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2019 Season Preview: Special Team, The Pac-12, and General Outlook

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Wrapping up our big picture preview series with Cal’s kicking and return units, plus a full season prognosis

NCAA Football: Colorado at California John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

Previously: The Years of Living Defensively; The Defense; The Offense

We’ve made it. Football triumphantly returned on Saturday with two games entirely emblematic of everything that makes the sport so wildly entertaining, while joyless media members continue to complain about the very fabric of what makes the sport fun.

Of course, you still have five days left before Cal itself is back. Let’s fill that time by talking about what’s left to preview, starting with special teams:

2018 Special Teams, revisited

Strengths

Punting

Last year, Steven Coutts was an unexpected positive and certainly Cal’s special teams MVP. His numbers weren’t exactly mind-bending, but what he lacked in terms of booming punts he made up for with consistency. His distance and hang time were always solid and he dealt with the fact that he was often asked to kick from plus territory with aplomb, placing 51% of his punts inside the 20 yard line. Cal’s punting unit was a big help to their excellent defense, rarely granting opponents great field position. Expect more of the same.

Kickoff returns

Cal wasn’t exactly elite with their kickoff returns, but Cal’s averages were above average nationally and somewhat subjectively Ashtyn Davis always felt close to breakout through for more long returns than he actually got, with his one touchdown coming against FCS competition. Cal’s blocking never felt better or worse than average, but when you have an above average returner sometimes that can be enough. Hopefully Davis breaks through with more big returns in his senior season.

Weaknesses

Field Goal kicking

Greg Thomas’ 70% average was more or less bang average nationally, but his 8-13 mark on 30+ yard kicks isn’t great and zero attempts from 50+ yards out is an indication that last year he just didn’t have the leg to really attempt longer kicks. For an offense that really, really needs to cash in on every trip into plus territory, that’s a problem.

Thomas won the starting field goal kicking position in camp, and I haven’t heard that there was any particular competition for the job, so the hope here is that Thomas has improved, either in terms of accuracy, leg strength, or both.

Punt returning

Almost certainly the #1 special teams area that could use improvement. Cal faced an excellent group of opposing punters last year, and as a consequence, Cal was 101st in the country in opponent punt length. Short of an improving punt rush, that’s not really something Cal can control. But despite fielding longer punts that should in theory give more space for returns, Cal was 95th in the country in average punt return distance, averaging just 6.2 yards/return. Basically, Cal lost a ton of field position every time their opponent punted the ball away.

The Roster

Punter: Starter Steven Coutts
Field goal kicker: Greg Thomas
Kickoffs: Gabe Siemieniec
Kick returns: Ashtyn Davis
Punt returns: Nikko Remigio

How about that, zero changes! It’s hard to view that as anything but an unalloyed good since Cal was at least average in most areas of special teams. The only area where I might expect potential competition and rotation is at punt returner, though to be fair Nikko Remigio could reasonably be expected to improve in his 2nd year and first full season in that role after splitting time with Vic Wharton last year.

Defining Questions

What is Justin Wilcox going to do on 4th down in plus territory?

Last year, when Cal faced a 4th and 4 from the 35 yard line, Justin Wilcox was presented with an unenviable menu of options. One option was to allow a sputtering offense to go for it, with a low probability of success. Another option was to try out a low probability 50+ yard field goal. And the final option was to waste a scoring opportunity and punt the ball, maybe to gain just 15-20 yards of field position.

I am cheating here, as this question goes beyond just special teams to encompass the capabilities of Cal’s offense. But this gets at two areas of potential improvement. Can the offense grow such that Wilcox can confidently attempt 4th down conversions on the right side of the 50 yard line? And has Greg Thomas improved over the off-season such that Wilcox can send him out for higher difficulty kicks? When you’re playing games in the high teens and low 20s, the value of one measly field goal is greatly magnified.

Can Cal finally develop an effective punt return unit?

This has been a pretty consistent weakness for Cal special teams through the end of the Dykes era and into the Wilcox tenure - infrequent returns, and low yardage on the kicks that are returned. Cal has been at the mercy of the opposing team’s punting units for a while now. The inability of the punt return unit to help out Cal’s offense with good field position was just one of the thousand paper cuts that bled the offense to death last year, and boy would it be nice if that changed in 2019.

Whither the Pac-12? Wither, the Pac-12?

For the last two years, the narrative around the Pac-12 has been one of failure . . . and I can’t really argue that the narrative is a media concoction.

USC and UCLA have been poster children for instability and wasted talent. After four straight mediocre seasons, Oregon will start to gain that same reputation soon if they don’t have a monster year. Most of the lower half of the conference can’t cobble together enough talent to be more than middling. Utah, the one great hope in the South is coming off a 5 loss season, and hasn’t ever had a truly above average offense since joining the conference. Even Stanford, the one standard bearer for stability and consistent excellence, has been slipping over the last three years and lost a bunch of production. Only Washington (and to a lesser extent, Washington State) have been able to maintain stable, successful programs relative to their own expectations.

Should this matter to you in the slightest? In short: Hell no. In length: Only to the extent that it impacts Cal’s abilities to win football games. Death to our rivals, etc. etc.

And that’s where we get to the good-news, bad-news reality.

