On Tuesday, Levi’s Stadium hosted the Bay Area College Football Season Kickoff, which was also celebrating the 150th anniversary of college football (with the Princeton Tigers and the Rutgers Scarlet Knights first playing on November 6, 1869) and the 100th anniversary of the NFL.
The CGB plan was to send the pairing of perfection—Rob Hwang and me—thus combining his wit and media savvy with my unreasonable good looks. Unfortunately, life got in the way and the California Golden Bears were stuck with my awkward ass.
Wanted to be there today, but woke up to a flat tire and sitting here waiting for my tire to get fixed. https://t.co/5NUs4YHs7c— Rob Hwang (@rob11hwang) July 30, 2019
After fidgeting and shuffling about, I forced OL Jake Curhan and DL Luc Bequette to endure my weirdness. Over dinky plates of hors d’oeuvres, we marveled at the San Francisco 49ers’ Hall of Fame and Museum, which was adorned with life-sized—well, relative to Curhan and Bequette—statues of Hall of Famers that towered menacingly over me. Perhaps the coolest part is that coach Justin Wilcox was able to pose with his father’s display.
Curhan lit up when speaking about the growth this team has made over the offseason, proudly noting that he has never seen the team this strong thanks to their great conditioning. Bequette agreed that the training with strength and conditioning coach Torre Becton has been no joke. We discussed the great disparity between where these two grew up with Curhan being a local product from Marin and Bequette missing the food from the South (and I made sure to recommend Hard Knox in SF to him). The team is looking forward to the trip down to Ole Miss (and hoping for some great Southern food or even a Waffle House); they won’t be spending any time there to visit after the game, but the team will be traveling down early to get acclimated. Sounds like half of the South with be showing up to support Luc, so let's hope he can get his quarterback-destroying hands on more tickets.
The players are quite well-spoken and social (while I awkwardly stumbled over my words), pointing out that their nachos had some healthy fats in the guacamole when I joked if the nachos are part of their regimen. And speaking of nachos, what a great moment of teamwork as Bequette ran out of topping while Curhan ran out of chips, but the teammates started sharing without hesitation.
Back to the serious talks, I asked them their thoughts on the scuttlebutt surrounding 9 a.m. kick-offs. They gave (in my opinion) a perfectly Wilcoxian answer, demonstrating how much they’ve bought into his culture and mentality—the team will be ready to line up whenever and go to war.
These two were a pleasure to talk to, though I spent most of my time with them baffled at how we’re somehow the same species with my neck permanently cranked just to make eye contact with them.
After that, we were ushered into a different room for a sit-down bougie version of a tailgate lunch. This portion of the event was charismatically hosted by Cal alumna Kate Scott, who first led a discussion with Mark Purdy (former Bay Area sports columnist) and Doug Kelly (of the Football Bowl Association) to reflect on college football, particularly in the Bay Area. There was lots of love for the Play during this segment.
After a brief respite to continue eating—the roasted veggies were subpar and even I could have done better—Scott moderated a chat with Wilcox, Stanfurd head coach David Shaw, and San Jose State head coach Brent Brennan. The questions were asked to all three, but I’m going to focus on the only one who matters. After the lunch/Q&A, the media had more time to sit with the players and coaches, so I’ll be blending Wilcox’s responses from both of these conversations.
I’ll start with quick detour on the conniving David Shaw; Scott previously asked Purdy and Kelly of their favorite memory in college football and the Play was included as part of that discussion. So when Scott asked the same question to Shaw, he had to turn it around and focus on the 1990 Big Game—when he was a redshirt freshman—which the wrong team won with a game-winning field goal as time expired. At the very least, he did acknowledge it was just the second-most exciting Big Game in history. At one point later in the afternoon, I’m pretty sure Shaw said his players “set the table” when he meant “set the tone” so stop thinking about your dinner plate for once, bro.
