At Cal, Justin Wilcox seems to know what he’s doing

The 2010s haven’t been kind to Cal. Can Wilcox get the Bears bowling again?

Bill C’s annual preview series of every FBS team in college football continues. Catch up here!

Wilcox brought a lot of change to Berkeley when he took over for Sonny Dykes. The offense was destined to take a step backward, while the defense had almost nowhere to go but up.

But no matter what he found in his personnel, his personnel kept changing. Injuries particularly targeted the skill corps and the linebacking corps.

  • Blue-chip sophomore receiver Demetris Robertson and No. 2 running back Tre Watson made it only two games into the season before season-ending injuries. Another sophomore receiver, Melquise Stovall, played in only two games as well. This trio combined for 2,132 rushing and receiving yards in 2016 and 224 in 2017.
  • Rush linebacker Cameron Saffle made five tackles in game one and was done for the year. Safety Trey Turner made it two games. Leading tackler Jordan Kunaszyk missed three games, and No. 3 tackler Devante Downs missed five.

Cal still went 8-3 against the spread and topped S&P+ projections in eight of 12 games.

The offense fell into a massive funk after losing Robertson and company, then rebounded.

  • First 3 games (3-0): Avg. score: Cal 32, Opp 19 | Avg. yards per play: Cal 5.8, Opp 5.8 | Avg. percentile performance: 53% (58% offense, 46% defense)
  • Next 3 games (0-3): Avg. score: Opp 38, Cal 17 | Avg. yards per play: Opp 5.1, Cal 3.7 | Avg. percentile performance: 20% (23% offense, 28% defense)
  • Last 6 games (2-4): Avg. score: Cal 31, Opp 27 | Avg. yards per play: Opp 6.2, Cal 5.5 | Avg. percentile performance: 56% (58% offense, 51% defense)

The Golden Bears started 3-0 with wins over UNC and Ole Miss and later pummeled bowl-bound Washington State. They dropped three gut-wrenching tossups to fall a game short of bowl eligibility, but as I wrote in last year’s preview, eking out a minor bowl against a schedule that featured 11 power-conference opponents and, in the end, seven top-50 opponents, was a tall task. Cal probably would have pulled it off with a couple more healthy stars.

Minus the three-game funk, Cal went 5-4 and played like a top-60 team. The Bears weren’t great at anything, but weren’t bad at much.

They were also young as hell. In 2018, Wilcox returns his top quarterback, top running back, all but one receiver, every offensive lineman who started a game, most of his year-end two-deep on the defensive front seven, and the top five tacklers in the secondary. They rank 19th in returning production.

The odds of improvement: strong. But what does that mean in a Pac-12 North that features a projected S&P+ top-five Washington and two other top-25 teams (Stanford and Oregon)?

The Bears play three virtual tossups in the first half of the season (UNC, at BYU, UCLA); win two of three, and they’re probably bowling. Still, setting expectations for Cal is hard. In the last 30 years, the Bears have bowled about half the time and seem to produce a top-10 season once per decade. But the 2010s have been dicey. Jeff Tedford’s tenure began to trail off, and the rest of the division got its act together. In eight seasons in the 2010s, Cal has finished 5-7 four times and done worse twice and better twice.

Tedford’s peak was a hint that this program’s ceiling can be high. But Wilcox’s first job is to get the baseline back over .500.

Offense

2017 Cal offensive radar

There are all sorts of games within the sport of football. One of the more enjoyable hidden games — to me, a nerd — comes on a school’s roster page. When heights and weights are updated, you’ll see a guy listed about five pounds heavier than the previous year, especially at more physical positions like running back or offensive line.

That isn’t the case for Cal this spring. Sure, just about every lineman is listed 10 to 15 pounds heavier than last year, but virtually every quarterback and skill guy is lighter. You don’t see that often.

Assuming these are somewhat accurate, the message seems to be clear: coordinator Beau Baldwin wants more speed.

The former Eastern Washington head coach won six Big Sky titles and a national title thanks to an explosive attack, and he didn’t have nearly enough “explosive” last fall.

Granted, the offense was decent outside of the three-week funk. But there was obvious improvement left to undergo.

NCAA Football: California at UCLAKelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports
Ross Bowers

Ross Bowers’ first season as Baldwin’s starting quarterback was scattershot. He was great out of the gates, completing two-thirds of his passes for 563 yards against UNC and Weber State, but he targeted Robertson a quarter of the time in those two games; losing that security blanket created a crisis. He rebounded somewhat, though.

  • Bowers’ first two games: 67% completion rate, 12.8 yards per completion, 3% INT rate, 152.3 passer rating
  • Bowers’ next four games: 51% completion rate, 10.9 yards per completion 3.9% INT rate, 101.2 passer rating
  • Bowers’ last six games: 62% completion rate, 10.8 yards per completion, 1.7% INT rate, 127.3 passer rating

Bowers is the favorite to start, but he will still have some work to do in fall camp, fending off not only last year’s backup (senior Chase Forrest) but also sophomore South Carolina transfer Brandon McIlwain and redshirt freshman Chase Garbers.

Running back has been thinned out a bit. Starter Patrick Laird does return after rushing for 1,127 yards and a lovely 48 percent success rate last year, but with Watson transferring to Texas, only one of the next four leading backs is back. Some combination of sophomore Derrick Clark, redshirt freshman Biaggio Ali Walsh, and perhaps one of a couple of true freshmen will have to fill in, and if Laird gets hurt, no one else is even slightly proven.

Baldwin’s is a pass-first offense, though, and the receiving corps is tantalizing. Vic Wharton III was a decent No. 1 whose per-target numbers should improve with more around him, and slot Kanawai Noa was an efficiency machine (plus-16 percent marginal efficiency) who led last year’s receivers with 14.1 yards per catch.

