Countdown to College Football Kickoff: Top NFL prospects at Cal

Sep 7, 2019; Seattle, WA, USA; California Golden Bears cornerback Camryn Bynum (24) intercepts a pass intended for Washington Huskies tight end Hunter Bryant (1) in the second quarter at Husky Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

Rob Rang

College football is scheduled to return Saturday, August 29. Each day until then, will be evaluating the rosters of the best teams in college football, including all 64 within the Power Five conferences.

California Golden Bears

Head Coach: Justin Wilcox (fourth season)

2019 Record: 8-5

2020 NFL Draft Picks: Ashtyn Davis, S, New York Jets – 3rd Round, No. 68 overall

Jaylinn Hawkins, S, Atlanta Falcons – 4th Round, No. 134 overall

Evan Weaver, ILB, Arizona Cardinals – 6th Round, No. 202 overall


Preaching a commitment to physicality and the film room, Justin Wilcox has completely transformed the culture at Cal in three short seasons, turning a team that even during Jeff Tedford’s heydays of Aaron Rodgers, Marshawn Lynch and Desean Jackson (among many others) earlier in the century, did not play with the tenacity of these Bears.

Cal has steadily improved each of Wilcox’s three years at the helm, going from 5-7 in 2018 to 7-6 in 2018 and its’ first bowl game berth in three seasons. Last year looked like a turning point for Cal, however, with the Bears stunning the reigning Pac-12 champion Washington Huskies in Seattle, emerging out of SEC territory with a win over Ole Miss two weeks later and earning Wilcox his first bowl game win as a head coach in emphatic fashion, nearly doubling up the Big Ten’s Illinois and former NFL head coach Lovie Smith 35-20 in the Redbox Bowl.

Though Cal lost three key defenders to the NFL from last season – including the country’s leading tackler Evan Weaver – the pieces appear to be in place for Cal to take even more strides in 2020, if, that is an offense which ranked 113 in the country last year can even things up a little with the defense, which ranked 33.

Cal’s offense should be improved with the team’s leading rusher, Christopher Brown, Jr. (914 rushing yards, eight touchdowns) and receiver, Nikko Remigio (38 catches for 513 yards and three touchdowns) both returning, along with quarterback Chase Garbers, who threw the same number of touchdowns (14) last season as he did the previous year as a redshirt freshman but saw his interception numbers drop from 10 to three – with just one of them coming after September.

For some, the improvements shown at Cal and some of its players are incremental and explain why this program isn’t getting more national attention.

The slow and steady approach is what creating a lasting, winning culture is all about, however, with Cal, its coach and its players likely to be earning more attention from the NFL soon, even if the media is slow to catch on.

Cal is currently scheduled to kickoff its season August 29 at UNLV with a rematch of the 2018 Cheeze-It Bowl slated for September 5 against TCU. Cal’s conference opener is scheduled for a home game September 26 against Utah, the defending Pac-12 South champions.

Featured 2021 NFL Draft Prospect: Camryn Bynum, CB, 6-0, 190, 4.50, rSR

Bynum personifies just how underrated Cal and its players continue to be from a national perspective.

He enters his senior season as one of the most consistent and battle-tested defenders in the country, starting the past 38 consecutive games for the Bears, leading the team in passes defensed the past three years running. However, likely in large part because he has “just” five interceptions, Bynum has not gained much press.

Despite signing with Cal as an almost universally ranked three-star recruit, Bynum redshirted his first year on campus. He didn’t waste any time earning the starting job in 2017, however, starting all 12 games and proving his toughness immediately, registering 58 tackles, the most among non-linebackers on Cal’s defense that year. Sure, some of the tackles came as opponents hoped to feast on the relatively inexperienced and slimly-built cornerback, but Bynum stood out as one of Cal’s best players immediately, including in a two-interception performance against Washington State and their future NFL quarterback Luke Falk.

