Former Oregon defensive back Justin Wilcox enters his second season as Cal's coach

California will enter the 2018 season with elevated expectations and a difficult schedule.

The Bears are confident they will be prepared to handle both due to second-year coach Justin Wilcox’s legendary attention to detail.

“If there’s something going on in the locker room we need to address, he’ll handle it like that,” senior linebacker Jordan Kunaszyk said with a snap of his fingers into the microphone at the Pac-12 media day event last week in Los Angeles. “Anywhere from culture to soap in the shower. We told him we needed new soap in the shower, and the next day he took care of it.”

Running back Patrick Laird compares Wilcox’s leadership style to that of Howard Schultz, the detail-oriented former Starbucks CEO who some speculate traded his green apron in to prepare for a possible run for president.

“Howard Schultz took Starbucks from this little coffee shop in Seattle to one of the biggest companies in the world. Coach Wilcox has a similar way he goes about things,” Laird said. “Nothing is too small, nothing is below him. He’ll take care of the soap in the locker room. We had water in our players lounge, but it was a little warm at times, so he got us a new water machine.

“Having a head coach like that, who is not below any small job, it’s been awesome. I think the players love it. We feel like we’re treated really well, and you want to play hard for a guy like that.”

  

The Bears, who finished 5-7 overall in Wilcox’s first season as a head coach, are picked to finish fourth in the North Division in the Pac-12 preseason poll.

Despite a 2-7 conference record, Cal showed dramatic improvement on defense and was competitive throughout the 2017 campaign.

Three of the losses — to Arizona (45-44, 2OT), Stanford (17-14) and UCLA (30-27) — were decided by a field goal or less. The Bears would have gone to a bowl game had they pulled out one of them.

“I think we made great strides,” Wilcox said. “We have really good guys on the team. They embody what we’re all about in terms of the character, the toughness.

“Both (Laird and Kunaszyk) are great examples of guys that have earned it along the way. Nothing has ever been given to them.”

Laird, a former walk-on, rushed for 1,127 yards and eight touchdowns last season. Cal’s offense also returns second-year starting quarterback Ross Bowers and productive wide receivers Vic Wharton and Kanawai Noa.

Cal offensive line coach Steve Greatwood, the respected former Oregon assistant, returns all seven players who started for him last season.

“This is going to be my fifth year at Cal, and I’ve never seen a culture like this with any team I’ve been on,” Laird said. “We’ve grown so much, and I think that’s exciting a lot of the guys and a lot of the guys are very optimistic about this season.”

Cal allowed 42.6 points per game during Sonny Dykes’ final season in 2016 and 28.4 points last season under Wilcox, the former Oregon defensive back and Washington and USC defensive coordinator.

The Bears must replace several key players, including defensive line standout and vocal leader James Looney, but 11 of the unit’s top 14 tacklers are back.

“It’s about creating habits and developing that character along the way,” Wilcox said. “They’ve been very receptive to what we’re asking of them.”

Cal will have to play well at Memorial Stadium this season in order to finish with a winning record. The list of teams visiting Berkeley in the fall includes North Carolina, Oregon, UCLA, Washington and rival Stanford.

The Bears also have road games at projected South Division contenders Arizona and USC.

But Wilcox won’t let the players focus on anything but the next practice.

“To have somebody like him in our building leading us and knowing that he has our back and generally cares about us and loves us, it’s amazing,” Kunaszyk said. “Cal football is in great hands, and there is nobody that I’d rather play for my senior season than coach Wilcox and the staff.”

CALIFORNIA BEARS

Coach: Justin Wilcox, second year (5-7 at Cal and overall)

Key players: QB Ross Bowers, RB Patrick Laird, WR Vic Wharton, WR Kanawai Noa, LB Jordan Kunaszyk. LB Alex Funches

2017 record: 5-7 overall, 2-7 Pac-12

2018 projection: The Bears are picked to finish fourth in the North Division in the Pac-12 preseason media poll

Nonconference opponents: North Carolina, BYU, Idaho State

Plays Oregon: Sept. 29 in Berkeley, Calif.

Full schedule: Sept. 1 vs. North Carolina, Sept. 8 at BYU, Sept. 15 Idaho State, Sept. 29 vs. Oregon, Oct. 6 at Arizona, Oct. 13 vs. UCLA, Oct. 20 at Oregon State, Oct. 27 vs. Washington, Nov. 3 at Washington State, Nov. 10 at USC, Nov. 17 vs. Stanford, Nov. 24 vs. Colorado

Wednesday’s preview: UCLA