Onto Coach Wilcox, he reflected on his favorite college football memories, remarking that there are too many to remember—there are games he loved as a kid, as a player, and as a coach. Ultimately, he settled on his involvement in two historic games. As a player, he described witnessing history in the first-ever college football game to go to overtime; as an Oregon Duck in 1996, he watched his brother (Josh) catch the dramatic game-winning touchdown over the Fresno State Bulldogs. He then reminisced about his first season as a defensive coordinator—the 2006 season that culminated for him in the famous 2007 Fiesta Bowl. He noted that this game really changed the conversation nationally about who could compete against whom as he helped lead the Boise State Broncos to their historic upset over the Oklahoma Sooners and Adrian Peterson. (Don’t forget that two Cal coaches—Gerald Alexander and Andrew Browning—were players on this Boise State team.)
We won’t dwell too long on the Fiesta Bowl as it’s not directly Cal-relevant, but we had a nice conversation with him going over his memories from the game. In his words, the Broncos were “rolling” the Sooners until a muffed punt opened a window for the Sooners to come back. Boise State used every play in the book, but the team was gassed after “playing their guts out”, which is why they decided to go for the win. I personally wonder if this same logic came into play in our 2017 double-overtime game against the Arizona Wildcats when we went for two (which I think was the right decision). When I asked him to describe his experience going up against those trick plays in practice, he said those plays never worked. We thought it was a deadpan joke about how unstoppable his defenses were, but Wilcox was serious and said that the famed hook and ladder/circus play was a “joke” because it was so reliably unsuccessful.
While other teams may have brought some flashier skill positions, it was noted that Cal brought two linemen. Wilcox boasted that Curhan and Bequette are plenty flashy, noting the big impact they’ve had on the team. He called them talented and great ambassadors for the program who set the tones for their respective units and how things are done at Cal. He expects a lot from them and still manages to be proud of the two.
And now we get into the nitty gritty of Wilcox’s interviews.
Starting with last year’s strength, Wilcox started things off by remarking that we have a lot of guys back on the defense. He plainly stated that we had some “really good” moments last year, but we must execute at that level across the season—consistency is key. (Just “really good”? We had moments that were better than really good, sir.) Their approach to the offseason was very impressive, particularly their attention during workouts and meetings. Wilcox described the defensive leaders as “driven” and individuals who “don’t take much for granted”. Perhaps the highest praise he paid them is to impress upon us that they have set a great example to the younger players of how we do things at Cal; the staff has high expectations for them, but they have even higher expectations for themselves.
Improving statistically over last season could be hard; although the staff expects them to be better, this is a new year for each player and the defense did lose some key players—Jordan Kunaszyk, Alex Funches, Chris Palmer—and there are different dynamics within the team and against our opponents, so it’s impossible to divine how the statistics will compare, but he does expect the defense to play well and for the returners to improve.
Kuony Deng signed with the team in the winter out of junior college to join the team at linebacker. Not only does he possess physical tools (“very athletic”) and height (6’6”), but he also comes in with quality intangibles, as he is “very coach-able and eager to learn”. Currently, the team has him lining up as the will linebacker, but he might play outside linebacker and as a rusher and still has a lot to learn. When the media pressed Wilcox on having such a tall player line up on the inside, Wilcox simply attributed it to his athleticism and that the team is looking to “get our best players on the field”.
For a broad overview of the offense, we were quite young last year, including at quarterback. Between the skill positions and the quarterback, Wilcox “really likes where we’re going—the guys had an unbelievable offseason and are chomping at the bit to get back at it.” The key concept that Wilcox continued returning to was competition—the offseason was competitive and he expects a great deal of competition in fall camp.
Getting into more depth on the quarterbacks, Wilcox noted that Chase Garbers had a “really, really good” offseason during which he developed significantly and improved his body; he’s stronger than last year with more command of the offense and is throwing the ball with more authority. Garbers is heading into his second year trying to follow up on a season that had some “good moments” along with some “really difficult moments”, but Wilcox expects him to make a big jump. Contrast that with transfer Devon Modster, who has only had 15 practices with the team and was instead focusing on how things are done at Cal; comparing the two is unfair right now due to that disadvantage. As he’s stated before, Wilcox reiterated that if we were to play today, then Garbers would be the starter, but emphasized that there will be competition during the offseason and that Modster—having fully learned the system—will now be able to practice “freely”. Overall, Wilcox stressed that the staff must endeavor to develop every player in the quarterback room in case there’s an injury—a philosophy that he extended to all positions. When asked if we’ll return to a two-quarterback system, Wilcox noted that every team wants to just play one over the season, but our team will do whatever is best for us to win (not to mention needing to prepare for the possibility of an injury). As for naming a starter (you know, the thing that you’re all here for), Wilcox anticipates the team “will declare the starter when it becomes evident who the starter is.” The key criterion to earning the starting job is “making great decisions and moving the team down the field”, although Wilcox conceded that the latter can be accomplished by any number of ways depending on the quarterback’s style.
