Beavs vs. Bears: Q&A

SHOULD BEAVER FANS BE worried about an upset in Berkeley? What's the deal with the new Bear Raid offense? How about delving into the Cal d-line, linebackers and defensive backs? We turned to Cal insider Ryan Gorcey for answers to those questions and more.

BF.C: The media has mostly been writing Cal off in general and Las Vegas has installed Oregon State as an 11-point favorite. What are the chances in your view Cal comes out firing and pulls off the upset?

Gorcey: That's a big ‘if.' At times this season, the Bears have been very sharp on offense, very sharp on defense and very sharp on special teams. Unfortunately, the only one of those three that's any king of consistent is special teams. Last week at UCLA, you saw a pounding, 21-play drive end in a fumble at the goal line by Jared Goff. For the first time this year, the defense didn't allow a touchdown on the opening possession, but the offense then went three-and-out. If both the offense and defense actually play in concert, this would be a very dangerous team, but they each do a lot of things to beat themselves, as you'd expect from a very young team, and a team that's lost most of its older leadership to injury.

BF.C: For Beaver fans who haven't followed Cal that closely in Sonny Dykes' first year, describe Dyke's offense in a nutshell and what's worked, and not worked, in Year 1, and if you're you surprised Cal hasn't tried to run more.

Gorcey: Back at Louisiana Tech, it was Dykes who essentially force-fed a running plan to Tony Franklin, and it worked, turning the Air Raid into something much more balanced. In two of the pair's three years there, they had 1,000-yard rushers.

Cal has had to turn to the long pass more and more often and earlier and earlier this season because the run game – sometimes due to a young and injury-depleted line, sometimes due to poor downfield blocking by receivers and inside receivers not used to blocking in space, sometimes due to running backs not finishing their runs or hitting holes hard enough – has faltered. Franklin is very quick with the hook on an element of the game that's not working.

The problem is that this group is trying to teach a new system to players who had previously horked down an Encyclopaedia Britannica-sized Jeff Tedford playbook. While this system is much, much simpler, and much, much more nimble, the wholesale acceptance (and implementation) of the philosophy and buy-in take about a year, from what I understand, coming from talks with folks back in Ruston. The whole principle behind the offense is speed and quickness. Snap the ball every 9-14 seconds, get the defense on its heels with runs and short screens and quick timing routes, and then, once they're reeling, go for the knockout blow. We saw a cousin of this offense take about a year to really get a toe-hold in Pullman, Wash., when Mike Leach took the reins at Washington State, so, is it a shocker that this offense hasn't gotten rolling quicker? Not really, though, I will say, I'm surprised that it's been as inconsistent as it's been.

BF.C: Rate the Cal D-line, Linebackers and Defensive Backs on a scale of 1-10, with a sentence or three on how those units have fared the first half of the season? Does Cal mostly stay in their 4-3 base or will they switch some things up on defense?

Gorcey: Defensive line: 4. The problem here is that the starting rush end – Chris McCain – was dismissed (a long time coming, if you ask me), starting defensive end Brennan Scarlett has not played all year (and would have been a difference-maker, had his hand been healthy enough to get cleared) and projected starting tackle Mustafa Jalil just underwent surgery that assures he will not play a single down this season. That's a redshirt sophomore, a redshirt junior and a true junior all gone, and big redshirt senior Deandre Coleman not producing nearly to the level anyone expected of him. That said, Viliami Moala has finally come into his own and has started to fulfill the vast promise he came in with, and the D-line has finally started to get some consistent push up front.

Linebackers: 7. Probably the strongest unit on the defense, and, until the eve of the season, the deepest. Then, we saw David Wilkerson transfer to Arizona, Nathan Broussard go down with an ACL injury and redshirt junior Nick Forbes get shelved with a back issue that has limited him to just a few fourth-quarter snaps against UCLA that didn't look at all like the team's leading returning tackler. That said, Jalen Jefferson has been a rock, and the emergence of Khairi Fortt and Michael Barton has been a pleasant respite from the overall problems plaguing the defense. Hardy Nickerson has also gotten a trial by fire, and has come out the better for it at the MIKE.

Defensive backs: 2. This unit was paper-thin to begin with, and it's gotten thinner and thinner as the injuries have piled up. First it was starting safety Avery Sebastian who went down, then safety Alex Logan retired due to injury, then Michael Lowe went down briefly, then Kameron Jackson and Joel Willis each missed a game and then Stefan McClure went down for the season for the second time.

As for the defense as a whole, we've seen the wholesale abandonment of the nickel packages because of the paucity of defensive backs available. Occasionally you'll see a split down line with an open middle, but that's really the only kind of variety we've seen lately. There are more blitzes and stunts available, particularly with a more-or-less stationary quarterback, but again, this defense is fairly vanilla for the sake of all the youngsters who have been pressed into service.

