Rookie and the vet: Gerald Alexander’s influence brings Cal secondary into new territory

Lianne Frick/Senior Staff

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Although Cal football seems to be mired in the same pitfalls from 2017 — an inconsistent passing rhythm, struggles on the offensive line and glaring road woes — there’s no mistaking that the Bears defense in the new era is for real. It’s a legitimate force of havoc, and although the most public-facing elements of that side of the ball are head coach Justin Wilcox and defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter, you only have to be around the program for a day to know that there’s another coach whose contributions count as much as anybody’s.

Gerald Alexander, the bearded impresario behind Cal’s boisterous and assertive secondary, is a presence to behold on the practice field as well as with a keyboard on Twitter.

Fifteen years ago, Alexander was a freshman cornerback at Boise State and Wilcox was with the program as a graduate assistant, just getting his first tastes of life on the sidelines. Today, the two are leading the 12th-most efficient defense in college football. For Alexander, it’s one more step on a roller coaster of a career in football.

Going into Alexander’s senior year with the Broncos, Wilcox was back in Idaho, this time as Boise State’s defensive coordinator. Chris Peterson was taking over as head coach and brought on Wilcox, who was fresh off his stint as linebackers coach at Cal. The personnel on the team had changed, and Alexander’s role was going to have to change as well. Namely, by learning how to play safety.

“I was a little (hesitant),” Alexander recalls. “I had questioned it a little bit; I felt like I was pretty good at playing corner and is this late switch going to not help me achieve my goal of playing in the NFL?”

Wilcox, for his part, remembers it playing out very straightforwardly.

“It wasn’t really a question,” Wilcox said. “ ‘Gerald, you’re going to play safety.’ ”

Alexander’s fears about the positional change scaring off the NFL turned out to be exactly inverse to reality. He became just the fourth Boise State player to be taken in the second round or higher when the Detroit Lions called his name with the 61st pick in the 2007 NFL draft. It also didn’t hurt that Boise State pulled off a legendary 13-0 season, capped off with a dramatic overtime win over Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl.

Having just changed positions a few months earlier, Alexander ideally might have been able to ease his way into playing time, learning from veterans in practice and getting on the field with as much confidence as possible. The NFL is not that kind of league.

The previous year’s starting safety tore his ACL in the preseason, and the Lions, who had won just three games the year before, were not exactly stacked with known quantities to throw at the new personnel hole. So once again, Alexander’s number was called.

“I look back now and I can’t believe I was in that position,” Alexander says. “My first game here was in Oakland, and I guess that was the surreal moment for me that season as a rookie. I had grown up a Raider fan my entire life, to the point that I couldn’t watch SportsCenter if they lost. … But then I just became accustomed to trying to be the best player I can be, and learning things on the fly.”

Alexander started all 16 games and was in a position to launch a sophomore campaign that would cement his place in the league. But the chances that allowed him to play in his rookie year swung right back around to seriously sting him.

He suffered a fractured vertebrae in his neck and missed all but five games in 2008. It was an injury that he would physically recover from, but from which his career never would.

He was traded to Jacksonville and had another nice season with solid playing time in 2009, but felt the true brunt of being an NFL journeyman in the next two seasons, playing just eight games with four different teams.

“It’s harder to stay in the NFL than it is to get there, and it’s very hard to get there,” Alexander says. “I knew I had a very special opportunity, and when I got hurt going into my second year, I knew my opportunities to stay in the NFL post-injury. … I had early success so fast. I didn’t understand the struggle of the NFL until later in my career.”

Three years after the end of his promising rookie season, Alexander’s NFL career was through. He was home in Rancho Cucamonga, waiting by the phone for one last call from the league, when he came to a realization.

“At the end of the day I could only work out so many hours in the day, so I went to a (high school) game on a Friday night and felt like, ‘I’ve got a lot of time — I could help these guys out,’ ” Alexander says. “I’d see what it’s like coaching and see what it is and if it’s something I could get into. … I figured out on the fly that if I didn’t get a call from the NFL, this is what I wanted to do.”

It was a quick fit. After a year of helping out at home, and two years of working as a graduate assistant at Arkansas State and Washington, Alexander got his first full-time coaching job because of a trove of fortunate coincidences.

Indiana State’s defensive coordinator, looking to replace a defensive backs coach, was at a camp with Washington’s defensive coordinator. Alexander happened to personally know the departing coach from an NFL internship, and to top it off, Indiana State’s head coach Mike Sanford Sr.’s son played with Alexander at Boise State. The result was Alexander’s first time receiving the title of defensive backs coach.

Alexander’s lessons in the life of a journeyman would come in handy. Sanford Sr. was gone from Indiana State within the year, and Alexander hopped to Montana State. Then, in January, an old friend ended up in an important new position.

“I texted (Wilcox) congratulations, not expecting anything, not asking for anything,” Alexander said. “He gets a job like this and everyone he knows asks him to be on staff, so I just texted congratulations. … When the opportunity came and he said he wanted me to be a part of the staff, I was so grateful.”

With Wilcox having to hastily put together his staff after being hired in January, far past the normal timeline for coaching changes, he had a chance to fly in Alexander before making the final decision. Apparently, it wasn’t that tough of a decision.

“I knew what he was about,” Wilcox said. “I think it was more just about where he was in his development as a coach. You see him in terms of his football IQ and not every player can coach. … He does a really good job in the classroom. He connects with our players really well.”

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Alexander’s rise to a Power Five positional coaching job has been impressive, but the coaching ranks don’t save you from the stress of a journeyman career.

“You can’t (think ahead),” Alexander says. “It’s a very competitive business, and you have to prove yourself every single day. … I’m lucky to be in this situation so fast in my career. I know there are a lot of guys older than me who haven’t had this opportunity, so I’m grateful.”

Anyone who’s watched Cal in the last two years will tell you Alexander’s impact is unmistakable. The secondary, which used to simply roll over and make every opposing quarterback look like a genius, now plays with a swagger and confidence rarely exhibited on a college field.

Now, Alexander, after spending the last decade scrapping every second to maintain his career, can look out on the field and see a product that while not quite finished, is something to behold. Next week is never promised, but the future is without a doubt promising.

Andrew Wild covers football. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @andrewwild17.