New Cal coach brings defensive mindset

Aug 18, 2017 - 2:37 PM The phrase "Bear Raid" had become synonymous with Cal football in recent years.

Sonny Dykes, the Golden Bears' head coach for the past four seasons, brought an offensive mindset and his Air Raid offense to Berkeley. It paid off in year three, when quarterback and eventual No. 1 NFL draft pick Jared Goff powered Cal to a winning record and a victory over Air Force in the Armed Forces Bowl.

But along the way, the Cal defense was serviceable at best, and for the most part, completely incapable of stopping the run. That's where Justin Wilcox comes in.

Wilcox, Cal's first-year head coach, is the former defensive coordinator at Wisconsin, USC, Washington, Tennessee and Boise State.

"It's going to look a lot different," senior linebacker Raymond Davison said. "A lot of people are going to be pleasantly surprised. ... My expectations are high. If I'm a Cal fan, I'd look forward to watching this defense this year."

Cal certainly has a long way to go. Throughout last season, the Golden Bears remained in the bottom three in the nation in run defense, allowing 6 yards per carry to opponents who happily ran all over them. Cal ranked 125th in total defense, 127th in scoring defense and 122nd in yards allowed per play, out of 128 FBS teams.

That led to a 5-7 record, and Dykes' third losing season in four campaigns. Wilcox, meanwhile, oversaw a Badgers defense that was seventh in total defense and fourth in scoring.

"Sometimes change is the best thing," senior cornerback Darius Allensworth said.

"When there's change you can't do anything about the change other than embrace it. So we embraced the change and we're ready to get behind Coach Wilcox and have him lead us to the promised land."

While Cal's players might not miss the approach of seasons past, they'll certainly miss last year's quarterback, Davis Webb. Webb, a third-round pick of the New York Giants, threw for 4,295 yards, with 37 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. His top receiver, Chad Hansen, is also gone after amassing 92 catches for 1,249 yards and 11 touchdowns.

A quarterback battle has ensued between Chase Forest and Ross Bowers, but neither threw a pass last season. Freshman Chase Garbers might also factor into the discussion, and Wilcox has not said when he'll name a starter.

Whoever takes the reins will have to stay vigilant in the pocket, as Cal returns just one starter to the offensive line. Skill-position weapons are there, in receiver Demetris Robertson and tailbacks Tre Watson and Vic Enwere, but Cal's offense needs time to grow.

Unfortunately, Cal doesn't have cupcake games early on to allow them to have growing pains and still win. The Golden Bears open on the road against North Carolina, a team that played in a bowl game last year, on Sept. 2. Two weeks later (Sept. 16), Cal hosts SEC's Mississippi, and the week after that, the Golden Bears entertain one of the top teams in the nation in USC (Sept. 23).

"We've made significant strides but we have to continue to do that," said Wilcox, who spent the last 11 seasons as a defensive coordinator. "We're not where we need to be."

MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: LB Devante Downs -- As Cal transitions to becoming a defense-first team, senior leaders like Downs will have to shepherd the younger players through and be a sounding board for Wilcox. Downs is especially vital as an inside linebacker, and he has to help stop the bleeding in the run defense. Downs posted a team-high 83 tackles last season, with 3.5 tackles for a loss, two sacks, one interception and two pass deflections. Downs and Davison have to be the faces of the Cal defense, if it wants to see tangible progress under coach Justin Wilcox in 2017.

BREAKOUT STAR: WR Demetris Robertson -- Robertson was a relatively late signing by then-coach Sonny Dykes in spring 2016, but getting this five-star prospect was a huge get for the program. The speedy, versatile wide receiver put up 50 catches for 767 yards and seven touchdowns last season, as the second-most productive receiver behind Chad Hansen. Now, Hansen is gone, and Robertson is going to be a beloved target of whomever becomes Cal's starting quarterback.

NEWCOMER TO WATCH: CB Elijah Hicks -- While quarterback Chase Garbers is Cal's top-ranked recruit for 2017, Hicks is at a vital position and has the best chance to make an immediate impact. Hicks, who's from La Mirada in Southern California, is a former Notre Dame commit who also drew offers from Michigan, USC, UCLA and many more. He delivered in the spring game, with three pass break-ups and one interception, and is listed as one of three players sharing the starting spot at one cornerback position on the preseason depth chart. "He is a versatile athlete and we expect him to be a key member of this recruiting class," coach Justin Wilcox said.

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