Checking in with Cal

Ryan Gorcey joins for a guest Q&A before Saturday's season opener.

PurpleWildcats: What's the vibe surrounding this Cal team? Northwestern continues to look at your spring game tape and old Louisiana Tech film hoping for clues. What can NU expect from Cal? And on a different note, what do Golden Bears fans expect will be the outcome of this season opener?

Ryan Gorcey: Well, since my subscribers have been clamoring for my prediction, I'll start with that: 35-27 Bears. I think that the biggest factor in this game are the fact that, while the Wildcats may have seen the scheme, and they may have seen the athletes, they haven't seen these athletes run this scheme. This isn't a team with Louisiana Tech's level of talent. This is a team that's been a fixture on the "done the least with the most" lists for the past several years. You have a Biletnikoff Award Watch List receiver in Chris Harper, with a former five-star in Bryce Treggs on the other side. You have a trio of elite backs in Brendan Bigelow, Daniel Lasco and Khalfani Muhammad – a two-time state champ in the 100m, the 200m and the 4x100 relay.

Head coach Sonny Dykes has said outright that he doesn't care if the spring game or the film from Louisiana Tech is out there for Pat Fitzgerald. No one has seen this offense run by these kinds of athletes before.

If the offense runs with the rhythm and efficiency it ran with in Ruston, La., the Bears are going to be getting plays off anywhere between every eight to 12 seconds. If the offense gets rolling, it's very, very difficult to stop. Cal will run and pass with equal frequency, so this isn't a typical spread-it-out team. Tailbacks are just as much a threat to catch and run as the inside and outside receivers.

The second biggest factor is the kickoff time. The Bears will have time during the day to collect themselves, while the Wildcats are going to be a big jetlagged. Practicing at 9 p.m. every night may help them get ready for the under-the-lights dynamic, but I can't imagine it's done much to help their sleep schedules.

The one factor that gives me pause is the secondary. Beyond Stefan McClure and Kameron Jackson, there are very, very few corners with any kind of game experience, and even fewer who have stuck out at all this fall camp. Cedric Dozier has come on these past few days, and he looks to be one of the first two corners off the bench – along with Adrian Lee – in case either McClure or Jackson needs to come out. That said, neither is nearly on the same level as the two starters.

As far as safeties, Avery Sebastian suffered a horrifying concussion in the 12th day of camp during a collision with tailback Jeffrey Coprich, and was taken to the hospital. Luckily for both players, it was only a concussion, and nothing more serious for either of them. Sebastian's recovery has been pretty remarkable, and against all odds, it looks like he'll start at free safety on Saturday, alongside run-stopper Michael Lowe at strong safety.

Beyond those two, redshirt freshman Damariay Drew has flashed a bit at free safety, and he's improving every day, but he's no Sebastian – at least, not yet. Alex Logan – who's coverage issues caused him to drop his starting job to Sebastian last year – is a capable backup, but for all his athleticism, he won't blow your socks off. Beyond the first four defensive backs, this unit is very, very thin. Neither of the freshmen DBs the Bears brought in – Darius Allensworth and Cameron Walker – have looked particularly good this fall (though both are coming off injuries), and their fellow freshman Damariay Drew is still on the shelf with a hamstring injury. The lack of depth has necessitated the conversion of former receiver Joel Willis to corner (which is no stretch, as he played on both sides of the ball in high school) and former outside linebacker Jason Gibson to safety (and he's done well, getting up to the second unit in just two weeks' time).

PW: Take NU fans through the process of Jared Goff earning the starter's role at quarterback. What unique qualities does this true freshman bring to the table, and are there any concerns with how he'll fare against an improved Wildcats secondary?

RG: Simply put, Goff was named the starter because he's incredibly dependable, and shows less emotion than a Vulcan. His father was a Major League catcher (and a former Cal third baseman, as well as a current firefighter), and that sense of calm under pressure, apparently, is genetic. In the spring game, Goff was the quarterback who handed the ball off to Marshawn Lynch, and while afterwards he was certainly excited, anyone who doesn't know him would have thought he was plain bored.

