By Rich Cirminiello | @RichCirminiello
The Bears are progressing, no doubt, rising from one win in 2013 to five last season. And the Jared Goff-led passing attack affords the program a can’t-miss identity that will travel well. But now Cal must take the next step by closing out tight games, improving on D … and returning to the postseason for the first time since 2011. The Bears were 4-1 to start 2014, their lone loss coming to eventual South Division champ Arizona on a Hail Mary.
But they closed with just one win in seven tries, missing the postseason and serving a stark reminder of how much work is still left to be done in Berkeley.
Cal enters 2015 with a split personality—good cop on offense, bad cop on D. The offense, led by emerging QB Jared Goff, is as explosive as any in the Pac-12. The Bear Raid is going to score in bunches, often forcing the Victory Cannon to exhaust all of its ammunition.
Goff is the cover boy, with the gaudy stats to back it up, but he’s hardly a solo act. The Bears boast some of the league’s brightest skill position talent, too, and a firm grasp of a system that was foreign to the players just two years ago. As a stand-alone entity, the Cal offense might be prolific enough to compete for a conference crown. But …
… the D is the ultimate killjoy, often erasing all of the achievements made by Goff & Co. The Bears were feeble on defense for the past two seasons, and a dramatic turnaround is unrealistic based on the talent at the staff’s disposal. Cal should be better, based largely on experience, but better could mean allowing 34 points a game instead of 40. Until the program can build depth and confidence on this side of the ball, outgunning opponents in shootouts will be the predominant blueprint for success.
Cal continues to turn the corner under Dykes, with 2014 serving as a much-needed quantum leap before the bottom fell out and the program caved in under the weight of its own defensive deficiencies. But where do the incomplete Bears roam from here?
The offense is postseason-ready, yet the D is just slightly above FCS-caliber. Somehow, some way, Cal needs to find its way to bowl-eligibility, the next rung on the evolutionary ladder.
What to watch for on offense: Help for Lasco. Senior Daniel Lasco is the feature back in Berkeley, and a potent one at that. But the Bears search for a complementary power back produced an unexpected gem this spring. Sophomore Vic Enwere rose to No. 2 on the depth chart with a head-turning practice session highlighted by broken tackles and violent running. At 6-1 and 225 pounds, with freaky triangle numbers, he’s earned touches in short-yardage situations … at a minimum. He’s just another exciting weapon in the Cal arsenal.
What to watch for on defense: Frankly, Scarlett, Cal doesn’t give a damn. Sure, it hurts losing DE Brennan Scarlett, especially to Stanford. But the Bears might still be on the brink of their best D-line in a few years. At least that’s the hope this offseason. The early signs are promising. Wake Forest transfer James Looney is on the tarmac and ready to team with All-Pac candidate Mustafa Jalil on the interior. DE Kyle Kragen is back after missing 2014 to an illness. And a handful of former transfers, including one-time USC product DeVante Wilson, are set to fill the two-deep. No guarantees, but Cal should be tougher at the point of attack than they were in 2014.
The team will be far better if… the defense can fire up the pressure. Cal has to improve against the pass after ranking 118th nationally pass efficiency D. The defensive backs were horrid, but to be fair, they also received no help from a pass rush that produced just 16 sacks in a dozen games. And in a span of less than a year, it’s far more likely that the Bears can goose the pass rush than transform a new pair of starting cornerbacks into lockdown cornerbacks. By creating more traffic in opposing backfields, Cal might be able to hide some of the DB’s shortcomings.
The Schedule: The Bears open the new season by hosting FCS Grambling State in the first-ever meeting between the schools.
– Beyond Week 1, Cal might face the nastiest schedule in the FBS. The Bears get few breaks, including playing at Texas in Week 3 and drawing USC, UCLA and Arizona State from the South Division.
– The team’s bye week comes at an opportune time, Oct. 17, allowing for an extra week to prepare for the trip south to Pasadena to tackle the Bruins.
– Sonny Dykes will learn a ton about his young team in late October, when it plays UCLA, USC and Oregon in the span 16 days.
– After hosting Washington State on Oct. 3, Cal doesn’t play a game in Strawberry Canyon for four weeks, hosting the Trojans on Halloween.
– WATCH OUT FOR … San Diego State. It might be tempting to look ahead to the trip to Austin. But it would also be a mistake. The Aztecs are always well-coached, and RB Donnel Pumphrey might run circles around an ineffective Cal D.
Best offensive player: Junior QB Jared Goff. Sonny Dykes’ system doesn’t work if it’s not operated by a skilled quarterback. And Goff is quickly developing into one of the most accomplished passers Dykes has ever coached. In two seasons, the honorable mention All-Pac-12 performer has already thrown 53 touchdown passes to just 17 picks, with improvement showing up in every facet a year ago. Goff’s surging confidence and grasp of the offense, plus his assemblage of talented receivers, could result in Heisman contention for No. 16 in 2015.