But with no clear indication of who our starting quarterback will be on August 31, it logically followed that someone would ask how the receivers can get on the same page with their quarterback when they don’t know who that quarterback is. Wilcox conceded that there’s some merit to that concept, but things change during the season (again harkening back to the importance of having prepared back-ups in the event of injury) so the staff is focusing on developing chemistry between the groups rather than between players. The concept of a fluid roster and the risk of injury seemed particularly relevant to the receivers as Wilcox described the unit as having no depth chart because the players are “ultra-competitive”. Overall, Wilcox likes what they’ve done regarding offseason development and did note that newcomers and transfers will not only have opportunities, but “will need to help” the team. Freshmen in particular tend to contribute at this position due to the learning curve physically as the staff can help “expedite the learning process”, whereas it’s more difficult at other positions for “scheme-oriented” reasons or “the physical demands”. The WR group is young and “unproven”, so the staff is eager to witness how they develop and what they bring to the team. Two players whom Wilcox singled out were Nikko Remigio and Monroe Young. After seeing playing time last year, Remigio did a “nice job” in the offseason and made noticeable moves in the spring. On the other hand, Young redshirted last year (and only played in the Idaho State game), but “show[ed] up” in other areas, including the little things and perimeter blocking. (Wilcox then admonished us for failing to highlight blocking because it isn’t sexy enough and doesn’t result in touchdowns. To which I say, set us up with some tutoring sessions with Coaches Toler and Greatwood and I would be happy to parlay that into deeper analysis of blocking techniques.)
As for our running backs, Wilcox singled out Christopher Brown Jr. as having separated himself from the rest of the pack; he had “an incredible offseason and looks great” physically, although he “got dinged a little bit at the end”. While Brown did “good things” last year, he was more noticeable in the spring and Wilcox anticipates that he will be getting “better and better”. Brown has developed well, he can do a lot of good things, and his understanding of the offense is greater. Wilcox also commended his demeanor, his competitiveness, and how he approaches workouts and meetings with a serious attitude—but it’s all just potential and he hasn’t done it on the field yet. Beyond Brown, every running back on the roster has skills that the staff can use in games and help the team, so Wilcox is looking forward to see who will earn the next reps. Wilcox characterized the unit as “hard-working” and that they had a good summer in terms of their approach to workouts. There’s the possibility that Brown could be an every-down back, but they “would like to have a rotation of guys”; the team will do whatever gives us the best chance to win, whenever that strategy should happen to reveal itself.
We all remember how the offense struggled last year, likely being the impetus for a shuffling of coaches on that side of the ball. When I asked him how the running backs have taken to Coach Edwards and vice versa for the wide outs with Coach Toler, Wilcox responded simply that it’s been “great” and “real positive for both groups.”
Regarding the offensive line, Wilcox didn’t agree with an assessment that the unit is “behind”, but the team is just looking to build depth there. The team has a number of returners, but Wilcox did highlight a few names. Gentle Williams “had as good of an offseason as anybody” in terms of workouts, physical development, and commitment with a sense of “urgency” based on reports from the strength and conditioning staff; Williams has taken on “more of a leadership role and has been impressive”. Wilcox also singled out Will Craig as having “quite a bit of talent”. The team is continuing to develop this group and is looking to see who can earn spots in the rotation for back-up snaps, which will be “fun to watch”.