That unflappability showed itself during fall camp, when he only threw one interception. While cannon-armed redshirt freshman Zach Kline is perhaps the more exciting option, he depends too much on that big arm of his, and tries to throw receivers open, rather than checking down to a safer option. Goff's default setting is to look for the quick, safe throw, which is what this offense is built on. Those quick, 5-8 yard passes to receivers in space are what get the offense rolling, and then, after the defense is worn down by a 10-play drive, that's when you see the big bombs. On Wednesday, Goff hit a mammoth 70-yarder, so his arm strength isn't anything to sneeze at.

One other aspect of Goff's game that sets him apart from Kline is the fact that he can move. He doesn't blink when under pressure in a collapsing pocket, and is more than comfortable on the run. He's not your typical dual-threat guy – there's no question he's a throw-first quarterback – but he's quick-footed and elusive. After watching him in high school and during fall camp, I don't think I've ever seen him take a direct hit on the run. Any contact comes on glancing blows. He can get himself skinny really quickly, and shimmies through small gaps. While Kline maybe would try to force a ball into double coverage when pressured, Goff can step up and make yards with his legs.

PW: You mentioned interior run control as the surprise weak link to this Golden Bears team. How can defensive coordinator Andy Buh slow down the rushing attack from NU, and which players can step up in that effort?

RG: Earlier this week – and at the end of fall camp, to be honest – the interior defensive line was a bit dinged up. Since getting gashed up the middle for about two days, though, the foursome of Viliami Moala, DeAndre Coleman, Mustafa Jalil and Gabe King has become much stronger. The defensive line is perhaps the deepest unit of the entire team, save for wide receiver. Beyond those four, former tight end Harrison Wilfley has been quite a pleasant surprise on the interior. On the outside, even if the Bears don't have the services of defensive end Brennan Scarlett (hand), the cupboard is far from bare.

6-foot-6 Chris McCain is to passing lanes as a steady diet of bacon double cheeseburgers is to arteries. He's big, he's fast and he's active, from both sides of the line. Right now, redshirt senior Dan Camporeale is listed as the starting defensive end opposite McCain, but it's hard to think that either JuCo transfer Kyle Kragen (huge motor, mean streak at least a mile wide) or Puka Lopa (who's seen more time with the first-team than he ever has since he arrived in Berkeley) won't be rotated in rather liberally.

The biggest help for the defense against the Wildcats' multifaceted running game will be the linebacking corps. Last year, SAM backer Jalen Jefferson really broke out as a heady, dependable leader because of injuries, and he's taken that starting role and run with it. He fits run gaps better than just about any other Cal linebacker I've seen in recent years, and plays way older than he is. Penn State transfer Khairi Fortt is also a big piece in the second level, and has been effective both in coverage and in stopping the run. Both linebackers have very good sideline-to-sideline speed, and as the week's worn on, they've shown more of a propensity to stretch plays out to the sideline and hold the edge, which is something the Bears have struggled with in the past.

I'm saving probably the best linebacker for last: redshirt freshman Hardy Nickerson, Jr. The son of Cal and NFL great -- Oakland (Calif.) Bishop O'Dowd head coach -- Hardy, Sr., Nickerson absolutely has his old man's football IQ. While redshirt junior Nick Forbes was knocked out over a week ago due to back issues, Buh had said even before then that the younger linebacker could probably wind up stealing the job.

PW: Who are some of the major names NU fans should watch for on Saturday? Which guys will be crucial factors in helping Cal try for an upset to open the Sonny Dykes era?

