Full disclosure: Pac-12 Media Day was my first time wearing the coveted press badge, for CGB or otherwise. So it's hard for me to know whether every team in the conference is truly going to improve this year, or whether I'm just susceptible to optimistic coachspeak.
The truth is somewhere in between. In July, coaches have every reason to hope that their true freshman walk-on quarterback will become a star, and that all of their DBs have ligaments made of adamantium. There will be plenty of time for pessimism later.
All of that is to say, after hearing Sonny Dykes' press session and getting half an hour to speak with him over lunch, I'm sold on the Bears' chances at improvement this season. Can they really build on eight wins with an entirely new passing game and questions up and down the defensive depth chart? I don't know. But our coach sure is convincing.
Take for example, Sonny's remark that in 20 years of coaching, this year's team might be his favorite. They're mature, they lead themselves, and they do things the right way. Or consider his assessment of his receiving corps, which returns "more depth than any place I've ever been in terms of guys who can play," despite losing its top six pass-catchers. And what about the adage that says if you have two quarterbacks you have none? Sonny's pretty happy with three, and maybe even the top four guys on his roster.
Maybe that's just how he talks. Maybe he said the same things before the 2013 season. Or maybe the Golden Bears are going to surprise some people in a conference that lacks a clear powerhouse team. I certainly left with a handful of nagging concerns—I may be a rookie journalist, but I've been a Cal fan for long enough to know better than to be hopeful—but Sonny gave me plenty of reasons to buy into his optimism. Let's break down a few of them.
No one has locked down the starting job yet, if Sonny is to be believed, but Davis Webb has certainly been making a case for himself so far. Sonny praised Webb for his work ethic, saying he has been at the stadium from 7AM to 10PM every day working with Coach Spavital and getting reps with receivers. Sonny also brought up Webb's capacity for leadership, saying the quarterback has made an effort so far to keep a low profile and earn the respect of his teammates, but that he has the capacity to be a vocal leader if he wins the job.
At the same time, Sonny was careful to emphasize that Webb's recruitment was not a reflection on the rest of his quarterback depth. Webb's transfer had to do mostly with his familiarity with the coaches at Cal and his experience in a similar offensive system. He said Chase Forrest and Ross Bowers went through some growing pains this spring as they adjusted to Jake Spavital's offense, but that he was pleased with both of their progress and was confident in their respective abilities.
For fans itching to get a decision, just know that there's no firm deadline. The choice will come when the coaches have enough information to make their choice, even though that "could be five practices in, could be a week in, could be two weeks in," according to Sonny.
Worrying about quarterbacks is rational. Worrying about the other offensive weapons, at least this time around, is probably a waste of time.
You know what you're getting with the running back corps: three guys whose skill sets complement each other, including two Doak Walker Award candidates. But Sonny likes to have as many as five RBs ready to go, which is why he's excited about freshmen Zion Echols (true) and Billy McCrary (redshirt). Echols is one of the new guys Sonny expects to make an impression—there were many, as Sonny listed at least a dozen young guns he's excited about in the near future—and McCrary impressed the coaches during spring practice. The takeaway? Don't expect a 1,000-yard rusher, but there will be plenty of guys ready to contribute.
Then there are the wideouts. Let's just say Sonny likes 'em. Admittedly, they'll need to figure out who will be the new Kenny Lawler, the new Trevor Davis, et cetera. But if you ever wished Cal's receivers could do more once they got the ball in their hands, you're going to be pleased. Sonny says this year's group has a different skill set than last year's, but one of the common threads is the ability to catch and run. Hooray for screen passes!
One of the features of the Bear Raid is that receivers have simple assignments, meaning less of a learning curve to become major contributors. That's partly why Sonny feels comfortable with a two-deep that includes guys like Melquise Stovall, Jordan Veasy, and Grayson Bankhead. He also gave a nod to Ray Hudson and Carlos Strickland, who was limited with injuries last year should be ready to go soon. But his favorite target is one Chad Hansen, about whom Sonny couldn't say enough, like that he "has a chance to be one of the elite receivers in the league," and that he's "one of the best pro prospects on our team."
Hours before Sonny's appearance at Media Day, we learned that safety Griffin Piatt would retire from football after struggling with a number of lingering injuries. Then, in his Q&A, Sonny reported that Damariay Drew would be gone for at least the start of the season. Worse yet, "we're probably not going to have him at all." And just like that, Cal fans started having visions of 2013.
But Sonny doesn't seem so worried. Though the loss of those two guys will hurt, he made the inarguable point that the Bears will still have more depth in the backend than any time in his tenure so far. "We finally have options," Sonny said, relieved that there won't be any need to convert guys from offense to defense like he did in the past. Someone like Malik Psalms or Marloshawn Franklin could make the jump from cornerback to safety, but that's more a matter of finding capable depth. Sonny is happy with guys like Evan Rambo and Khari Vanderbilt taking the reins, and Luke Rubenzer will be sticking with the DBs.
He also seems pretty comfortable with the situation on the defensive line, naming pretty much everyone on the roster as practice standouts. Cameron Saffle, Luc Bequette, and Zeandae Johnson all got shoutouts as up-and-comers.
Discussion of the thin linebacking corps was conspicuously absent, but Sonny feels that the depth in the secondary will allow the front seven (or more likely six, in most cases) to play more aggressively and use scheme to their advantage. Health, as always, will be key.
Odds and Ends
Sonny isn't a huge fan of the grad transfer rules. He called the Davis Webb transfer a "unique situation," but expressed some frustration at the way the rules have affected his team in the past. The issue is pretty much what you'd expect: guys have a hard time getting into grad programs at Cal that would allow them to stick around through the end of their eligibility. Athletic Director Mike Williams is reportedly on the case.
Another thing Sonny isn't a big fan of? Weeknight games. Again the issue is academics, as they force players to miss two days of class, which is a "big deal" at Cal. He recognizes, of course, that those games can be a great opportunity for national exposure—although I'm sure he'd rather not be facing heavyweights like Oregon and USC on weeknights this season.
All of this leads to the persistent question of the academic-athletic relationship at Cal, one that has been at the forefront of the recent news about Damon Harrington's strength program. Sonny downplayed the issue, saying he's committed to success on both fronts. And for those who question that commitment, he invited them to "come get around our program. That's why we have been really transparent is so that we can answer a lot of these questions, and the problem sometimes occurs that people just don't know."
You can see, perhaps, why talking with Sonny left me (guardedly) optimistic about the team's chances this year. I'm still worried about the lack of experienced depth on defense, but my worries about the secondary were definitely palliated by Sonny's assurances. In year four, Sonny finally has the program right where he wants it: he's got a team full of players who he feels like have taken ownership of the program, and enough of them are healthy that he can field a complete roster (read: defense). Now it's just a matter of picking a quarterback, staying healthy, and taking on a schedule full of other confident, talented teams. Should be easy enough, right?