Throw in Robertson (767 yards in 2016), tight end Ray Hudson (who also missed 2017), junior backups Brandon Singleton and Jordan Duncan, Michigan transfers Maurice Ways (a WR) and Ian Bunting (a TE), and well-regarded youngsters — sophomore slot Jeremiah Hawkins, redshirt freshman Taariq Johnson, incoming high-three-star freshmen Nikko Remigio and McCallan Castles, etc. — and you’ve potentially got all the weapons a QB needs.

You might also have a stellar line. Freshmen and sophomores accounted for nearly half of Cal’s line starts last year, and now all seven guys who started at least one game are back, including honorable-mention all-conference tackle Patrick Mekari. The line wasn’t amazing — 77th in stuff rate, 72nd in power success rate, 61st in Adj. Sack Rate — but it wasn’t terrible and should get better with continuity.

Outside of Robertson and McIlwain, there aren’t many former four-star guys on the offense, and in a tough division, that lack of high-end star power could matter. But often a college football offense is dependent on making sure its weakest link is pretty strong, and I think that’s the case here.

NCAA Football: California at StanfordNeville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports
Patrick Laird

Defense

2017 Cal defensive radar

In four years under Dykes, Cal’s defense averaged a No. 105 S&P+ ranking. That was quite the shift from the Tedford years (average rank: 41st), and it was reasonable to assume that it might take coordinator Tim DeRuyter a couple of years.

This wasn’t an amazing defense in 2017, but it was better. Cal improved to 79th in Def. S&P+ thanks mostly to big-play prevention (36th in IsoPPP, a measure of the magnitude of an offense’s successful plays), solid red zone defense (44th in points allowed per scoring opportunity), and excellent linebacker play (11th in LB havoc rate).

The LBs produced despite all the turnover, which is a very good sign. Of course, if the combination of DeRuyter (a former star DC at Texas A&M) and Wilcox (most recently a star DC at Wisconsin) didn’t produce much better linebacker play, that would have been a surprise.

Cal returns six linebackers who saw significant playing time last year, and three — seniors Jordan Kunaszyk and Alex Funches and sophomore Cameron Goode (combined: 21.5 tackles for loss, nine sacks, five passes defensed) — were particularly disruptive. Funches filled in for Saffle at the rush position and thrived, leading the team with 10.5 TFLs.

NCAA Football: Mississippi at CaliforniaStan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports
Cameron Goode (19) and Alex Funches (36)

Cal did lose a disruptive piece up front in end James Looney, and since only five linemen played regularly, and two are gone, the Bears could be just an injury or two away from depth issues. And since Cal was already problematic against the run (79th in Rushing S&P+), that’s a concern. But if the Bears force passing downs, they should be able to take advantage.

The Bears were 60th in Passing Downs S&P+ last year despite a combination of shuffling and youth in the back. DeRuyter leaned on two freshman cornerbacks (Camryn Bynum and Elijah Hicks) and two sophomore safeties (Jaylinn Hawkins and Ashtyn Davis), and that experience could pay off, especially if other defensive backs — senior safety Quentin Tartabull, injury-prone junior Trey Turner III, junior corners Traveon Bck and Josh Drayden, JUCO transfer Deon White — continue to develop.

The run game will define Cal’s defense, because the pass defense should be strong. (Root for Cal’s line to make noise, though, because there are some pretty great stories: JUCO transfer Lone Toailoa is from New Zealand, and redshirt freshman Siulagisipai Fuimaono is from Okinawa.)

NCAA Football: California at WashingtonJennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports
Camryn Bynum

Special Teams

Aside from some issues in punt coverage — punter Dylan Klumph averaged 43 yards per kick, but Cal still ranked just 115th in punt efficiency because opponents averaged 10.5 yards per return — this was a solid unit. Wharton is a steady punt returner, and Ashtyn Davis and Jeremiah Hawkins have some upside in kick returns. Kickoffs guy Gabe Siemieniec is solid, too.

Place-kicking and punting carry the most weight in the Special Teams S&P+ formula, however, and with kicker Matt Anderson gone and Klumph transferring to Arizona, it’s hard to get a read.

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
1-Sep North Carolina 51 0.1 50%
8-Sep at BYU 76 0.0 50%
15-Sep Idaho State NR 33.7 97%
29-Sep Oregon 23 -7.4 33%
6-Oct at Arizona 33 -8.8 31%
13-Oct UCLA 39 -2.1 45%
20-Oct at Oregon State 110 8.7 69%
27-Oct Washington 4 -20.0 12%
3-Nov at Washington State 41 -6.5 35%
10-Nov at USC 15 -15.1 19%
17-Nov Stanford 20 -8.0 32%
24-Nov Colorado 89 8.5 69%
Projected S&P+ Rk 65
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 55 / 66
Projected wins 5.4
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 0.9 (64)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 57 / 44
2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 4 / 0.1
2017 TO Luck/Game +1.6
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 76% (85%, 68%)
2017 Second-order wins (difference) 5.1 (-0.1)

Another strong start will be key in 2018. Cal begins by hosting North Carolina (win probability per S&P+: 50 percent) and traveling to BYU (again, 50 percent). Win those and take out Idaho State for a 3-0 start, and the odds of bowling are quite good.

The Bears are favored only twice more after those first three games, however, with a whole lot of games falling into the “slight underdog” category. With anything less than a 3-0 start, the math becomes a lot less favorable.

You’d like to aim for more than 6-6 at any job, and Cal randomly proves that it can still have a pretty high ceiling. But if Wilcox can drag the Bears to bowl eligibility, we can then start talking about something more. I’m betting they hit that mark this fall.

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