Various pegs, and so many holes

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Every new coach comes in preaching “culture.” The incoming regime on any team must first distance themselves from the party that got fired to open the hole that they filled. There’s usually a slam article or two on the recently deposed, some shocking stories that linger — but may or may not be true — and usually, there’s a promise of a coming cultural revolution.

Ask Justin Wilcox, a celebrated defensive mind in college football, how he plans on fixing a Bears defense (42.6 points per game allowed in 2016) that has put coffee filters to shame for years, and he’ll likely tell you that it’s some combination of hard work, growth and pride.

Usually, I’d roll my eyes. But there’s something about this guy that makes it feel like the team is no longer shoving square pegs in circular holes. At 40 years old, Wilcox is a wunderkind, one of the youngest coaches in the nation, and represents modernity at a position that at Cal has been plagued by — how should I say it — antiquity, for quite some time. The players like him, the coaching staff seems tight-knit and knowledgeable, and he has a proven track record of defensive excellence. But he’s faced with problems, both new and old, within and without, that will almost certainly make his first season less than stellar. There’s simply too many of those holes.

Wilcox is trying to turn a horrible 4-3 defensive unit from 2016 into a passable 3-4 unit this year. The players he’s trying to mold are somewhat workable, and there are a few seniors to help smooth everything over, but this is still a monumental task for a coach with precious few of his own recruits on roster. The 3-4 defense on principle is more fluid and versatile than the 4-3, which lends itself nicely to the paper-thin spread of the college game. This change should eventually prove a good one. But the lack of proven ability of those on roster to defend at all, nevermind defend in a new scheme, would make a seamless transition impossible for Nick Saban, nevermind a rookie skipper.

After years of recent Cal history with either Aaron Rodgers, Jared Goff or Davis Webb behind center, Wilcox just yesterday made the call between rock and hard place. Ross Bowers will open the season as QB1, hoping to build on his current career peak of two rushing yards against UCLA last year. Wilcox simply had to make pegs fit, unproven or not. They’ll probably run the ball a lot more.

Not to mention Cal must endure what many are calling the most difficult schedule in all of college football. The four week stretch of Ole Miss-USC-Oregon-Washington is a nice appetizer for the Stanford-UCLA endcap (both on the road). Did I mention they’re starting Ross Bowers?

This all exists in the background of the off-the-field issues already weighing his team down. Cal is in more debt than any program in the country, and rumors swirl that teams will soon be cut to fight the annual deficit. Football is expensive, especially when no one shows up on Saturdays. Even when the team was pretty good during the Sonny Dykes era, Memorial Stadium was half empty by halftime. Hard work and pride doesn’t seem like enough.

Coaching turnover, especially in college football, always comes with roadblocks. All Wilcox has to do is fix one of the worst defenses in history, get a career backup quarterback to show some competency against the hardest schedule in the country, and try to make enough money doing it that the school doesn’t lose a team. Things may very well not be pretty. But Cal is playing the long game with its new coach, even if it can’t afford to.

Austin Isaacsohn covers football. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @austinisaacsohn.