That was a tough first season for Sonny Dykes. After waving his offensive magic wand on Louisiana Tech and turning them into a program that could score points on almost anyone (just ask Texas A&M), Dykes crashed hard in his first season at Cal, with just one win, over school FCS Portland State. Youth and injuries were a big factor, but Dykes was also getting his feet wet at the higher level. Now, with 2013 out of the way, have the Golden Bears got enough on board to show marked improvement this season.
Freshman quarterback Jared Goff was really put through the wringer last season, with an offensive line that couldn’t block, and a running game that rarely got going, making his life difficult at best. However, Goff, who turned 19 midway through the season, carried the Bears offense on his shoulders and performed solidly. He passed for 3488 yards and 18 TDs, with just 10 interceptions, not bad for 529 attempts. Goff was pulled from a couple of games where he struggled, but he only threw less than 43 passes in three games, with a high of 63 attempts against Northwestern. Unsurprisingly, Goff needed shoulder surgery after the season, but he looked good in spring camp and should take a big step forward in 2014.
The youth movement may serve the Bears well over the next couple of seasons, as most of Goff’s favorite receivers are back, and they’re a decent bunch. Chris Harper was the star of the show, catching 69 passes for 840 yards and 5 TDs in 10½ games, while Bryce Treggs led the team in receptions with 77, gaining 751 yards and a score. Richard Rodgers provided the big plays last season, but left early for the NFL, but Hawaii-transfer Trevor Davis should be a factor now that he’s eligible. Kenny Lawler caught 37 passes for 350 yards and 5 TDs last season, and could be the fourth piece in a puzzle that should stump opponents next season. Depth is very strong.
Of course, if the offensive line can’t improve, it may not matter how good the passing game is if Goff has to spend the game dodging defenders (not his forte). The good news is, Cal returns a bunch of guys who started last season. The bad news is, no one can hold their hand up and they say they had a great year. Losing center Chris Adcock to injury early in the year hurt, although left guard Jordan Rigsbee did an okay job replacing him and has been holding court at the position in the spring while Adcock recovers. The center is more than just a blocker in this offense, and getting the right guy at the helm is key. Steven Moore played right tackle as a freshman last season, but is switching to the left side this year. Chris Borrayo and Alejandro Crosthwaite finished the season at left and right guard respectively last season, and look to stay there, while junior Brian Farley takes over at right tackle. Spring depth charts are susceptible to change, so don’t get a tattoo of this lineup.
The running backs suffered their share of injuries last season, with both Brendan Bigelow and Daniel Lasco missing substantial time. Bigelow is gone to the NFL, but Lasco, who was third on the team with 317 yards and 2 TDs, and Jeffrey Coprich (156 yards, 1 score) are the leaders coming out of camp, but expect to see plenty of Khalfani Muhammad, who missed the spring as he was running track. He led the team with 445 yards and 4 TDs on just 71 carries, although he didn’t really get to flash his sprinter speed due to the line’s woes. Expect him to see plenty of the ball in different ways in 2014. The big knock on Muhammad is his size – at 5’8 and a mere 170 pounds, he’s not going to be more than a change of pace runner.
The defense was terrible in 2013, with a mixture of injuries, inexperience and learning a new system factored into a defense that allowed nearly 530 yards and 46 points per game. The defensive line is taking a big hit with three starters, tackles Deandre Coleman and Viliami Moala and end Dan Camporeale, leaving, but returns a group who have some starting experience. One big plus is the return of junior end Brennan Scarlett, who missed all of last season due to injury. He made 40 tackles in 2012, with 6 in the backfield, and added 2½ sacks and 2 fumbles. Kyle Kragen, who started five games last year and led the team with 3 sacks, will start opposite him. Tackle is a question mark, as injuries limited the number practicing in camp. Marcus Manley and Harrison Wilfley got the starting nod in the spring game, but while they’ll be part of the rotation, don’t there’s no guarantee this will be the starting pair in August.
Linebacker Khairi Fortt is going to be a big loss in the middle, but the Bears may still be in good shape with a group of players with starting experience returning. Michael Barton looks to start at middle linebacker. He had 63 tackles with 9½ for loss last season, despite only starting two games. Jalen Jefferson started on the strongside last season and will likely return there. He had 66 tackles, with 6 for loss. Maximo Espitia started the spring game, but watch out for Jason Gibson, or even Hardy Nickerson to take the spot.
The secondary returns most of its cast from last season too, with the exception being corner Kameron Jackson. Cameron Walker started the last eight games at strong safety last season, finishing third on the team with 65 tackles, but will move to corner to replace Jackson. Stefan McClure should return on the other side, but is currently out injured. Redshirt freshman Darius Allensworth has the edge for now. Leading tackler (67) Michael Lowe returns art free safety, while Avery Sebastian, who essentially played in one game due to injury last season, yet made 11 tackles and picked off a pass, returns at strong safety.
Kicker Vincenzo D’Amato was excellent last season, hitting 17 of 20 field goals, but he needs to be replaced. The Bears have a three-way battle between sophomore Noah Belto, senior James Langford and redshirt freshman Matt Anderson. Whoever wins the job has some big shoes to fill. Punter Cole Leininger averaged 42.9 yards per punt as a freshman, dropping 25 inside the 20 with two touchbacks. Muhammad averaged just 21.9 yards per kick return, but has the ability to improve greatly with some better blocking. Bryce Treggs averaged less than 2 yards per punt return. The kick coverage was decent, but the punt coverage was awful, allowing 20.2 yards per return and 5 TDs.
It’s hard to believe that the Golden Bears won’t be a better team in 2014, but there may not be an improvement in results. The schedule is tough, so Cal have to take advantage of any possible wins. Beating Portland State is a must, while conference matchups against Colorado, Washington State are no givens, but are within the scope of Cal’s offense anyway. Of course, they need massive improvement up front on both sides of the ball, or it could be a very long season for the Bears. Five wins may be a best-case scenario, but two is more probable.