Cal Football Season Preview, Part 2: Strengths and Weakenesses
This is the second in a four-part series previewing Cal's 2019 season. Part 2 looks at the Bears' strengths and weaknesses. Part 1 focused on Cal’s stars for 2019. In subsequent installments, we will examine the Bears’ schedule and key questions.
Every team has strengths, weaknesses and questions, and it’s clear Cal’s strengths lie on the defensive side. Here is how it stacks up for Cal heading into the August 31 opener against UC Davis:
--Secondary – Cal’s group of defensive backs is among the best in the country. Sports Illustrated and Phil Steele both make that claim. Steele ranked the Bears No. 1 in the nation in pass efficiency defense last year based on his metrics, and with every defensive back returning, Steele ranks the Cal secondary as the No. 2 such unit in the country. Safeties Ashtyn Davis and Jaylinn Hawkins and cornerbacks Cam Bynum and Elijah Hicks all could earn all-conference recognition, and nickel back Traveon Beck is talented as well. Cal's defensive backs accounted for 17 interceptions last season.
--Linebackers – Associated Press named inside linebacker Evan Weaver a preseason second-team All-American, and junior college transfer Kuony Deng has the making of a star. He is an inside linebacker who may be moved to the outside in passing situations. Outside linebackers Cameron Goode, who missed all but one game last season with an injury, and Tevin Paul are big-play guys capable of all-conference consideration.
--Punting – Steven Coutts’ punting was a major part of the Bears’ game plan last season, as Cal relied heavily on field position and its defense to win games. Coutts led the nation with 37 punts downed inside the 20, and he was successful in that regard on 51 percent of his 72 punts.
--Quarterback – Cal is expecting Chase Garbers to make a big jump in effectiveness in his second season as a starter, but last year he ranked last in passer rating among Pac-12 quarterbacks with enough passes to qualify. Athlon ranked the Bears’ quarterback position 11th among the 12 Pac-12 teams. This is by far the most important position on the field, and Cal’s success will be determined by how well Garbers plays.
It appears UCLA transfer Devon Modster might be ineligible for the opener and perhaps longer, but Garbers had clearly won the starting job during preseason practice. The backup, for now, is probably Robby Rowell, although freshman Spencer Brasch could get some playing time.
--Deep threat – The Bears have a lot of options at wide receiver with eight expected to see meaningful playing time. But none was among Cal’s top four pass-catchers last season and none has proved he can provide explosive plays, something that was noticeably lacking last season when the Bears had just eight plays that gained more than 30 yards. Last season, Cal averaged just 5.7 yards per pass attempt, the only Pac-12 team to average less than 7.0 yards per pass.
Without a deep threat to stretch the field, opposing defenses will crowd the line of scrimmage, like they did last year, smothering Cal’s running game and applying pressure on the quarterback. Jeremiah Hawkins and/or Nikko Remigio need to prove he can beat defenders deep, and Chase Garbers needs to prove he can get the ball to them.
--Scoring Points – The simple fact is, Cal has not shown it can score enough points to challenge for a conference title. With no proven standouts at any offensive position, the Bears will be hard-pressed to light up the scoreboard. Last season Cal averaged 21.5 points per game, which was last in the Pac-12 and 115th of 129 FBS teams. And that’s with the Cal defense and special teams contributing six touchdowns. Cal needs to find a way to score more points, whether it’s through special teams, takeaways or improved offensive production.
REMAINS TO BE SEEN
---Running back – Chris Brown Jr. is getting raves from coaches, and he was the Bears’ leading rusher in the Cheez-It Bowl. But he is replacing a player (Patrick Laird) who gained over 2,000 yards in the past two seasons combined, and Brown has yet to prove he can provide that kind of consistency. Brown is a completely different kind of runner than Laird, who was a patient runner who waited for holes to open while Brown is more likely to try blast his way through. Marcel Dancy and DeShawn Collins provide more breakaway potential, but neither has proved he can be effective in a game.
--Offensive line – The Bears return most of their starters from the offensive line, but that is a good thing only if they show improvement over last season, when opponents sacked Cal’s quarterback 36 times, second most in the Pac-12. They did a better job of run blocking as the Bears averaged 4.2 yards per rush, sixth-best in the conference.
--Defensive line – Because of concerns at the nose guard spot, look for Cal to play a lot of nickel defense, partly because the Bears face a lot of passing teams and partly because that gets their 11 best defenders on the field. If freshman Brett Johnson shows he can adequately man the nose guard spot in the base defense that will allow Luc Bequette to remain at his natural defensive end spot. If Bequette is forced to play a lot of nose guard, the Bears’ defensive line suffers.
If either of the missing nose guards (Aaron Maldonado or Siulagisipai Fuimaono, out for “personal reasons”) returns, he would need time to become game-ready. This unit might be a strength if the nose guard problem is solved.