Best defensive player: Junior LB Michael Barton. The linebackers are likely to be the strongest unit on the tattered D. And Barton is the leader of the group from weakside. He’s being challenged for the starting job this offseason, an indication that young players like sophomore Devante Downs are elevating the depth and overall talent of the position. Barton is a scrappy, blue-collar run defender, with a penchant for being around the ball and wrapping up in the open field.
Key players to a successful season: Cornerbacks Darius White and Darius Allensworth. Go ahead and include likely backups De’Zhon Grace and Cedric Dozier as well. The Bears won’t move forward unless they defend the pass better in 2014, a collaborative objective involving the new corners and the pass rushers. Cal was easy pickings a season ago, allowing 367 yards a game, by far the most in the FBS. White, a second-year transfer from Itawamba (Miss.) Community College, is generating cautious optimism following a terrific spring, but he alone can’t elevate a unit that’s so far removed from respectability.
The season will be a success if … Cal plays a 13th game. It’s Year 3 for Sonny Dykes. The rising star at quarterback is just one of 17 returning starters. And the tumult from the staff’s first season is now a fading memory. The Bears absolutely, positively must bowl in 2015, especially after coming so close to reaching the postseason last fall. Still, the schedule is brutally demanding following an opening day visit from Grambling, so even matching the five wins from 2014 might require an upset during a wicked second-half schedule that includes trips to UCLA, Oregon and Stanford, and visits from USC and Arizona State.
Key game: Oct. 22 at UCLA. Thursday night at the Rose Bowl. What a great opportunity for the Bears to showcase to the nation their high-flying offense and their general progress under Sonny Dykes. The Bruins needed to rally from a fourth-quarter deficit last October, eking out a 36-34 win, so the gap between the programs isn’t insurmountable. Cal will need to upend at least one more talented opponent in order to bowl this fall, and UCLA could provide the launching point for a strong finish to 2015.
2014 Fun Stats:
– Points per game: Cal 38.2 – Opponents 39.8
– Sacks: Cal 16 – Opponents 27
– Red-zone touchdown%: Cal 73% – Opponents 65%
Players You Need To Know
What you need to know about the offense: Heads up, Pac-12. The Bear Raid is heating up and about to peak in Sonny Dykes’ third year in Strawberry Canyon. The nuances of an up-tempo spread that relies on lots of power running and play-action out of shotgun formations have been fully implemented. And after improving by more than two touchdowns per game in 2014, the needle is still pointing up for the pass-happy Bears. QB Jared Goff is back for his third year as a starter, intent upon taking his game to a new level of efficiency and productivity. And he’ll have no shortage of support from a gifted supporting cast that includes last year’s top five rushers and seven players who caught at least 20 passes. Cal will stretch defenses in all directions … provided the offensive line gels before the opener. Although only two starters have graduated, the front wall is still trying to settle on the right combination of blockers. From left to right, the starting unit coming out of spring was comprised of all upperclassmen, Steven Moore, Chris Borrayo, Matt Cochran, Jordan Rigsbee and Brian Farley.
What you need to know about the defense: Save for possibly QB Jared Goff and head coach Sonny Dykes, Art Kaufman is the most important individual to the Cal program in 2015. He’s the coordinator, the guy in charge of stabilizing one of the nation’s worst defenses of the past two seasons. The Bears improved in Kaufman’s debut, but not by much. They still yielded 40 points and 511 yards per game, getting gashed through the air. And while another step forward is anticipated in 2015, this will still be one of the easiest Pac-12 defenses to navigate in the fall. Hope will come in different forms and faces. Wake Forest transfer James Looney has turned heads in practice, helping give the team its best tackle tandem in years. DE Kyle Kragen is healthy again after missing all of 2014. And the linebackers are an experienced, veteran unit. But the front seven will need to far exceed all expectations to provide cover for a defensive backfield still reeling from being repeatedly shelled last fall.
Players You Need To Know
1. QB Jared Goff, Jr.
Goff grew exponentially as a second-year sophomore in 2014. If he continues to head in the right direction, he could be the nation’s most prolific passer in 2015. The game began to slow down last year for the 6-4, 210-pounder, who broke 15 school records and ranked in the top 10 nationally in six categories. The rookie mistakes of 2013 were replaced by poise, confidence and a very soft touch on back-shoulder fades. And an improved Goff resulted in 316-of-509 completions for 3,973 yards, 35 touchdowns and seven interceptions.
2. RB Daniel Lasco, Sr.
Sure, Cal is a pass-first operation under Sonny Dykes. The emergence of Lasco out of the backfield, though, has helped bring much-needed balance to the Bear Raid. And balance makes stopping this team distinctly harder. In many ways, Lasco is an ideal fit for this system. He’s 6-0, 210-pound downhill runner. However, he also has soft hands as a receiver and the jets to explode through defenses. The program’s 2014 Most Valuable Player rushed for 1,115 yards and 12 scores on 210 carries, while also catching 33 passes for 356 yards and two more touchdowns.