RG: The first has to be redshirt sophomore cornerback McClure. After spending 20 months on the shelf due to a Terrible Triad injury (ACL, MCL and Meniscus), McClure is perhaps the smartest defender Cal has. He spent his year off on the sidelines, with a headset, learning how and why things work – or don't work – on defense. This fall, he's been absolutely money. There isn't a single receiver on the roster who hasn't had trouble with him, including Harper and Treggs. I'd be more than comfortable putting his name in pen on a list of First Team All-Pac-12 players. He's physical, calculating, fast and battle tested. His first two games as a collegian were against Oregon and USC, and against the Trojans, he all but put Robert Woods on his own little island.

I briefly mentioned Daniel Lasco earlier, and his name bears repeating. While Bigelow is most certainly the most dynamic and the most elusive, and while Muhammad is unquestionably the fastest back, Lasco has the rare combination of speed and power to go along with a wheelbarrow full of intestinal fortitude. He's deceptively fast and runs like he's got a stick of dynamite up his hind end. He's not afraid to take contact, or, more accurately, blow through that contact. One skill he has above and beyond the other two is his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield and make some hay with it. He's one of the few backs that hasn't had a drop or a botched pitch over the past several weeks, and once he turns the corner, he's very difficult to put down because of his acceleration and the attitude with which he runs.

PW: As for the head coach, how does the fan base feel about the hire? Aside from the signature "Bear Raid" offense, what are some elements that define his style and coaching outlook?

RG: One thing you'll see that probably is a bit unfamiliar is the use of the "bone" – or diamond -- formation. There are a few variants to it. First: The standard bone, consisting of the center at the top point of the diamond, the quarterback in the middle, flanked by a fullback-type body on one side (usually Lucas Gingold) and a tight end-type body on the other (usually Jacob Wark) with a skill position player in back. It's like the pistol with wings. The second variation is something we've dubbed the "super jumbo bone." That species of bone has two tight end-types flanking the QB (usually Wark and Richard Rodgers). The third is the "speed bone" which has three skill position players surrounding the QB. The beauty of this formation is that you can do a lot with it.

The bone formation forces the defense to make a choice about where to put its second safety. If the safety commits to the run, then the quarterback can pass to any of the three players in the backfield, or to the two wide receivers. If the safety commits to the pass, the quarterback himself can run, as can each of the three other players in the formation. Beyond that, Cal has used quarterback-turned-receiver Kyle Boehm as the center of the bone formation just about anywhere on the field, and he can run the ball very effectively, or go with a long pass, a jump pass or a dump-off.

Another defining element of the Tony Franklin System – named for the Bears' offensive coordinator – is the speed. As I mentioned earlier, when this offense is rolling, we'll see Cal lining up 8-14 seconds after every play. Whether they get a play off in 8-14 seconds is where this offense can start playing tricks on you, because, like any good pitcher, they also have some good off-speed stuff and will change the pace to throw the defense off. We saw that kind of pace really in full flower during the team's second fall scrimmage. Remember: Against Texas A&M last year, the Bulldogs got off over 100 plays in regulation. It's not a complicated system, but if it's run efficiently, it's a freight train.

As for the reactions to Dykes from the fanbase, it's been almost universally positive. Towards the end of his tenure, former head coach Jeff Tedford treated the football program as his own, personal fiefdom, cloistered away in his fortress on the hill. One of the first promises Dykes made when he was hired was that he was going to give the program back to the people – to the fans, the students, the alumni and the school. He's opened practices, allowed unprecedented media access and is incredibly open as far as injuries and scheme.

The way he's running the program at once brings to mind the way Pete Carroll ran USC years ago – You can see everything we have, and we're still going to beat you – but at second glance, he also runs a very, very demanding program, as far as academics and citizenship are concerned. Not a single player is academically ineligible after summer school. When players missed just a single class this spring, the entire team had to do up-downs, every five yards, up the field and back. He delivered ultimatums to his players about their academics in full view of the public and the media. If players missed study sessions or classes during summer, he had their faces put up on the video screens during conditioning for everyone to see. He's made these players accountable to one another, to the staff, to the fans and to the school. There's one set of rules for everyone, as opposed to the several sets of rules Tedford had when it came to his stars or some of his other favorites in his final years.

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