BF.C: Where is QB Jared Goff, a rare true freshman starter at that position, in terms of his development?

Gorcey: At times, you can bet your bottom dollar he looks like a true freshman, but there are other times where he'll hit a quick timing route to the outside, drop a 40-yard bomb on a dime or check down to his third option that you just marvel at his ability. Will he make some freshman mistakes? Of course, but given the amount of times he's thrown the ball this year, it's not entirely a surprise. The thing that I'd love to see the staff do is take advantage of Goff's legs, but I don't think that can happen until the run game proper gets sorted out, and the line becomes more consistent.

BF.C: Is this a young team with a lot of promise, or is the rebuilding job at Cal potentially a lengthy one requiring several recruiting classes to fit Dykes' system – and how is recruiting going so far for the 2014 Cal class?

Gorcey: There is absolutely a ton of promise here. The weapons Goff has on the outside – Chris Harper and Bryce Treggs – are probably the best receiving duo in the conference, and true freshman tailback Khalfani Muhammad is the real deal as far as speed is concerned. When you take into account that 10 of the 11 projected defensive starters have gone down with injury, as have the starting center and right guard, and add in the fact that the Bears have played – in the first six weeks – Oregon, Ohio State, UCLA and Northwestern, and this is an absolutely suicidal year. But, the thing you don't see this team doing is moping about. Multiple players have told me that this is a FAR different one-win team than it was last year. This isn't a team that's given up at any point in any game, and once the injured players come back next year, the youngsters will have been through a fire that not many players their age will have gotten.

Recruiting for 2014 is a project at this point. The good thing is that the class is anchored by a few gung-ho prospects who see that playing for Cal will mean instant playing time in the defensive backfield, which just so happens to be the strength of this class, headed by four-star Jaleel Wadood, Koa Farmer and Quentin Tartabull. All three are freak athletes who could very well play right away in the secondary next year if needed. In fact, one of the players the Bears got late in the process last cycle – cornerback Cameron Walker – is already playing as a safety, a position he learned just three days before playing the Buckeyes and one he will continue to play – likely – through the rest of the season. He's gotten better every single day, and is really turning into quite a weapon in center field, with Sebastian on the shelf.

BF.C: Any other players on offense or defense you haven't mentioned that Beaver fans should watch for on Saturday, and talk a little about the Cal offensive line.

Gorcey: Richard Rodgers is a former true tight end, current inside receiver and occasional third-down-and-short back. We saw him get his first experience since his sophomore year of high school toting the rock against UCLA, and he was very effective, as he should be, at 6-foot-4, 245-pounds.

The offensive line is a sieve at this point, and a young one, at that. Other than returning starter Jordan Rigsbee at left guard, Cal is working with a fifth-year senior at center who's never played more than two games off the bench; a true sophomore left tackle who came into this year with tons of promise, but who's been fairly disappointing; a redshirt junior right guard with just four games of previous experience, subbing in for the injured redshirt freshman starter; and a redshirt freshman right tackle. Once this group (including starting center Chris Adcock and starting right guard Matt Cochran, both hurt) gel together for a year, this is going to be a very good unit, but right now, it's young and it's adjusting to a completely new way of doing business.

BF.C: When teams get mired in a losing streak and when the games aren't close as Cal has experienced their last four tilts, players can start dropping their heads and they become less resistant to adversity – is any of that happening with Cal at this stage?

Gorcey: Not at all. That's the biggest difference between this year's team and last year's. By this point last year, the players told me they had already quit on Tedford. They looked up at the scoreboard at Reser during the finale, and were dismayed to realize they had a whole second half to play, because they already felt defeated. That's not been the case at all this year, because there's hope, there's a sense of accountability throughout the program, from top to bottom, and there's a lot of energy from this coaching staff that wasn't there with the last one. The players believe in the system and they believe in this staff. Frankly, I think this year is going to make them better in the long run because of all the adversity they've had to face, because the leadership of this team is very strong. The biggest problem is that they're all on the sideline, on crutches.

BF.C: What's the temperature of Cal fans right now – are they mostly understanding, thinking it will take time with a new coaching staff and some more recruiting classes, or are they ticked off and shouting from the rooftops about the 1-5 mark.

The natives are restless. There are some wondering why Cal fired Tedford for this group. There are those comparing the season to the so-called Holmeo-caust (the 1-10 season in 2001). The fans who left in droves last season have largely stayed away after a promising opener against Northwestern where we got a taste of what this offense can be when it's really humming. Many only see the results, but seeing the program inside and out on a daily basis, there is hope in that locker room for the first time in years. The general ticket-buying public, though, is looking for those roofs, particularly after the Bears couldn't beat the Cougars at home two weeks ago in a game many had marked as a likely win.

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