Of all the decisions and news that will happen this winter, Cal’s defensive coordinator hire will set the tone for what the Bears are capable of in 2017. With Art Kaufman out, Cal will have a few weeks to hopefully hire a new leader of their most beleaguered corps.
At first glance, this is a situation that seems ideal for a DC to come in and make an immediate impact. Cal’s defense couldn’t have been much worse in 2016, with stats rivaling the appalling 2013 squad and slightly less appalling 2014 Bears. Any sort of incremental improvement might be seen as progress by the coaching establishment.
Barring some drastic changes though, being defensive coordinator at Cal is going to be as hard a sell for Sonny Dykes as signing up to be a four year defensive prospect. Let’s take a look at the downsides.
How can you recruit a passable defensive squad in a matter of weeks? Cal’s defensive roster is not losing a ton of starters, but based on last year’s production it’s clear that a talent influx is necessary. At the moment, the 2016 class is having trouble not just finding commitments, but finding enough high quality targets even interested in Cal.
Cal defensive recruiting momentum has been pretty much at a standstill. The good news is Cal has two of their junior college prospects signed up. The Bears have four front seven commits in this cycle, and only two linebackers. Cal has not had a single commit in the last month (to be fair, this is a dead period). Cal does have two high priority defensive targets that are keen on the Bears in Victor Jones and Cyrus Habibi-Likio, but aside from that it looks like the Bears will have to look ahead to 2017. The new defensive coordinator will not have a lot of time to convince top prospects in 2016 to sign up for the Bears, and immediate help is needed.
Who wants to sign up to be Sonny Dykes’s defensive coordinator? The data is in, and it’s not promising at all. Cal has had one defense that has not been bottom 5 in FBS the last four years, and that defense was still in the bottom half of all college football defenses. Going back to Louisiana Tech, Dykes has had at best one good defense. That’s six times in seven years Dykes’s squads have sported terrible defense, regardless of the overall talent.
Basically, if you’re signing up to be the Cal defensive coordinator, you’re likely signing up to be part of a defense that (at least for a year) will be surrendering 30 to 40 points a game given their current talent level. That’s not an easy sell for coordinators that like to recruit. It’s hardly a good sell for more schematic-minded coaches and playcallers who will have to defend the myriad Pac-12 offenses. A lot of up and comers looking for their next opportunity.
Is the new defensive coordinator signing up for a lame duck coach? There hasn’t been much speculation about Sonny Dykes’s job status, but after his third losing season in four years and rumors of plunging ESP sales, he has to be running low on opportunities.
If you’re a prospective defensive coordinator looking for your first opportunity, it’s hard to see a very promising situation. It’s a two to three year rebuild back to respectability. There’s a high probability that the defense will be below average, and there’s a significant probability that the unit is near the bottom again. A bad defense likely means another bad or middling season, and could put Dykes’s long-term future in deeper jeopardy.
Conclusion: Any good new defensive coordinator worth a damn will likely ask for at least three years, laden with incentives, and a huge buyout.
I’m not certain if Art Kaufman and Cal settled in on a buyout. It would have been sizable if he had been fired, but it’s likely it was negotiated down when he resigned.
The new Cal defensive coordinator’s likeliest first priority will be job security. So he’ll want years, and he’ll want a buyout that makes it clear that he’ll be paid sufficiently. Cal has just wrapped up paying Andy Buh’s buyout and might probably be paying Kaufman a bit too. The thought at a third defensive coordinator’s buyout has to make the regents unhappy.
That being said, it’s possible that a capable defensive coordinator can make changes. See what Jim Leavitt did to turn Colorado into one of the fiercest units in the nation. On the downside, Leavitt was immediately poached by Oregon this offseason. However, Colorado was already showing slight defensive improvement year after year. The new Cal DC will have to undergo a total overhaul.
So Cal might find a defensive coordinator before Signing Day. But don’t be surprised if that hire takes time.