether or not he has grown as a head coach in the offseason. Not that Wilcox is predictable, but he wouldn’t be the first coach to get tunnel vision with his approach.
5. Cal’s offense must limit turnovers while the defense must create them
DeRuyter’s defense is primarily focused on gaining turnovers and that was certainly a calling card the Bears in 2017. In total, Cal generated 24 turnovers (tied for seventh in the Pac-12), one of the reasons why the Bears were able to remain competitive in the most of their games. Turnovers are the game’s great equalizer and they tend to breathe new life into football contests.
Where the defense had success, however, the offense faltered. The Bears gave the football away 20 times. The overall plus-four turnover margin was still good enough to tie for 37th nationally, but it wasn’t enough to satisfy Wilcox, who believes in game control and retaining possession wherever possible. If the Bears are to take the next step in their growth, they will need to limit turnovers when possible in 2018.
Special thanks to Ryan Gorcey (@RGBearTerritory) for his insight.