You can’t say that Cal football is taking it easy on itself. With rookie head coach Justin Wilcox, who only inherited his post in January, the Bears are playing the hardest schedule in football according to ESPN, and they open it up by flying cross country to play a University of North Carolina team that is 19-8 over the past two years. If this is supposed to be more than a rebuilding season, that’s a mightily ambitious plan, and Saturday’s matchup in Chapel Hill will give us a first look at whether Cal can handle everything on its plate.
First challenge? Find a way to penetrate a secondary that was in the top 15 in limiting passing offenses last year. The Tar Heels held opposing passers to under 200 yards per game last season and only 10 total touchdowns on the season. For redshirt sophomore Ross Bowers, who won a lengthy quarterback battle and will be making his first collegiate start, that seems to be a tall order.
“They’ve got a lot of players back that played a lot of snaps last year,” Bowers said. “It’s going against a lot of inexperience on our side of the ball. We’re going to have to really execute our gameplan and know what we’re doing and be 100 percent confident.”
The Bears will likely be leaning on a running attack that will feature two seniors in Vic Enwere and Tre Watson, both of whom found ways to shine last season despite taking fewer snaps than the graduated Khalfani Muhammad in a passing-oriented system.
“It’s definitely going to be great just because (Vic and Tre) have been in the fire,” Bowers said. “It’ll be nice having a guy who’s been through a lot of games right next to me to talk to. And I know they’re going to be great in the passing game because they’ve been through so many passing offenses the last three years. It’ll be nice having them back there for sure.”
On the other side of the ball, fans will get their first taste of how new defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter has been able to install a 3-4 defense. Fans can surely remember the four seasons of porous defense in the Sonny Dykes era, most recently highlighted by a ranking of 127 out of 128 FBS teams in both run defense and points allowed, with 272.9 yards allowed on the ground per game and 42.6 points per game. This will be DeRuyter’s first chance to show he’s the man with the plan to fix that.
The change to a 3-4 means junior Cameron Saffle has moved from defensive end to outside linebacker (where he’ll still likely be primarily responsible for rushing the quarterback). Redshirt senior James Looney, Cal’s best defender far and away last season, is still listed as a defensive end, but it’s likely he’ll be moved around the field as well.
“I felt like I fit the 4-3 scheme, I feel like I can play the 3-4 scheme, and, I mean, a lot of guys have done it,” Looney said. “There’s a lot of guys who can play different positions — I think it shows the versatility we have … I love getting the opportunity to line up outside, not only because I look cool. I just love the game of football, and when you get those opportunities, you got to take advantage of them. ”
UNC is still without a declared starting quarterback after Mitchell Trubisky was taken second overall in the 2017 NFL draft. The Tar Heels also released their depth chart Monday, and their depth chart had three quarterbacks splitting the spot with “or’s” attached.
The same is true of their running back situation where two underclassmen, Jordon Brown and Michael Carter, will be vying for snaps. But with three seniors and graduate students on the offensive line, and two seniors leading the way at receiver, in Austin Proehl and Thomas Jackson, the more inexperienced additions to the offense will have plenty of support.
“I think you prepare for the offense they’ve shown and anticipate how they would use certain guys,” Wilcox said. “You have a menu that dates back to when you install your defense, so you have an answer for a particular style of player or offense. If they’re going to run him, throw him — is it truly a one-back offense or two backs because the quarterback is a runner? I think that’s how you look at it.”
Both teams have had a long time to plan out exactly how they wanted to start the season, and the only sure bet is that neither will. Let the games begin.