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The state of Cal Football on the eve of the season

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Where does the Cal Football program sit at the dawn of a new era?

NCAA Football: Arizona State at California Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Good morning, Cal fans, and welcome to the very first game week of the season! The college football world has dispensed with meaningless exhibitions like Stanford vs. Rice, and real games are on their way in just a matter of days!

Before the season actually starts I wanted to get down a quick summary of everything I think I know about Cal football. If you want to make fun of me down the line about how little I know about football, this is the post to throw back in my face.

Coaching

Obviously, the biggest change between this year and last is the wholesale replacement of Cal’s coaching staff—and the biggest reason for long term optimism.

When Cal hired Justin Wilcox, I was cautiously optimistic. He seemed like the type of unremarkably competent defensive mind that we needed to turn around a unit that hadn’t been a net asset since 2011. That plus his familiarity with Cal from his stint on Jeff Tedford’s staff made him a pleasantly obvious candidate.

My concern (mirroring everybody’s concern with Sonny Dykes) was whether or not Wilcox would know what to look for in an offensive coordinator to complement his strong defensive resume. On that front, snagging Beau Baldwin almost felt like a bigger coup than Wilcox himself, as it demonstrated that Wilcox can recognize and attract innovative thinkers to work for him.

Bringing in other assistant coaches with recruiting and/or player development pedigree (most prominently Steve Greatwood and Marques Tuiasosopo) are more positive signs. True, Cal has a couple coaches who are early in their career and haven’t necessarily established their chops yet . . . but let’s not pretend that Cal’s recent history or coaching budget dictates that every staff member is going to have a mind-blowing CV.

Wilcox has built as strong a staff as you could reasonably expect given his budget, his late start, and Cal’s place in the national pecking order. Most importantly, he’s given me confidence that he’ll be able to thoughtfully hire replacements when future vacancies inevitably arise.

Current Talent/Experience

Or, if you prefer, exactly how much production will Cal get from the players that are currently on the roster?

You can try to define experience with concrete numbers. Here are a couple of potentially useful numbers to describe Cal’s experience level entering the 2017 season (All courtesy of Phil Steele):

% tackles returning: 77.2, 16th in the nation and 3rd in the Pac-12
% of yards returning: 34.6, 112th in the nation and 12th in the Pac-12
Number of offensive line starts returning: 25, 126th in the nation and 12th in the Pac-12
Total Experience Ranking: 110th in the nation, 11th in the Pac-12

You get a pretty clear picture. Cal is losing the vast majority of what made their offense successful last year and returning a solid percentage of what was decidedly not a successful defense last year. Whatever you think of Justin Wilcox and whatever you think of preseason prognosticators, that fact is the basis for Cal’s preseason Pac-12 media poll rankings and long odds in sports books.

More information on this below, but it’s not like the cupboard is completely bare in terms of talent. Cal has generally been recruiting at a mid-tier level in the Pac-12 over the last few years (obligatory acknowledgement that there was an inbalance between offensive and defensive recruiting goes here) and there are players who should be prepared for their first meaningful on-field contributions. But they are unproven—and it’s not unreasonable to lower your expectations accordingly.

Recruiting

The 2018 class will be Justin Wilcox’s first class in which he will a) have a full season in which to recruit and b) have a large number of scholarships available to hand out. As a consequence, it should be a good measurement of his staff’s ability to attract talent. It’s still waaaaay too early to meaningfully judge Cal’s 2018 recruiting efforts, but it’s not so early as to be pointless to talk about what the Bears have accomplished so far, and what they might accomplish by next signing day.

In the 247 composite (as a reminder, this is an aggregate, wisdom-of-crowds ranking) Cal’s 2018 class is currently ranked 5th in the Pac-12 in total value, but ‘just’ 7th in average recruit rankings. In other words, Cal is currently compensating for a relative lack of high-end recruits with quantity of recruits: Cal’s 15 total commits ranks 4th in the conference. How does that stack up to previous seasons?

