Cal is off to a 4-0 start and sits at No. 15 in the nation after coming off a bowl appearance last season. To learn more about what’s gone right in Berkeley this year, we asked Robert Hwang of Cal’s SBNation site Golden Blogs a few questions about the team.
Andrew Bell: Cal is off to a hot start. What has been the biggest thing that the team has done to create some early season buzz?
Robert Hwang: The defense is playing as well as we expected them to. There was a lot of buzz from last season and with the returning members and new additions, it made sense the hype surrounding them grew as it got closer to the season, and boy did they not disappoint. I said on our season prediction podcast that the defense might be better but statistically worse. That’s kind of how its played out so far. Our numbers across the stats are high especially total yards given up, but we’ve become a bend not break defense and the game planning has been stellar so far without opening up too many of the wrinkles and packages through the first four games. There’s room for improvement and also some surprises in store for the rest of our Pac-12 opponents.
AB: Who is one player on offense and defense that Sun Devil fans should know about?
RW: Defensively, the usual suspects would be LB Evan Weaver and S Ashtyn Davis so I’m going to go with someone a little different. DL Brett Johnson. The Arizona native took the opportunity to play NG, due to some off the field issues with our two starting nose guards, and ran with it. He looks to have that position locked up. Listed at 6-5 & 285 lbs, he doesn’t look like a freshman when he is lined up on the line. His long term position should be at DE, but he was too good in fall camp that the coaching staff did not even get the chance to consider redshirting him. Rivals Ralph Amsden has said he thought that Johnson was the best player in the state last season and so far? He looks to be the crown jewel of the 2019 recruiting class for the Bears.
Offensively, you have to go with WR Kekoa Crawford. The Michigan transfer came into a unit that was severely depleted due to departures and needed immediate impact. Crawford looked to struggle through camp to find his place in the offense and working through the playbook, but after the UC Davis game, he has cemented himself as one the best WRs we have and a very good player with the ball in his hands. Look for him to the be the matchup against Chase Lucas for the majority of the game.
AB: What do you consider this team’s biggest strength and weakness?
RW: The strength has to be experience across the team as a whole. We’re replacing some key guys but that doesn’t mean we are replacing them with true freshman. Jordan Kunaszyk, who is now with the Panthers, is replaced by #1 JUCO LB Kuony Deng (You can see him on the latest season of Last Chance U). The WRs, as I said above, are replaced by two upperclassmen transfers in Kekoa Crawford and Trevon Clark.
Weakness has to be the depth across the line both on offense and defense. The Bears lost starting LT Will Craig for the season early on and his replacement in Valentino Daltoso has missed the last two games due to injury. That left a walk-on senior in Henry Bazakas to play, with guys being moved around everywhere. On the defensive line, not having nose guards Siu Fuimaono and Aaron Maldonado has forced the Bears to move guys from the edge inside with the likes of Luc Bequette and Lone Toailoa. In terms of the edge, Cal currently is without starting OLB/DEs in Tevin Paul and Cam Goode for the last two games. Both Goode and Paul practiced all last week and suited up against Ole Miss, but were gametime scratches. Getting the two of them back will go a long way to add much-needed bodies to spell everyone across the line.
AB: Justin Wilcox is in the early tenure of his time at Cal. What has been the perception of him as a coach, and how are people feeling about where the program is heading?
RW: It’s been great, he’s built upon the culture that Sonny Dykes helped lay the foundations for which is great academics with great athletics. Coach Wilcox is pushing that without a doubt. The fans across the board are happy with what he’s done and how much he’s changed the style of football here and the competitive edge the team plays with since his first year here. It’s an upward trajectory that has some fans may be expecting a little too much right now after this weeks ranking and 4-0 record. The only qualm fans might have with him was the decision to retain OC Beau Baldwin after the abysmal offense last season and the overall recruiting track record with a lack of 4-star & 5-star prospects. Winning will help both parts of that and hopefully, this season puts us back on the map with some of the higher tier recruits.
AB: Score prediction?
Tough one. I’ve been doing a prediction with my head and my heart for every Q&A and I guess I’ll do the same here.
Head: Cal loses 20-14
Heart: Cal wins 27-17