Cal recognized Bynum’s impressive debut, honoring him as their top freshman but he received little other fanfare. Phil Steele acknowledged him as a Preseason Third Team All-Pac-12 pick heading into his sophomore season and Bynum delivered, jumping to 12 pass breakups and two other interceptions while also recording 48 tackles, including 2.5 for loss. The Pac-12 is rich with defensive backs, however, and all-conference honors by the league’s media went elsewhere. Steele kept his Third Team grade at the end of the year and the AP gave Bynum second team honors. Perhaps most importantly, the Pac-12 coaches acknowledged Bynum’s play, giving him honorable mention accolades as a redshirt sophomore.

Steele and the coaches both jumped up to Second Team honors last year for Bynum despite the fact that he recorded just one interception. They recognized his greater impact on Cal’s defense, where he again finished behind only future NFL linebackers Evan Weaver and Kuony Deng in tackles, registering a career-high 63 stops, including three for loss, as well as nine passes broken up.

Strengths: Savvy, coordinated athlete with good arm length and flexible hips to corral receivers at the line and catch point. Quick in his drop, efficiently gaining ground out of a traditional backpedal and sidestep, maintaining close proximity to the receiver. Springs out of his stance in press, driving out of the box to shadow receivers as they release into their route. Savvy player whose film study shows in his route recognition, showing above average awareness to undercut quick-hitters without getting sucked in by shoulder fakes. Technically-sound, understanding how to remain hip to hip with receivers and leave razor thin windows for quarterbacks to try to fit the football.

Impressive body control, including hand-eye coordination to snake his hands through intended receivers to slap the ball away… Turns to locate the ball and has the ballskills to do something with it, showing the ability to track it, as well as extend and snatch away from his frame.

Excellent timing on his leaps to compete for jump balls.

Reliable face-up tackler who brings his hips to create legitimate knockdown power against receivers, as well as in run support. Recognizes quick screens and other underneath routes, showing excellent downhill burst and the competitive nature to attack.

Wraps his arms for effective, efficient takedowns. Though the majority of his play is outside, Bynum does have experience in the slot and played more of a safety role in some alignments in 2019, as well, again, speaking to his preparation and football smarts. Enters senior season with 38 consecutive starts and reigning team captain.

Weaknesses: Lacks the wow factor from a size and speed perspective. Has a somewhat lanky frame with just average muscular development at this time. May prove a better athlete on the field than he is in workouts, showing smooth acceleration and leaping ability, but lacks an explosive element… Gets grabby in coverage, jostling with receivers throughout the route, sneaking tugs that occasionally get called… Accelerates quickly but tops out quickly, as well, and may lack ideal top-end speed. Loses a step on vertical routes and struggles to recover when this occurs.

NFL Player Comparison: Levi Wallace, Buffalo Bills – Say what you will about their relatively slim frames and less-than-eye-popping athletic profiles, Wallace (6-0, 180) and Bynum possess the grit and smarts to make it among the behemoths and blazers in the NFL. Bynum won’t go undrafted like Wallace (who led the SEC in pass breakups as a senior) but unless he surprises in workouts, he may not be the Top 50 pick his stellar college career suggests.

Current NFL Draft Projection: Third Round

The Top 10 NFL Prospects at Cal:

1. Camryn Bynum, CB, 6-0, 190, 4.50, rSR

2. Kuony Deng, OLB, 6-5, 225, 4.55, SR

3. Cameron Goode, OLB, 6-2, 235, 4.75, rSR

4. Christopher Brown, Jr., RB, 6-1, 230, 4.60, JR

5. Michael Saffell, C, 6-2, 305, 5.20, SR

6. Jake Curhan, OL, 6-5, 330, 5.30, rSR

7. Chase Garbers, QB, 6-2, 205, 4.80, rJR

7. Nikko Remigio, WR, 5-10, 175, 4.45, JR

8. Luc Bequette, DT, 6-1, 290, 5.0, rSR

9. Zeandae Johnson, DT, 6-3, 290, 4.90, rSR

10. Tevin Paul, DL, 6-3, 270, 4.80, rSR

*All 40-yard dash times are estimates