Former Oregon DB Justin Wilcox has built one of the conference's best defenses in Berkeley
Editor's note: The third in a series of articles previewing Pac-12 Conference football teams in reverse order of how they were projected to finish in the preseason conference media poll.
College football Twitter had a lot of fun with the comedy of errors that was the 2018 Cheez-It Bowl.
The bizarre game in Phoenix’s Major League Baseball stadium included nine combined interceptions and a sideline penalty called on a clumsy sports information staffer.
For California, which lost 10-7 in overtime, it was an unfortunate microcosm of a 7-6 season in which Justin Wilcox’s defense was spectacular and the offense struggled with the forward pass.
Despite returning eight starters on defense, including all-American linebacker candidate Evan Weaver and one of the nation’s best secondaries, the Bears are picked to finish fifth in the North Division of the Pac-12 media poll.
Until offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin, the former Eastern Washington coach who exposed the fissures in Oregon’s defense during the 2015 opener, can find more consistency at quarterback, it will be difficult for Cal to contend in the conference.
“I enjoy it because that’s what defense is for,” cornerback Camryn Bynum said when asked if it was frustrating to play in a losing slugfest like the Cheez-It Bowl where the offense didn’t do much to help the cause. “Obviously we didn’t do our job to the best we could because we gave up 10 points, and if we don’t give up those points then we win.
“We don’t look at them as not scoring enough, we look at ourselves as we didn’t stop them fully.”
Cal’s defense allowed 42.6 points (12th) and 518.3 yards (125th) per game in 2016. One of the Bears’ five wins in Sonny Dykes’ final season was the 52-49 double-overtime victory in Justin Herbert’s first career road start.
After Wilcox was hired, Cal allowed 28.4 points (79th) and 429.9 yards (95th) per game in 2017 and 20.4 points (22nd) and 317.2 yards (15th) in 2018.
Wilcox, a former Oregon defensive back, watched his defense make 21 interceptions last season, which ranked second nationally.
Peter Sirmon, a former Oregon linebacker, joined Wilcox’s staff last season as the associate head coach and inside linebackers coach. Former Fresno State coach Tim DeRuyter is the defensive coordinator.
“When we were at the bottom, we didn’t stay at the bottom mentally. We knew we could be a lot better,” said Bynum, who was a freshman in 2016 when Dykes’ “Bear Raid” era came to an end. “The coaches we have now are a big blessing. They’re all just really educated with football and teach us the right things.”
Cal’s offense, which turned the ball over 31 times last season, remains a work in progress.
Incumbent quarterback Chase Barbers passed for 1,506 yards with 14 touchdowns and 10 interceptions as a freshman. He will be challenged by UCLA transfer Devon Monster for the starting spot during fall camp.
“There’s no determination. We’re going to let that thing play out,” Wilcox said. “If we were playing tomorrow, Chase would be our starter, and he did a good job in the spring. He was more comfortable with the offense, threw the ball with command.
“He has to player better. But he’s also a second-year quarterback, so I expect him to play better.”
Offensive line coach Steve Greatwood is in his third season with Wilcox at Cal. The longtime Oregon assistant returns four starters, including former Duck guard Valentino Daltoso.
Chris Brown is expected to replace Patrick Laird, now in training camp with the Miami Dolphins, at running back. He rushed for a career-high 57 yards in the Cheez-It Bowl.
“Potential is the word that comes to mind,” Wilcox said of Brown. “He’s got the right mentality, he’s got the physical tools, but you’ve got to go out and perform. So that potential can be a scary word because it means you haven’t quite done it yet, but I think he’s got a bright future. Time will tell.”
If the offense can provide a little more balance, the Bears have a chance to go bowling for the second consecutive season. That won’t be easy, however, with a road schedule that includes trips to Mississippi, Oregon, Utah, Stanford and UCLA.
Cal hosts FCS UC Davis on Aug. 31 before an early Pac-12 opener on Sept. 7 at Washington. The defending Pac-12 champion Huskies will be looking to avenge their 12-10 loss last season in Berkeley.
“Personally, I feel like we can win every game,” Weaver said. “When we go out there, if you think it’s going to be a toss up, you’re going to lose. You’ve got to go out there ready to win and believe that we can go 12-0 and then 13, 14, win every game we can.
“What the defense can really do is just stay focused, not let last year affect anything that we’ve done this year, because we haven’t really earned anything this year. Being able to prove ourselves again and again, week after week, is really what’s going to help us win games.”
Coach: Justin Wilcox, third year (12-13 at Cal and overall)
Key players: QB Chase Garbers, RB Chris Brown, OL Valentino Daltoso, LB Evan Weaver, CB Camryn Bynum, S Jaylinn Hawkins
2018 record: 7-6 overall, 4-5 Pac-12
2019 projection: The Bears are picked to finish fifth in the North Division in the Pac-12 preseason media poll
Nonconference opponents: UC Davis, North Texas, Mississippi
Plays Oregon: Oct. 5 in Eugene
Full schedule: Aug. 31 vs. UC Davis, Sept. 7 at Washington, Sept. 14 vs. North Texas, Sept. 21 at Mississippi, Sept. 27 vs. Arizona State, Oct. 5 at Oregon, Oct. 19 vs. Oregon State, Oct. 26 at Utah, Nov. 9 vs. Washington State, Nov. 16 vs. USC, Nov. 23 at Stanford, Nov. 30 at UCLA
Sunday’s preview: Arizona