Cal football season preview: All eyes on offensive growth, defensive surge in 2019

Karen Chow/Senior Staff

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“And it’s all harmony for TCU in the Cheez-It Bowl!” 

When TCU’s game-winning overtime kick secured its infamous 10-7 margin of victory in the 2018 Cheez-It Bowl, Cal inside linebacker Evan Weaver dropped to a knee. 

His now-former partner-in-crime, Jordan Kunaszyk, stared up at the rafters. 

All quarterback Chase Garbers could do, sporting a headset after being benched with three first-half interceptions to his name, was look on. 

That was the last time that the Cal football team took to the field in front of an audience larger than a few dozen spectators. From a blue and gold perspective, the scene was difficult, if not painful. 

One look around Chase Field the moment Jonathan Song’s kick split the uprights said it all: Exhausted players and blank stares made for a team eager to hibernate after experiencing the textbook definition of a roller-coaster type of year. 

If there was a game that epitomized last season’s storyline, it was their bowl game five Cal interceptions, four TCU interceptions, nine Cal punts, seven Cal points and too many roasts on social media to keep track of. The 10-7 outcome may have been the most extreme of the Bears’ offensive shortcomings in a turnover-infested season, but it certainly put an exclamation point on a downright confusing 13 games. 

Fast forward to eight months later. An offseason of regrouping and training under strength coach Torre Becton’s regime has the Bears sharper both physically and mentally. 

“We didn’t do as well as we wanted to,” said redshirt junior cornerback Camryn Bynum, one of three season-long team captains. “There’s a lot we left on the table.” 

Many facets of Cal’s system remain intact. Weaver, along with four-star junior college recruit Kuony Deng, is back to anchor Cal’s front-seven attack. Garbers, after a lengthy quarterback battle with transfer Devon Modster, remains the incumbent starter, maintaining a sizable lead over the rest of the quarterbacks’ room. 

And head coach Justin Wilcox, the maestro behind Cal’s suffocating defensive scheme, is encouraged by the way his offense has made strides and his defense has kept the pedal to the metal. 

“You want to see good, competitive football on both sides,” Wilcox said toward the end of the program’s fall camp. “When a play is won by either side, how did you win the play? For the entire program, you want both (sides) to have success, but in the end, you really want it to be a good competitive play.” 

In 2018, Cal had the talent to compete with the top programs in the Pac-12 — just ask Washington and USC. A dazzling defensive breakout, highlighted by a conference-best 28 forced turnovers and Weaver’s FBS-leading 159 tackles, made marquee wins over the Huskies and Trojans possible. 

But last year’s squad also struggled with consistency and protecting the football when it mattered most — just ask UCLA, Washington State and Stanford.  A puzzling offensive performance, which began with a three-quarterback carousel in week one and saw four quarterbacks take game reps by the season’s end, are at the forefront of what kept Cal from contention for a Pac-12 North title. 

Eliminating its own offensive miscues and duplicating last season’s defensive efficiency will be Cal’s key to flipping the script, as many college football analysts expect the Bears to remain steady as the No. 5 team in the North. 

Proving skeptics wrong won’t be easy as Garbers adjusts to a talented but unproven receivers group, which lost its primary targets in Vic Wharton III and Kanawai Noa. 

Senior Jordan Duncan and true sophomore Nikko Remigio have locked down two of the starting receiver positions. An impressive fall camp has vaulted Ricky Walker III from former walk-on to a player the Bears are counting on to step up, along with the likes of junior Jeremiah Hawkins, freshman Makai Polk, and transfers Trevon Clark and Kekoa Crawford. 

“Some guys have been here, some guys haven’t — so there’s a time to learn and see each of those guys make strides every day,” Wilcox said. “That’s no different than anybody else.” 

In the backfield, Christopher Brown Jr. has a tight grip on the starting tailback spot for a running backs core seeking to replace Patrick Laird, who was responsible for more than 2,000 yards on the ground across the last two years. 

Other changes on the offensive front include Michael Saffell’s transition to the center position and Will Craig’s first full year as a starter at left tackle. 

For defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter, the benefit of returning eight starters has expanded the team’s scheme and ability to implement new disguises. With Deng filling in for Kunaszyk, Luc Bequette sliding over to nose guard and Cameron Goode back at full strength, the sky is the limit for the Cal defense — an unimaginable thought just three short years ago. 

In 2019, the Bears will run full speed into one of the toughest road schedules of any FBS program, accentuated by four trips to schools that are beginning the season nationally ranked. The other two road stops include Ole Miss and UCLA, featuring an SEC environment and a program to which the Bears lost to by 30 last fall. 

It’s a tall task for a second-year quarterback, but the challenge of competing at the top of the conference in 2019 doesn’t fall all on Garbers’ shoulders. After the critics came full force on offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin and the team’s lethargic execution, the offense is unfazed and ready to roll. 

“The thing about our guys is that they’re resilient and they’ll respond,” Baldwin said. “So even if things didn’t go exactly like they want, they’ll come back screaming and fighting tomorrow.”

The ink is wet, the pages are blank. The third chapter of Justin Wilcox’s story at UC Berkeley is about to be written. 

“It’s a new season and we’re starting with a clean slate,” said strong safety Jaylinn Hawkins. “It’s new beginnings and a new team, so we’re just looking to do better this season.”

Josh Yuen covers football. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @joshcal2020.