Cal head coach Justin Wilcox is one coach facing significant challenges in his first year.
After four years of disappointing play under Sonny Dykes, Cal opted for a coach familiar with the program in hiring Wilcox, who was the Bears’ linebackers coach under Jeff Tedford from 2003–2005. The hire was popular, and for good reason. Wilcox is a widely respected defensive coordinator, understands the demands of working for a school where football isn’t a priority, and will revitalize local recruiting pipelines that dried under Dykes. Dykes refused to change his recruiting tendencies while in Berkeley, returning to familiar territories in Texas and on the junior college circuit instead of fostering relationships with local Northern California high school coaches. One of the finest architects of the Air Raid offense, Dykes also focused his recruiting on offense. The Bears’ defense, on the other hand, was execrable every year Dykes was in charge. Fixing it will be no small task.
Wilcox is an accomplished defensive coach, but he and new defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter need to overhaul a defense that has finished no higher than 109th in the nation for the last four seasons (three out of the four saw the Bears finish at No. 124 or lower in total defense). There are a few promising players on the defense (James Looney, Cameron Saffle, Devante Downs), but the unit is composed of players who probably aren’t Pac-12 caliber and will need aggressive coaching to try and keep up with Pac-12 caliber offenses. Need further proof? John Ross and Christian McCaffrey (admittedly two of the Pac-12’s best players) will provide the highlights.
The defense has been a problem since Dykes inherited the program in 2013. What’s different is that Cal will no longer have neither the quick-strike “Bear Raid” offense nor a surefire NFL draft pick (Jared Goff and Davis Webb) commandeering it. Dykes stocked the roster with plenty of offensive talent, but new offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin has to make the pieces fit with no clear successor to Webb under center. Wilcox indicated that one of the staff’s first goals was to recruit a tight end, signaling a significant overhaul in the offense’s structure.
With a non-conference schedule that includes North Carolina and Ole Miss, Wilcox will likely be in for a difficult first year, and it may not get much better the year after that. For now, the restoration of local recruiting and focus on a complete rebuild should be the focus of the fan base, because there won’t be many wins in 2017.