The Pac-12 as a collective is entirely vulnerable, full of mediocre, flawed teams. Depending on which advanced projection system you prefer, only 3-4 teams in the conference are expected to be top 25 level teams, and most of them are right on the edge of that distinction anyway. This is a conference that is ripe for plucking for a team that can positively answer a few key questions.

Except . . . it’s really the Pac-12 south that’s vulnerable. Washington, Wazzu, Stanford, and Oregon are probably four of the five best teams in the conference, and Cal has to get through those teams to make noise.

Or maybe Washington State will finally be punished for their weird QB roster management over the last few years and take a step back. Maybe Washington won’t be able to adequately replace 8(!) players taken in the 2019 NFL draft. Maybe Oregon is the same good-but-far-from-great team they were in 2018, and maybe Stanford finally falls back after losing most of the goofy tall guys that Costello’s been throwing to.

No, it’s not particularly likely that every trouble spot for Cal’s rivals turn into fatal flaws while everything goes peachy for our Bears. But the basic idea - that the Pac-12 doesn’t look likely to have a team with the talent to exert themselves over the rest of the conference - is probably true. And that means that there is opportunity, even if it’s slim.

Season Prognosis

As a reminder, here are the questions that I’ve posed throughout this series that I believe will largely determine how well (or how poorly) the 2018 season will go:

Is this the year that the Wilcox defense creates major backfield disruption?

Can the defense continue to force a high rate of turnovers?

Can Cal complete passes 20+ yards downfield?

What is Justin Wilcox going to do on 4th down in plus territory (i.e. can Cal kick longish field goals)?

Can Cal finally develop an effective punt return unit?

Will the Pac-12 continue to be deeply mediocre?

With the release of Cal’s pre-season depth chart that confirms a season ending injury to Gentle Williams and the continued absences of nose guards Aaron Maldonado and Siulagisipai Fuimaono, you can add on ‘does Cal have the depth on both lines to weather any injuries?’ College football has too many parts for everything to go smoothly, and Cal has already run into their first set of speed bumps.

When I wrote the defense preview, the assumption was that only cruel fate would prevent Cal’s D from performing at least as well as they did last year. A little bit of that has arrived already. And while a rough repeat of 2018 is probably the most likely result, the lack of any true nose guards on the roster that has pushed Luc Bequette to deputize at the position with a true freshman backing him up is a very legitimate concern.

It’s a concern not just because Bequette may or may not be well suited for the position swap and Brett Johnson may or may not be ready so early in his career. This shift also weakens Cal at defensive end, where Bequette was a known positive quantity and where Cal also lacked depth. Defensive line has shifted from a concern that was likely to be answered positively to an open question mark.

In all likelihood Cal will have too much talent at linebacker and in the secondary for defensive line issues to make a huge difference, but against the very best teams on the schedule that kind of potential weakness can swing a close game.

Meanwhile, Gentle Williams’ injury underscores how close to chaos the offensive line might be. Matthew Cindric will start the season as starting left guard, and is also listed as backup center, and oh yeah has hasn’t played a college snap yet. That’s something that he shares in common with basically the entire 2nd string on the line. True, players have to get their first snaps at some point, but I’d wager that the coaching staff would prefer that everybody be given a bit more of a gradual learning curve.

On the bright side offensively, the quarterback situation is virtually guaranteed to be better . . . if Chase Garbers stays healthy and/or if Devon Modster gets his eligibility quickly. While there are sure to be growing pains, Garbers is probably healthier and certainly more experienced, and surrounded by more weapons than last year. I don’t think Cal’s skill position talent is going to remind anybody of, say, USC, but just about each position group should be an upgrade from what Cal could put out last year.

Add it all up, and what do you get?

Final prediction: 7-5

The same as last year. Does that feel disappointing to you? It kinda does for me as well. But we probably shouldn’t be so discouraged if that’s what comes to pass.

Here’s the thing - I do think that the 2019 Bears will be better than the 2018 Bears. The defense will probably perform similarly to 2018, and the offense almost by definition has to get better, even if it’s marginal.

However, I suspect that whatever improvement the Bears can muster will be given back by an increase in schedule difficulty. Cal is exchanging broken looking teams in Colorado and Arizona in favor of Utah and Arizona State, with a much tougher road slate to boot. The Pac-12 may indeed be down, but this appears to be literally the toughest conference schedule the Bears possibly could draw. The non-conference slate is probably tougher as well, if only because @ Ole Miss is tougher than any non-con game Cal had last year.

The other reason to predict a roughly .500 record? Cal has finished the regular season with either 5 or 7 wins each of the last five seasons, with a total combined record of 30-32. Cal has been consistently good enough to play close games with almost everybody on the schedule, but not good enough to put away decent teams.

Well, Cal’s schedule is full of decent teams. Cal will likely only be double digit favorites against UC Davis and Oregon State, and only double digit underdogs against Washington and maybe Utah and Oregon. That means that between 7 and 9 games will be close games that could reasonable go either way, which has been something of a tradition over these last five seasons.

Is it possible that everything breaks right and Cal wins a bunch of close games? Absolutely! Just as it’s possible that everything breaks wrong and Cal misses out on a bowl. The middle of the bell curve is another 7-5 season.

That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be dreaming of more. But when a team has played ~.500 football for half a decade, predicting anything different just doesn’t feel particularly honest.

The good news? None of the 2,000+ words you just read will mean a damned thing starting this Saturday. Enjoy the journey Bears.