The transition from high school football to the collegiate level isn’t easy for anyone, and for Cal football’s new crop of Bears, circumstances have conspired to make it a whole lot harder.
Unlike most teams, the new crop of players won’t be able to rely on a group of veterans that know the coach and his system and culture well. Justin Wilcox has come to town with a whole new scheme and philosophy that likely won’t bear much resemblance to Sonny Dykes’ tenure at Cal. On top of that, Wilcox’s late hiring, which was shortly followed by National Signing Day and spring practice, put him behind the eight ball to start his tenure. A chaotic start and tumultuous summer practices seemed unavoidable, but you won’t hear that from the crop of players new to the team this year, whether they were recruited by Dykes or Wilcox himself.
“There seems to be a lot of positive energy around,” said Valentino Daltoso, a redshirt freshman transfer from University of Oregon. “Everyone’s really excited with (having) all new coaches. Everyone’s really bought in and is just excited to get started.”
With a number of transfers and late signees, summer practices were going to be Wilcox’s time to instill his culture and scheme with the players. And now, with less than a month until the Bears first matchup against UNC, the foundation needs to have been laid.
“I got here a couple days before camp, and a lot of the change I’ve seen is just getting the understanding of everything,” said Brandon McIlwain, a dual sport transfer from University of South Carolina. “Once everybody has learned the playbook, we’re making a lot of plays, we’re doing a lot of good things. We can really just take what the coaches are telling us and apply it.”
It’s an irregular group of new players because of the patchwork nature of their recruiting. Beyond the oddity of players recruited by Dykes for a system that will differ greatly under Wilcox, the number of transfer players, many of whom will have to sit out a year, is huge.
“I feel like when I first got here in the summer, we definitely got a lot closer as a group,” Daltoso said. “They’ve got us doing good things, you’ve always got to carry a water bottle, you’ve always got to sign into meals, you’ve got to hold people accountable for things, and that’s helped to bring us closer.”
Although no one has much of a leg up in terms of learning Wilcox and his staff’s particulars, experience of any sort is still in high demand. Whether it’s about knowing how being an athlete at Cal works beyond the confines of Memorial Stadium or how college athletics works at different schools, all extra knowledge needs to be utilized by a team in crunch time.
“It’s different for an older player when a new staff comes in because they’ve been playing for someone else for so long,” Valentino said. “But I feel like their ability to buy in and buy in quickly and lead by example kind of sets a standard for the younger guys. We’re going to do things one way, and we’re going to do things the way the coach wants, and that’s the way it’s going to be.”
And Valentino isn’t the only new player who feels that way.
“I think the older players have done a really good job,” McIlwain said. “Obviously having experience in college football and just being around them and learning from that and their years of being in college, they can grasp it and learn it quicker. They were going through it together, so when I got here, there were a lot of people who could help me because they had the experience and knew what they were talking about.”
There are still a lot of questions that remain as Cal heads into the home stretch. The starting quarterback, an incredibly important source of leadership for any team, has yet to be named, and no clear favorite has emerged among Ross Bowers and Chase Garbers. It’s still unclear how the Bears will react to their first defense-oriented head coach in more than a decade. Even if the chaos of the offseason has been steered through successfully, the real answers about this team won’t be revealed until the games start.
A previous version of this article stated that Cal football’s first opponent of the season is Ole Miss. In fact, it is UNC