Some sights from Levi's Stadium celebrating Bay Area college football pic.twitter.com/0OtL7Izxkg— GoldenBlogs (@GoldenBlogs) July 30, 2019
Wilcox noted that we were on two ends of the spectrum when it came to an important aspect of the game—turnovers. He considers them so important that they are a fundamental part of the program—the team will talk about the importance of turnover margin in the very first meeting, noting that winning and losing teams tend to correlate with different extremes for turnover margin. The team practices the fundamentals of ball security and takeaways within position groups and in team settings, also emphasizing that proper execution and technique of a play (to the degree of blocking or depth of a route or reading the defense vs. getting hands up to tip balls or how our linebackers drop) are integral to turnovers. On defense, the team likes to take the ball away because it is their job and the team will not be indulging in any takeaway celebration or award—although he doesn’t judge any team that does use those.
This offseason, Wilcox’s critical concerns were (again) turnover margin and the need to protect the football, which is a consequence of a number of factors. Secondly, the team must improve at creating explosive plays, which requires providing the opportunity to players via scheme and coaching, putting the right players in the right spots, and proper execution by the players. Such plays are essential to winning in this conference, as Wilcox noted the difficulty in marching down the field using just small little gains.
When the conversation turned to strength of schedule, Wilcox was asked about playing the Pac-12 opener against the Washington Huskies and then heading to visit the Ole Miss Rebels. In perfect Wilcoxian fashion, he noted that first we’ve got the UC Davis Aggies—an “excellent program”. To me, this illustrates his focus and unwillingness to overlook anyone on the schedule—a mentality that should translate to the whole team. Moving on, he noted the great environment at Washington and an explosive North Texas Mean Green team. He is, however, looking forward to visiting Ole Miss, which he joked should have cool weather.
Coach Wilcox was asked to name some players who could be a good surprise to fans come August 31 and Wilcox simply responded that he would tell us if he knew, but he “honestly [doesn’t] know”. The possibilities he listed were OL Williams, RB Brown, QBs Garbers and Modster, WRs Remigio and other newcomers, and TE McCallan Castles.
Speaking of games and scheduling, we all knew the conversation would shift to 9 a.m. kickoffs. I expected the Wilcoxian answer—“They don’t ask us to schedule games, so we don’t think about it. We’ll show up when they ask us to show up and be ready to play.”—but we actually didn’t get that. Wilcox immediately asked how this would “affect the gameday experience for the fans”, calling that “the only real factor”. He pondered that there might exist a subset of fans who see that as being no different than 8 p.m. kickoffs—fans who must travel long distances probably stay the night after those games, so perhaps they’re okay with staying the night before instead. As for the players, coaches, and the team? “Line it up. Let’s go.” During the offseason, the team practices at 10 a.m. anyway, so this “isn’t that big of a deal” (although it would be “impossible” to switch to morning practices to prepare for an early kick-off in the hypothetical event it should happen). Plus, he chuckled that he hates the anticipation that comes in waiting for a game and this would help them just get it out of the way. Wilcox further stressed how much this is a non-issue for the team by reminding us of our visit to the North Carolina Tar Heels, which had a noon kick-off Eastern time—so it felt like 9 a.m. for the team, but they still came out without feeling flat. Wilcox also conceded that there’s some merit to the proposal until more options for appealing kick-off times are available. The bottom line from Wilcox is that a 9 a.m. kick-off is perfectly “manageable” for the team, but he brought back the importance of fans enjoying the games and the gameday experience.
Overall, the event was quite enjoyable despite my instincts to wallflower about. For one anecdote, the interview tables had placards for the coaches and players along with the logo of the school. In perfect Cal fashion, it was noted that the Cal logo was outdated—the official script Cal no longer has an outline. Oh, and not only that, but the Cal logo was upside-down.
In all seriousness, this was a great opportunity to speak with the players and with Coach Wilcox. They were all quite sociable; I’ve seen Wilcox catch some flak for being so no-nonsense and allegedly not having a sense of humor, but if you watch his interviews, you can catch his dry sense of humor and deadpan delivery—and it showed even more in-person. By speaking in-depth with these Cal representatives, it was easy to notice motifs recur that illustrate the team’s culture. The players have adopted the Wilcoxian mentality, a blue-collar perspective on life to just work hard and reap the subsequent benefits. There was also an ever-present emphasis from Wilcox on the importance of consistency and improvement from every player on the team. I got the impression that the team is constantly setting expectations for their performance in all aspects of life and setting standards for the Cal way to do things.