Cal’s Justin Wilcox was the first head coach to take the stage at Pac-12 media day. In front of a sea of masked reporters, he made his optimism clear.
“I can honestly say I’ve never been more excited for a media day than I am today,” Wilcox said, who is entering his fifth campaign at the helm. “It signals the start of a much-anticipated season.”
Football was not the only thing on players’ and reporters’ minds — the first question dealt to Wilcox was on the subject of name, image and likeness, or NIL, rights. The NCAA’s ruling, which gave players control of those rights, was met with Cal’s GOLDEN program.
“It’s a resource and provides guidance for them in terms of education and contracts, negotiations, tax implications,” said Wilcox. “We have a number of players who have entered into agreements within NIL.”
One of those players was linebacker Kuony Deng, who is using the opportunity to further his community engagement.
“My approach to the NIL is trying to do the things I would do anyway and make a little bit of money on the way. Pretty recently, I partnered with an organization called Public Good Works Projects,” Deng said. “They’re providing people with the information they need if they’re interested in getting vaccinated. They’re not telling people what to do, but giving them the information they need.”
This opportunity fits in with Deng’s larger goals of community service. The linebacker mentioned groups — on and off campus — that he was involved in. At UC Berkeley, this includes a group of East African students, the Black Student Union and UC Berkeley Black Male Link Up, a group Deng started during the pandemic which meets regularly to discuss topics ranging from mental health to community issues.
Deng pointed to the history of organizations that are involved in Bay Area communities as a reason he has enjoyed his time at Cal. He also works with the 100 Black Men of the Bay Area and People’s Programs Oakland, which both align closely with Deng’s values.
“I work with an organization called People’s Programs Oakland. They basically mirror the programs of the Black Panther Party, you talk about people’s breakfast Oakland,” Deng said. “They go out to homeless encampments and local youth and just make sure people have different resources — tents, clothes, all those kinds of things. They’ve started a mobile clinic for the first time.”
The commitment to their larger community is one that has taken root within the team. Deng pointed to the work of team leaders, such as Marcel Dancy and Elijah Hicks, as well as the involvement of younger players, as part of the Bears’ identity.
That cohesiveness shows when it comes to the playing field as well. Neither Deng nor quarterback Chase Garbers had particular individual goals — both were targeting team success.
“Personally, I want to win the Pac-12. I’ve never been a big stat guy. My stats aren’t the greatest ever,” Garbers said. “I’ve never been too weary on that, I’ve always been about wins, so having a double-digit season and winning the Pac-12 is definitely on my bucket list this year.”
The focus is firmly on the team’s strengths. Despite the loss of two of Cal’s starting defensive linemen — Brett Johnson to injury and Zeandae Johnson to the NFL — Wilcox lauded the likely transfer of Luc Bequette, as well as the younger defenders.
Bequette, in particular, will be a welcome “veteran presence” as he returns to the Bears after a year with Boston College. Deng, meanwhile, praised the physicality of sophomores Ricky Correia, Ethan Saunders and Stanley McKenzie in practice.
Then, the offense had its turn in the sun. The Bears have taken advantage of their first full offseason with offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave after 2020 was hampered by COVID-19.
“It’s been awesome, to have a true offseason to ourselves. The way it’s structured, it’s by far the most productive and successful offseason I’ve been a part of here at Cal,” Garbers said. “We had a pretty vanilla playbook last year.”
Garbers also praised the wide receivers for their growth over the summer, but most attention was given to the offensive line after Cal center Mike Saffell’s medical retirement.
“It was a decision he had to make. We support him fully,” Wilcox said, before elaborating on alternatives at the center position. “There’s just a handful of guys that will be working at that position in the next month. We cross-train a number of our offensive linemen for this very reason. We’re eager to watch those guys continue to grow.”
Garbers and Wilcox highlighted Matthew Cindric, Ben Coleman and Brian Driscoll as linemen who had shown promise and potential at center.
Cal’s return to a full football season will be a busy one, but the Bears are looking upward in 2021. The stage is set as the blue and gold prepare for their first game next month.