Cal football head coach Justin Wilcox has said being able to lead a football program is a “dream job” and that there was no better place than Cal to do it, but the specifics of his hiring certainly left a lot to be desired. Put in the unenviable position of constructing a recruiting class in less than three weeks after his hiring, only 14 players had joined the team by National Signing Day, which is currently tied for the smallest recruiting class in the top 100.
“It’s been a heck of a couple weeks,” Wilcox said. “But we’re glad to get here. It’s a couple recruiting weekends, a lot of flights, a lot of hotels, a lot of rental cars, but it was all well worth it.”
That number is down from the 27 who signed last year, and quality hasn’t seemed to make up for quantity, as this class is ranked worst in the Pac-12 by Rivals.com. In the overall Division 1 rankings, Cal has dropped from a top-25 ranking last year to barely hanging on in the top 75. 85 players are allowed to receive financial assistance to play football, according to NCAA rules, and Wilcox stated that he expected to be at around 80.
“We didn’t want to reach on anybody,” Wilcox said. “At a time like this, whether it’s coaches or recruits, you want to make sure that you get the right people in the program. We weren’t going to sacrifice the health of our program in the long term for something that we could get done in the next two or three days, or two weeks.”
Highlighting the class are two four-star recruits, quarterback Chase Garbers of Newport Beach, California, and the versatile defensive back Elijah Hicks. Garbers committed to Cal last summer, before Wilcox was hired, but the two got a chance to meet and Wilcox said Garbers has the “moxie” for the position, as well as the accuracy. The best offers Garbers got outside of Cal were from Ole Miss, Washington and Vanderbilt.
Hicks was also signed before Wilcox’s takeover, officially coming aboard in between former coach Sonny Dykes’ firing and Wilcox being hired. Being a kick returner and occasional wide receiver in high school as well, he could end up being a valuable multifaceted tool for the Bears. All but two Pac-12 schools offered him a spot, which makes him a fairly big get, especially for this year.
Cal’s defense had been abysmal under Dykes, and Wilcox — the former defensive coordinator at Wisconsin — was brought in to overhaul that side of the football. With only four to six defensive players currently committed, the overhaul will have to come largely from changing the play of athletes currently on the roster.
“I’m not concerned with the guys we didn’t sign,” Wilcox said. “I’m thankful that the guys we signed fit the mold for us … we’re making sure we do what’s right for the program.”
Another particularly interesting is running back Biaggio Ali-Walsh, the grandson of boxing legend Muhammad Ali. Coming from Las Vegas, and having been named Gatorade’s Nevada Football Player of the Year, he has the chance in a couple of years to be the type of big play-making feature back Cal hasn’t seen in awhile.
There is still a chance for Wilcox to add more players to the program, but he was noncommittal on that point, not wanting to speculate on players who may still be considering the program, or players the program could be considering.
The athletic department made a dramatic late change in the football program because it wanted to revamp the program. But in the short term, it made it particularly hard for Wilcox to do so with its timing, and that’s how you end up with 14 signatures on National Signing Day.