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July 14, 2013

First Look: Cal

July may only be halfway finished, but it is never too early to start dissecting the teams Northwestern will face this fall. In the first of a series of previews of Northwestern's upcoming opponents, WildcatReport talked with Grant Marek of GoldenBearReport. He helps break down a team that has experienced a lot of change coming off of a disappointing 3-9 season in 2012.

Sonny Dykes takes over the head coaching spot for Cal after Jeff Tedford was fired following several disappointing seasons. What is the general sentiment in Berkeley right now? Is there a feeling that it was time for a change? And is Dykes the right man for the job?

Grant Marek: Uhhhhhh, yes. After turning around a dismal Cal football program in just his first season (from 1-10 to 7-5), Jeff Tedford brought Cal to national prominence, made the Bears a fixture in the AP poll for several years (including as high as a No. 2 ranking), beat Stanford in seven of his first eight Big Games, and produced some of the program's most visible talent in the pros (see: Aaron Rodgers, Marshawn Lynch, DeSean Jackson). But he was a victim of his own successes: in the last three years Tedford went 5-7, 7-6, and 3-9, with just one bowl game appearance (a loss to Texas), after reeling off seven in his first eight years. Simply put, the 2010-2012 Jeff Tedford couldn't live up to 2002-2009 Jeff Tedford. He wasn't the same coach he was when he took over the program or when he brought the Bears into the national conversation, he'd lost his touch as a quarterback guru (see: Zach Maynard), and he'd lost pretty much the entire fan base.

There's a lot to like about Sonny Dykes: he's giving the program back to the fans, opening up Spring practices that Tedford had closed, he's doing (especially in recruiting) and saying (especially during Spring Ball) all of the right things when it comes to the APR mess left behind by Tedford, and he brings to Berkeley the No. 1 scoring offense in the country from Louisiana Tech. So win or lose, the team should at least put up some points.

It's honestly hard to say at this point if he's the right man for the job though, considering he hasn't coached a down in Berkeley. Working for him: the talent is certainly there for him to pull a similar miracle to what Tedford pulled in his first season at the helm. And while he doesn't have offensive or defensive continuity coming in (Cal will switch to the "BearRaid" on offense and 4-3 on defense), he does have a ton of continuity when it comes to his coaching staff, at least on the offensive side of the ball -- every single coach on offense is essentially a holdover from LaTech. Working against him: I think there are serious depth issues he'll have to address in the secondary and the backfield and also one of the toughest schedules in the country.

When a program brings in a new head coach, there are often large-scale changes. What sort of system is Dykes expected to introduce, both offensively and defensively, and how is the transition process going?

GM: See: answer above. But let's get into the offense and defense a little more. Unlike Tedford's scheme-based offense which utilized a phonebook-sized playbook with 500 (!!!) signals, Dykes' is incredibly simple and took just three practices this Spring to install. The base offense is only around 20 plays, which rely entirely on timing, speed (LaTech ran 87.8 plays per game last season, 23 more than Alabama), and execution.

The question is whether the Bears can run it effectively at that clip in year one, especially with a first-year starting quarterback who will likely either be a true freshman (Jared Goff) or redshirt freshman (Zach Kline), and close to two dozen players returning from Spring (and pre-Spring) injuries. It took two full years at Louisiana Tech before they were flying around, it took a little less than that before Arizona was. Either way, it's not something that happens overnight (or probably in Dykes' case, eight months).

Defensively, Andy Buh will switch the Bears to a 4-3, that, like Dykes' and Tony Franklin's offense, will simplify things, focusing more on being a Wisconsin-esque sound defense. From talking to the players, I don't think the defensive transition will be a challenge, but the Bears' depth on the defensive line and secondary could very well be.

The Bears don't return a single quarterback who took a snap last season and have lost other important pieces, as well. How big is this quarterback issue as Cal heads toward the season, and which other positions lost key players to graduation?

GM: I really wouldn't call it an issue. I think either Jared Goff or Zach Kline are going to be world's better than Zach Maynard was last year (who, remember, was behind center in part because his half-brother Keenan Allen -- now a San Diego Charger -- wanted him there). Dykes expects to have the starter named by practice No. 12 in the Fall. Assuming Goff puts on some weight (he was 185lbs during the Spring), I think they'll both have a great shot at the starting gig. Whoever it is, there's plenty of talent in the receiving corps (I think it might be one of the best in the conference even without Allen) for them to be successful, especially with three home games to start the season.

The Bears lose their entire starting backfield in CJ Anderson and Isi Sofele, but I think a healthy Brendan Bigelow is more talented than either. Along with crazy fast incoming frosh Khalfani Muhammad (who ran a faster 100-meter dash than Jahvid Best this track season), I think the Bears will actually have a more productive backfield this year, but ONLY if they're healthy. Bigelow is still recovering from an offseason knee surgery.

Brian Schwenke is a big loss on the offensive line, as are Kendrick Payne and Aaron Tipoti on the defensive, but I think they're all replaceable. The bigger losses in my mind will be Josh Hill, Marc Anthony, and Allen's new Charger teammate Steve Williams. That's three quarters of Cal's starting defensive backfield.

While there will certainly be a lot of change for Cal in the coming months, there is some holdover from the Tedford era. Where can fans look for some solid, reliable talent that was on Cal's roster in 2012? Likewise, are there any incoming freshmen who are expected to make an immediate impact?

GM: I'll give you four pairs of names:

1) Man mountain Freddie Tagaloa, the Bears new starting left tackle, and the man he'll be opening holes for next season, Bigelow (see above). We only got glimpses of Tagaloa last year, but the sophomore is all of the 6'8, 350-pounds he's listed at and I'd expect him to absolutely eat up pass rushers on the left side.

2) DeAndre Coleman, who opted not to go pro and should see enough double teams to make some room for guys like Diablo Valley College JC transfer Kyle Kragen.

3) Khiari Fortt and Nick Forbes. Fortt transferred from Penn State and is a physical specimen. Both look incredibly comfortable in Andy Buh's new system this Spring. I'd expect them to be the rocks for this new 4-3 defense.

4) Bryce Treggs and Chris Harper. Expect them to be the Quinton Pattons of this offense.

Finally, what sort of expectations can be set for the Cal Bears in 2013? With a new coach, new quarterback and new schemes, what is the standard for a successful season in Dykes' first year?

GM: 7-5.

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