The two years highlighted in gray were coaching transition classes. Cal’s 2017 class was never likely to have a high ranking because there were so few scholarships to hand out, but I think you can see the impact that waiting so long to make the decision to fire Sonny Dykes had in terms of Cal’s Pac-12 rankings.

As of this very early date, Cal’s recruiting rankings aren’t markedly different from the Dykes era. Cal is still doing (generally) better than your Oregon States and your Arizonas and worse than your UCLAs and your Stanfords. The established pecking order appears unchanged so far.

The difference, of course, is in focus. 13 of Cal’s 15 commits are from California and 9 from the greater Northern California area. Their quarterback commit is a pro-style passer and there are as many tight ends (1) as wide receiver commits. This, obviously, isn’t inherently better or worse—just a different system with different focuses.

This is intended neither as an endorsement nor a condemnation of the efforts of the current staff. I would perhaps argue that their current level of recruiting is reasonably strong considering that they haven’t played a single game yet. We’ll get a better sense of their true recruiting prowess based on their ability to sell the program once Cal starts piling up wins (or losses).

Questions that will define the season

Can Cal get Pac-12 average or better play from the quarterback position?

From 2014–16, the average ranking of Cal’s offense in the major advanced stats has been roughly 20th in the nation. I don’t need to convince you that the quarterback play of Jared Goff and Davis Webb had a huge part to play in that success.

For the first time since 2013 we don’t really know what to expect from the quarterback position and as a consequence, it’s a HUGE variable in potential performance. I think only a wild optimist is expecting that the eventual starter will match the type of production Cal has received over the last three years (particularly considering Cal’s inexperienced offensive line), but that doesn’t necessarily have to mean a precipitous drop in total team offensive output.

Was Cal’s poor play on defense more an issue of talent, or more an issue of coaching?

As noted above, Cal has lots of returning experience on defense—9 of the 11 players who started last season’s opener vs. Hawaii are back, in addition to a bunch of other players pressed into significant action thanks to injuries.

Last year’s biggest weaknesses was run defense and while higher-end talent would certainly be nice, I can’t help but suspect that Cal’s issues were more about positioning and organization than athleticism or strength. That would be a point in favor of the idea that restoring basic execution to the defense could result in rapid improvement.

On the other hand, the gap between where Cal was last year and where they need to reach eventually might have to be a multi-year fix. It will be fascinating to see whether or not (and how much) the current staff can change things around.

How heavy will the transition costs be from another coaching changeover?

Related to that last question: transitions can be hard. I firmly believe that, for all his faults, Sonny Dykes is a gifted offensive mind. Even then, it took him a full two years to turn Cal’s offense around—and the transition season (2013) was a remarkably unpleasant experience.

A significant reason the Tedford-to-Dykes transition was so pronounced was because of the need to overhaul the academic/culture side of the equation, which led to a ton of player attrition. That decidedly doesn’t seem to be the case this time around (kudos to Dykes for his success in that regard). Thus, there’s reason to be optimistic that the move to the Wilcox era might be much smoother. Still, doubt is not unreasonable and the odds are that some aspect of the transition will have costs.

Can Cal, either through scheme or breakout player development, create some semblance of a pass rush?

Cal ranked 104th or lower nationally in sacks each year of the Dykes tenure except for 2015 (when they finished 53rd). That was, not coincidentally, the only Dykes defense that approached average.

Unless and until Cal consistently develops pass rushers, this will be an ongoing question. Even with the proliferation of quick-release passing attacks, pressuring the quarterback is still perhaps the single biggest aspect of above average defensive play.

(Not really at all) Bold Predictions

1. Cal’s quarterback play reminds Cal fans neither of Jared Goff nor Brock Mansion.

2. Cal’s offensive line starts the season very shaky but is also the unit that improves the most over the course of the season.

3. Cal’s defense improves to 7th best in the conference and somewhere around 70th nationally. This is a reflection of both improvement by Cal and also lots of bad defense getting played across the Pac-12.

4. For the first time in years Cal special teams are a net positive.

5. The Bears finish 4–8 against a murderous schedule, with a slew of close losses that portend greater things in 2018.