3. WR Kenny Lawler, Jr.
Lawler is the most physically gifted Cal pass-catcher, and he’s just getting started in his evolution. The former touted recruit took a big step toward fulfilling expectations in 2014 by making 54 receptions for 701 yards and nine touchdowns, which were all team-highs. The 6-3, 195-pound budding star will create matchup problems with his length, speed and leaping ability. And he’s shown a penchant for channeling his inner Odell Beckham Jr. by making acrobatic, one-handed grabs. Lawler has an All-Pac-12 ceiling in 2015.
4. WR Bryce Treggs, Sr.
Treggs has enjoyed a solid career in Strawberry Canyon, catching 150 passes over three years. But he’s yet to truly break out, which the Bears hope will happen this season. He’s been a possession receiver from “H”, rarely stretching the defense or snapping off long gains after the catch. Last season, for example, Treggs’ 52 receptions went for only 583 yards and six touchdowns. At 5-11 and 185 pounds, he’s among the smallest of the receivers, yet also runs great routes and rarely drops balls.
5. WR Stephen Anderson, Sr.
Arriving at Cal without a scholarship has not prevented Anderson from becoming an integral part of the passing game. In fact, he was one of the nation’s most productive former walk-ons a year ago, catching 46 passes for 661 yards and five touchdowns in only 10 games. And of all the quality Bear receivers, he was the only one named honorable mention All-Pac-12. At 6-3 and 230 pounds, Anderson has ideal size and strength to get the inside on defenders from his slot position.
6. OG Chris Borrayo, Jr.
Borrayo is Cal’s best blocker and one of the most underrated offensive linemen in the Pac-12. He brings a nastiness and a certain physicality to the Bear front wall that’s been especially beneficial to the team’s ground game. The 6-3, 305-pound Borrayo has a tremendous will to succeed, and the heavy hands of a former wrestling champion. He’s beginning to get noticed, earning honorable mention All-Pac-12 as a sophomore.
7. LB Michael Barton, Jr.
The fact that the linebackers were the least offensive part of the 2014 D had a lot to do with the emergence of Barton as a playmaker. He picked up where he left off at the end of a strong rookie year to lead Cal with 80 stops and 7.5 tackles for loss. Barton is a stout 6-0, 230-pounder who’ll sift through traffic before lowering the boom on opposing backs. While it’s tough to generate a buzz on this defense, he’s capable of 100 tackles and All-Pac-12 honorable mention in 2015.
8. DT Mustafa Jalil, Sr.
The Bear front wall can use a few more space-eaters like Jalil. For now, the team is just happy that No. 90 is in Berkeley for one final year. Jalil was named Cal’s Most Valuable Lineman in 2014. He was one of just two defenders to start all 12 games, while setting career-highs with 35 tackles and 5.5 stops behind the line. Jalil is explosive for his size, 6-3 and 300 pounds, which is finally being realized now that old knee and foot injuries have been rehabbed.
9. LB Hardy Nickerson, Jr.
Nickerson was born to play linebacker. The son of the former Pro Bowler by the same name has been a part-time starter in each of his first two seasons, yet has consistently been among the Bears’ most active defenders. Despite starting just half of last year’s games, Nickerson was third on the team with 69 tackles. At 6-0 and 225 pounds, he’s a safety-sized middle linebacker, using his range and keen instincts to get to plays that other Bears cannot.
10. DE Kyle Kragen, Sr.
Kragen is healthy again, a relief for a front seven that needs his pass rushing skills this season. The former Diablo Valley (Calif.) College transfer came down with mononucleosis last year and never played a down. It was a derailment for the high-energy defender who had a team-high three sacks in his 2013 debut. Kragen made the most of his year away from the field, strengthening his 6-2, 245-pound frame, and looked in the spring as if he might lead the Bears in sacks again in 2015.
11. DT James Looney, Soph.
Cal is eager to unleash Looney, who’s poised to become one of the team’s breakout surprises on defense in 2015. After transferring from Wake Forest, he sat out last fall and routinely abused his teammates on the scout team. Looney is already slotted in next to Mustafa Jalil in the starting lineup, where he’s expected to be the unit’s gap-buster. The sophomore is a powerful, 6-3, 285-pounder, yet also has the quickness and the motor to chase the opposition down from behind. He’ll be fun to watch over the next three years.
12. LB Jalen Jefferson, Sr.
On a defense that’s sorely lacking in consistency, Jefferson has been one of the unit’s more dependable parts over the last three years. He’s been a regular contributor at strongside, making 58 stops in 2014, including 6.5 tackles behind the line and a pair of sacks. And he’s bulked up to 6-2 and 235 pounds since the end of last season, which will bring much-needed muscle and run-stopping ability to the Cal linebacker corps. Jefferson has played at weakside this offseason, where he’s battling to win a job.