Cal football shootaround: 2018 season outlook

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Who do you expect to step up in a big way for the Bears throughout this season, on both sides of the ball?

Christie Aguilar: Let’s give a shoutout to the big men in the front — offensive lineman, this is for you. It is often said that a quarterback is only as good as his receivers and, in turn, running backs are only as good as their offensive line. Don’t expect senior Patrick Mekari or redshirt sophomore Valentino Daltoso to make any 60-plus-yard touchdown runs, but when you see a Cal tailback break loose into a wide-open field, don’t forget about the guys on the line who made it all possible.

Josh Yuen: The defense improved vastly under Justin Wilcox, and I’m pretty confident that things will continue to trend upward, especially in the early going. Facing a UNC offense that is missing a couple of key players should be a solid measuring stick, while traveling to Provo next week to take on BYU on a Saturday night is a daunting but not too overwhelming challenge. In the middle of the field, I expect Jordan Kunaszyk and Alex Funches to set the tone, while Jaylinn Hawkins and Ashtyn Davis will be key factors in limiting big plays by the opposition.

Sophie Goethals: Last season, the Bears saw less than the ideal number of contributions at the tight end position, but there’s been a serious influx of talent here this season — including the returns of Ray Hudson, Gavin Reinwald and Kyle Wells along with the addition of Ian Bunting. I think this will be a huge addition to Cal’s offensive arsenal and will provide Ross Bowers with far more options.

Andrew Wild: This is a tough one, because there were so many big surprise contributors last year — I feel like this season is more about maintaining those levels of production than finding new role players. I think on offense, with the departures of receivers Demetris Robertson and Jordan Veasy, we may see Kanawai Noa step up. (I feel that Vic Wharton’s good value has more or less reached its ceiling). On defense, I would expect one or both of Camryn Bynum and Elijah Hicks to make the jump from reliable to full-blown star.

How much will the losses of Tre Watson, Demetris Robertson, Gerran Brown and other unexpected departures set the team back?

CA: The medical retirement of Gerran Brown was one that hit the Bears hard. To have to watch head coach Justin Wilcox announce the news, with an obviously emotionally shaken demeanor, was tough. Brown remains a key tool for the Bears on the sideline in the form of another brain, set of eyes and passionate heart, and he is a reminder to the team to never take a snap for granted.

JY: The emergence of Patrick Laird softens the blow of Watson’s departure, and it may be a huge part of why the latter decided to transfer to Texas. That said, Laird can’t carry the ball on every option or run play, and Watson did provide a great combination of power and speed. I expect Evan Weaver to fill the void left by Gerran Brown nicely, but replacing Robertson and spring breakout Taariq Johnson is a huge task for receivers coach Nicholas Edwards. Is Vic Wharton III the obvious answer, or will Jordan Duncan (or perhaps an even greater surprise) find a rhythm with Bowers down the sidelines early in the season?

SG: There is no point in dwelling on the losses of Demetris Robertson and Tre Watson because, quite frankly, the Bears fared fine for most of the 2017 season without them. This isn’t some new development that Cal will have to deal with, and with the offensive performances of Patrick Laird, Kanawai Noa and Vic Wharton III (especially at the tail end of the season) the departures of Robertson and Watson are even less of a problem. Obviously, the Bears lost the most manpower at the wide receiver position, which will hinder their downfield game, but ultimately they have the pieces to craft a good offense despite those losses.

AW: To me, the unexpected departures are far less important than the ones we actually saw coming. Laird should be a true star running back to replace Watson, the receiver corps is deep, and although losing Gerran Brown is tough, it’s tough because of the departure of senior defenders like James Looney, Devante Downs and Raymond Davison III. Defensive depth is going to be a big issue this year after being a strength in 2017.

On paper, what is Cal’s most glaring hole at the start of the season?

CA: Before Gerran Brown’s medical retirement, it seemed as though he and redshirt senior Jordan Kunaszyk were set to lock down the inside linebacker position. Kunaszyk is still in line to be one of the most lethal forces on Cal’s defense at the WILL position, however, at the MIKE position, starter junior Evan Weaver and second-string freshman Evan Tattersall are undoubtedly the weaker side.

JY: While the lack of a clear-cut vertical threat and a backup running back stand out a bit, I’ll go with the kicking game. Every year, there’s always a crucial game or two that rests on the leg of a 19- or 20-year-old. It’s what cost Washington a chance at a CFP appearance last season, and with Matt Anderson no longer part of the fold, the Bears have struggled to find a consistent replacement. Outside of kicking, special teams are pretty secure with a handful of versatile options in the return game, but it remains to be seen how Greg Thomas will execute and if he’s able to run away with the starting job or if Wilcox is willing to roll the dice on other options.

SG: While Patrick Laird contributed huge numbers last season, I worry about the Bears’ depth at the running back position. Aside from Laird, they don’t really have anyone who’s proven that they can produce gains even close to Laird’s. It worries me that there are no backups here because it could really hinder Cal’s offensive options, and given Bowers’ on-and-off passing game, the Bears are going to need this as a viable option.

AW: I think that Cal’s defensive starters will be able to put it together and make things work, but the depth behind those guys is going to be the real test of the season. The first injury is going to change a lot for this team.

What is your regular-season prediction?

CA: Standing right next to the Campanile, the structure is massive and seemingly indestructible. But put it into context, surround it with the backdrop of trees and hills, and soon you’re at Stanford losing the Big Game for the eighth straight year — OK, Christie, where is this going? After spending upward of 40 up-close-and-personal hours at Cal’s practices, part of me believes this team can easily go 9-3. Let me step back, however, and imagine Khalil Tate and USC matchups on the road. 7-5, final answer.

JY: I’ll go with 6-6, but 8-4 is very much within the realm of possibility. The difference between 8-4 and 6-6 could be finishing second or fifth in the Pac-12 North, but at this point, the Bears should realistically be satisfied knowing that any of the aforementioned records would qualify for a bowl game. Wilcox has them trending in the right direction, and after back-to-back 5-7 seasons, it’s difficult to envision a significant drop-off from that.

SG: I think the Bears will definitely go 7-5, with the potential to go 8-4 depending on how well the offense can execute and the defense can lock in. Yes, that’s not amazing, but after not tallying a winning season since 2015, it’s a distinct improvement. Head coach Justin Wilcox has put together a team that can turn out wins, but I worry about the consistency in good play on both sides of the ball. Games that look like sure wins could quickly turn to losses — so while I predict a 7-5 record, it could easily crash and burn to 5-7.

AW: I don’t feel comfortable going above 6-6. The defenders they graduated last year were such huge pieces, I don’t think everything can be offset by another year of tutelage under Wilcox and DeRuyter. I do expect the offense to be much more consistent under a second year of Beau Baldwin.

Christie Aguilar, Josh Yuen, Sophie Goethals and Andrew Wild are the 2018 football beat writers.