It was a tough first season for new coach Sonny Dykes. In fact, the only things the 2013 Golden Bears had in common with Dykes’ 2012 Louisiana Tech was the lack of a bowl game and a paper-thin defense. At least the Bulldogs squad had a penchant for forcing turnovers. Dykes has learned his trade under Hal Mumme and Mike Leach, so offense is naturally his forte. To be fair, the offense wasn’t awful, at least until they reached the redzone, where the struggling line and inconsistent running attack made the opposing defenses’ job a lot easier. There was a bucketload of reasons for Cal’s struggles, but injuries, inexperience and attempting to stop the bleeding through regular lineup changes were predominant. While it’s highly unlikely any team will make it through a season with the same 22 starters all year, the Bears had something in the region of 47 players (at last count) start at least one game, some at different positions. Now with a more seasoned roster, and some solid recruiting for need (JUCOs), can the Bears start moving in the right direction?
Part of the reason for the offensive woes last season was having a true freshman quarterback. Jared Goff sure made his fair share of rookie mistakes, but he was also one of the few bright spots on the team. Goff was sometimes pulled in games when the occasion got the better of him, but it was clear he was Dykes’ guy from the start. Goff passed for 3488 yards and 18 TDs, with 10 interceptions. He had a young, but decent, bunch of receivers to throw to. Chris Harper and Bryce Treggs combined for 146 receptions, 1591 yards and 6 TDs, while Richard Rodgers provided the big plays, catching 39 passes for 608 yards and another score. Khalfani Muhammad was the leading rusher with 445 yards and 4 TDs. He’s explosive, but at 170 pounds, he was never going to carry the load. Brendan Bigelow started the season, but he has had recurring knee concerns, limiting him in realizing his immense potential. He led the team with 106 carries, but gained just 425 yards and 2 scores. It’s no surprise the running game struggled, as the offensive line didn’t have one player start 12 games. Steven Moore managed 11 at right tackle, but no one else started more than 9. As a result, the Bears gained just 122 yards per game on the ground (3.5 YPC), and allowed 35 sacks (and a lot more pressure).
The push back towards respectability begins here, and begins with Goff. Now a sophomore, he should be more prepared for rigors of a PAC 12 season, as well as better versed in the offense. The only major concern is whether the shoulder injury sustained late last year clears up, or becomes a recurring obstacle. If so, the reserve strength could be an issue. Zach Kline, who was the backup in 2013, has sought greener pastures, so the job falls to little-used Austin Hinder (2 games, 4 passes), unless someone else steps forward in camp. Harper and Treggs are back to catch passes, although Rodgers has left for the NFL. Kenny Lawler (37-350-5) is back as the third receiver, while incoming freshman Erik Brown and now-eligible Hawaii transfer Trevor Davis (45 receptions in 2 years) should make their presence felt in camp. Getting the ground game going should be a priority, as the running attack was a big part of Dykes’ success at Louisiana Tech. A committee approach seems to be best option, with Muhammad and Daniel Lasco (67-317-2) leading the charge, but the Bears have a couple of interesting recruits in Vic Enwere and Tre Watson, both of whom arrive in fall. It is stating the obvious somewhat that getting the offensive line into fighting shape sooner rather than later is key, but Cal may actually be in decent shape this year with plenty of battle-tested players returning. Moore will switch from right to left tackle, with Brian Farley replacing him. Jordan Rigsbee moved from guard to center last season as an injury replacement, and may stay there, although he sustained a sprained ankle in camp. Chris Borrayo and Alejandro Crosthwaite finished 2013 at left and right guard respectively, and look to have the edge there, but don’t be surprised if this lineup is tossed on its head come fall.
