With a new year on the (somewhat distant) horizon, here’s part two of a handful of Hail Mary predictions for the 2019 season:
Cal’s kicking competition intensifies after Greg Thomas’ average 2018 season
Thomas earned the starting kicking job and a scholarship at Cal over the past 12 months, both of which were well deserved. In action, the transfer from City College of San Francisco wasn’t called upon a ton and finished just eight of 12 on kicks in 2018. When his number was called, Thomas made a pair of big kicks on the road against Washington State, but missed makeable tries in brutal losses to both UCLA and Stanford.
In a sport where every win matters and there’s always at least one game each year that is decided by a right or left leg, Cal can’t be less than 70 percent on 3-pointers. Gabe Siemieniec and Dario Longhetto statistically performed in line with Thomas throughout fall and spring practices, meaning that Cal’s kicking competition could be similar to the team’s disastrous albeit friendly quarterback frenzy from last season.
Like Bowers heading into 2018, Thomas has the experience to back up his resume, but don’t be surprised if things get interesting between the hashes.
A new “star” emerges as the face of the defense
Several wrecking balls on the 11-headed monster that is the Cal defense are back — Weaver, Camryn Bynum, Jaylinn Hawkins and even Cameron Goode, who could be the most impactful player on the roster on either side of the ball. Jordan Kunaszyk, Alex Funches and Chris Palmer are out of the fold; however, new and old faces are expected to raise the bar even higher than last year’s breakout squad did.
When DeRuyter deployed last season’s traditional 3-4 scheme, Kunaszyk and Weaver were instrumental in keeping opposing quarterbacks contained. Heading into fall camp, Kunaszyk’s leadership and IQ can’t be replicated but can potentially be modeled.
Independence Community College transfer Kuony Deng, all 6 feet and 6 inches of him, has a chance to duplicate Goode’s impact on the line as an edge rusher in the middle of the field.
Deng’s athleticism was on display in the Spring Game from sideline to sideline. If he can possess the skills that Kunaszyk brought to last year’s squad and combine those with the unbounded upside that he and Goode share, we could be talking about an under-the-radar NFL draft pick in the coming months.
While Tevin Paul, Zeandae Johnson and Traveon Beck will have their roles expand tremendously this fall, Deng’s flexibility as a defensive end/linebacker hybrid is a dream for both DeRuyter and Wilcox. Penn State transfer Isaiah Humphries, who led the “Takers” in interceptions this spring, is expected to sit out the fall because of transfer rules, giving Deng sole possession as the new sheriff in town.
Traveon Beck earns All Pac-12 honors
Inside of the Cal locker room, Beck is a respected and feared competitor who plays as aggressively as any defensive back in the Pac-12. Outside of the bad memories of USC coaches and players, he’s virtually unknown — and an undersized and overlooked talent throughout the conference who has displayed flashes of star potential. While Beck hasn’t started too many contests as a byproduct of Cal’s depth, his ball skills as the “fifth” defensive back in a 3-3-5 scheme make him a key component of the team’s returning core in 2019.
Beck was virtually unstoppable in arguably the Bears’ biggest victory last season, playing mind games with both JT Daniels and Clay Helton on his way to a critical fourth-down stop and an interception to thwart Trojan scoring chances. He also picked off BYU’s Tanner Mangum during week two in the red zone, putting an exclamation point on Cal’s second consecutive masterpiece of 2018.
His propeller-wing celebration early and often would be a welcome sight to both fans and coaches. The NBA has a Sixth Man of the Year Award for a reason, and Beck’s contributions off the “bench” could equate to a Lou Williams-esque difference this fall.
The Bears win at least six games
If the Cal faithful’s dreams of waking up on New Year’s Day to attend the annual Rose Bowl game’s parade are eventually going to come to fruition, the team’s Cheez-It Bowl appearance was a step — albeit a small one — in the right direction.
It was essentially open season in the wild, wild West in 2018, with Pac-12 teams beating each other left and right and every matchup virtually a toss-up. When the Bears ran into TCU’s loaded defensive front the day after Christmas, it was both a checkpoint and a failure that benefited both coaches and student-athletes.
Like a true bear, Wilcox revealed that he went into hibernation in the days following the 10-7 loss, which featured more total interceptions than Cal points. He emerged from the darkness with the decision to reshuffle his offensive coaching staff, highlighted by Baldwin’s inheritance of the quarterback room and a swap of Burl Toler III (who will now coach receivers) and Nick Edwards (who will coach running backs).
The coaching staff has conviction that the offense will change and the defense has all the motivation in the world to recapture the magic of 2018. If a seven- or eight-win campaign is on the horizon, it’s only natural to ask what has changed in eight months’ time.
For one, Superman is back — Goode’s presence alone makes all the difference in the world in setting the edge and forcing errant throws into the middle of the field. On the flip side, all arrows point to Chase Garbers being the (undisputed) man under center, and it’s easy to forget that even Aaron Rodgers and Jared Goff struggled with turnovers and consistency during their respective first years starting at Cal.
If the Bears can overcome a thin group of receivers and the daunting road schedule that awaits them this October and November, perhaps they have a shot to hit the nine-win mark for the first time since 2008.