The California football team is chomping at the bit to start the 2014 season. The Golden Bears are eager to prove the naysayers wrong in that the 2013 season is behind them and that things are going to be different this season.
The coaching staff was pleased with how hard the Bears practiced during spring ball, how committed they were to the summer workouts and how much they improved during fall training camp. With training camp now over and Cal having its sights set on Saturday’s season opener at Northwestern, second-year head coach Sonny Dykes said he’s feeling good about where his team is heading into the new campaign.
“We’ve had a good camp, our players had a great offseason,” Dykes said. “It all starts there. They’ve matured physically and mentally. We still have to keep getting better, but guys have worked really hard and they’ve had a great attitude. I’m anxious to see how we’re going to play.
“There is a lot better chemistry on our team and a much better culture than a year ago,” Dykes continued. “I like the way the guys are playing hard for each other. That’s been fun to see that happen. It’s been nice to see them work harder and pay more attention to the stuff that’s important. It’s always fun to watch teams go through that process. I like where this group is headed.”
Everything starts with leadership, and following the final practice of training camp on Aug. 23, Dykes announced the six team captains for this season – Lucus Gingold, Jared Goff, Daniel Lasco, Michael Lowe, Stefan McClure and Brennan Scarlett.
The bread and butter last year for Cal was the passing game, and that conversation has to start with sophomore standout quarterback Jared Goff. After setting a number or single-season and single-game records last year, Goff is focused on the task at hand of getting the program back to one of the best in the Pac-12.
Second-year offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Tony Franklin said he’d like to see Goff take the next leap with his game this year.
“He’s got a lot of talent and he’s competing well, and we’ve got a lot of guys behind him who are good,” Franklin said. “It’s like every other position. He’s got to go out and compete every day and prove that he’s the best guy to help us win.”
Franklin also tipped his cap to the two newcomers at the position – Luke Rubenzer and Chase Forrest. He said for two true freshmen who just joined the team at the start of training camp, they both had as good of camps as anybody’s he’s coached in the past.
The biggest improvement that Dykes and Franklin saw during training camp was the ability to run the ball. Franklin was happy with how running backs Khalfani Muhammad and Daniel Lasco improved during camp, as well as with the play of true freshmen running backs Tre Watson and Vic Enwere. Franklin likes having so many options for guys to plug in the backfield.
In order for the offense to be able to run the ball, it starts with the offensive line and Franklin definitely saw improvement with the line from a year ago.
“The biggest thing has been running the football,” Franklin said. “We have to run the football to win, and our offensive line has done a really good job of being more physical coming off the ball. That’s the biggest improvement we’ve had.”
Dykes stated having Chris Adcock back in the trenches after missing most of last season due to injury has really helped steady the line and bring more depth.
The depth is also strong at wide receiver. Three of Cal’s top four receivers are back from a year ago – Chris Harper, Kenny Lawler and Bryce Treggs. Not only those three, but Stephen Anderson, Trevor Davis, Maurice Harris and Darius Powe should all factor in and help Goff build upon his performance from a year ago.
The most refreshing aspect on the defensive side of the ball for first-year defensive coordinator Art Kaufman is having some key defenders back at his arsenal such as Brennan Scarlett, Stefan McClure and Mustafa Jalil. The efforts of Scarlett and Jalil have helped create a larger presence of consistency of the defensive line during camp, something Kaufman was very pleased to see.
“Up front we’ve developed some guys, and that’s been a big surprise since the spring,” Kaufman said. “The development of Trevor Kelly and Tony Mekari; those two both have had really good fall camps. Jalil, who I hadn’t seen anything from him prior to camp, and Austin Clark, those guys have been a big help for us.”
Kaufman isn’t the only one excited to see what formerly injured players from a year ago can do.
“Brennan Scarlett has worked really hard to get back and he’s had a great attitude,” Dykes said. “The guys really believe in him. Our safeties are two guys that people believe in. Stefan McClure has shown a lot of leadership and maturity. He’s had a tough time staying healthy here, but he’s had a great fall camp. He’s primed to have a good year. Michael Lowe has really turned into one of our more solid guys. It’s good when you have leadership start to take the team like that.”
Lowe has been one of the defensive standouts that both Dykes and Kaufman have praised. The experience of two veterans like Lowe, a senior, and McClure, a junior, at that position will be vital to the secondary.
With the departure of multiple starting and experienced linebackers from a year ago, combined with the season-ending injury suffered by Nathan Broussard during camp, Cal will look to junior Jalen Jefferson, sophomores Michael Barton and Hardy Nickerson, freshman Raymond Davison, and sophomore Jake Kearney to fill up the two-deep at the position.
According to Kaufman, true freshman Devante Downs could be somebody for fans to keep an eye on at linebacker, as well.
“Devante has shown flashes that he could be good,” Kaufman said. “Time will tell for him. He definitely is going to play. As he matures and learns the speed of the game, it depends on how fast he can learn that. He’s got the physical ability and the instincts. He’ll be in the mix, and he’ll be a good player once he can adjust to the speed of the game.”
Cal Poly transfer James Langford has won the placekicking job and will be seeing the field this season for the first time since joining Cal’s program in the spring of 2012. Cole Leininger returns as the team’s punter. The junior is on the preseason watch list for the Ray Guy Award.
The mood was positive, excited and upbeat throughout training camp at Kabam Field at California Memorial Stadium. The Bears are eager to show that things will be different this season. Still, Dykes said whether you have a successful season or tough one, you always want to put the previous year behind you when a new one is about to start.
“Every year is different,” Dykes said. “Even when you have a good year, you’re anxious to put that behind you and get back out there because every team is different. Hopefully we won’t have much carry over from last year. Our guys understand we’re in a different place than last year. We have to go out and prove it. I like our temperament. I like the work ethic. Now we just have to see how we handle adversity when it happens. Can we hold it together? Are the leaders going to lead? Are the followers going to follow? All of these are things that have to happen to give us a chance to be successful.”
Cal opens the 2014 season at Northwestern on Saturday, Aug.30, at 12:30 p.m. PT. on ABC/ESPN2.