The defense took a lot of the slack for its play last season, and rightfully so, even though injuries took their toll. The unit only allowed less than 448 yards once (381), and held only FCS team Portland State (who gained 553 yards) to 30 points or fewer. It all started up front with the Bears, as the defensive line allowed 189 yards rushing per game, and mustered just 10.5 of the team’s meager 18 sacks. Brennan Scarlett, originally tabbed to start at end, missed the whole season with a lingering wrist condition, hampering the pass rush before it even got going. His replacement, Dan Camporeale, managed 6.5 tackles for loss, but had just 1 sack. Kyle Kragen led the team with 3 sacks opposite him, but didn’t provide a consistent threat and was in an out of the starting lineup. Big Deandre Coleman was one of the better performers on the team, making 39 tackles, 8.5 for loss, at nose tackle. Viliami Moala rode shotgun, making 38 tackles, with 4 in the opponents backfield. The linebackers were a young bunch, and it showed at times, but Jalen Jefferson, Hardy Nickerson (Jr) and Khairi Fortt combined for 192 tackles, 14.5 for loss, while Michael Barton (63 tackles) led the team in tackles for loss with 9.5, despite playing primarily in a reserve role. The secondary got little help from the front seven, but giving up 341 yards per game will earn little sympathy. Corner Kameron Jackson started well enough, but struggled as the season went on. A season-ending injury to Stefan McClure opposite him certainly didn’t help. Free safety Michael Lowe led the team with 67 tackles, and broke up 5 passes.
It’s hard to believe the defense could get any worse in 2014, but they have to replace 5 starters, most of whom were key performers to some degree. The biggest loss may be Coleman, who was a rock in the middle. Also gone are Moala and Camporeale, who didn’t exactly strike fear into opponents, but they were experienced. Scarlett and Kragen will likely man the ends this season, but tackle is a concern. Marcus Manley and Harrison Wilfley were pencilled in as the starting tackles going into the spring game, but it would be a surprise if both started in the first game. Dykes has some decent JUCO talent coming in, so hopefully they can provide depth at the very least. Watch out for end Jonathan Johnson. Linebacker should be strong, although Fortt has left for the NFL. Jefferson, Nickerson and Barton should form a decent combination, but they need to continue improving. The secondary loses Jackson to the draft, but JUCO Darius White could open some eyes when he arrives in fall. Also back in fall should be McClure, although he could move to safety. Lowe should retain his spot, while Avery Sebastian could man the strong safety spot after a 2013 injury redshirt.
The Bears had their redzone struggles last season, but at least they could count on kicker Vincenzo D’Amato to come through. The senior made 17 of 20 attempts, and all 3 misses were from 45 or more yards out. He even threw a touchdown pass. Punter Cole Leininger was solid, grossing 42.9 and dropping 14 punts inside the 20 with just 2 touchbacks. The coverage unit was shocking though, allowing 20.2 yards per return and 5 TDs!! The kick coverage allowed 1 TD, but was generally excellent (19 yard per return). Muhammad averaged 21.9 yards per kick return, but has the ability to take it the distance. Treggs averaged less than 2 yards per punt return, and may have been better off fair catching at times.
D’Amato is the only loss on the special teams going into 2014, but that’s a huge loss. There is a 3-way battle to replace him, but only James Langford has kicked at the college level, and that was at Cal-Poly. Still, he made 15 of 20 field goals back in 2011, so he could be good. The punt coverage needs a huge shot in the arm, as do the return units.
I hate to say it, but Cal could play a lot better next season and still go 1-11. They should beat Sacramento State, but the other OOC opponents are Northwestern and BYU. Both are always tricky, but are beatable, especially if Dykes’ JUCO experiment pays off. The PAC 12 will be a heavy sledding this season, and even Colorado and Washington State look to be a step ahead of the Bears. The defense needs to find leaders, although there is some nice potential, particularly at linebacker. On offense, it’s all about Goff. He visibly wore down as a freshman last season, which is no surprise when you have to throw 500 passes every game. Getting him the support from the running attack, and the protection to hit a good bunch of receivers could give opponents some brown-trouser moments. In reality, 4 wins would be a big improvement.