* First in a series of stories previewing the 2022 Cal Golden Bears
My task here is to identify the strengths and weaknesses of the Cal football team that opens its season Saturday at home against UC Davis.
It seemed like a good idea at the time.
But categorizing this team’s strengths and weaknesses is tricky. There are so many new pieces, so many moving parts, that pigeonholing them is not easy.
For example, was the Bears’ defensive line a strength? It certainly came closer to that when Brett Johnson, perhaps Cal’s best player, was expected to anchor the line after returning from a season-long absence following a car accident and hip surgery.
Johnson is now out of season with an undisclosed lower body that isn’t related to his hip, upsetting the equation of how we should assess the D-line.
Regardless, bear with me as I strive to establish three strengths and three weaknesses the Bears face:
— INTERNAL SUPPORTER: This one is easy. The arrival of Washington transfer Jackson Sirmon, an All-Pac-12 preseason pick who was reunited with his father, defensive coordinator Peter Sirmon, and the return of promising sophomore Femi Oladejo is just the starting point. departure here. Nate Rutchena and Trey Paster had unexpectedly productive seasons in 2021, with junior Muelu Iosefa having 55 tackles.
In all, those five players combined to record 243 tackles last year while playing at Berkeley or Seattle. Without much arguing, this is the Bears’ best position group.
— WIDE RECEIVER/TIGHT END: This requires an act of faith. Only one of Cal’s top seven pass receivers returns from a year ago. BUT junior wide receiver Jeremiah Hunter, who averaged 18.5 yards on 21 receptions in 2021, looks like a potential star.
The rest of this group has more potential than evidence so far.
Redshirt first-year wide receivers J.Michael Sturdivant and Mavin Anderson and second-year tight ends Jermaine Terry III and Keleki Latu combined for five receptions a year ago, but all four provide speed or size, two things Cal lacked. in this area a year ago, and all four should bloom nicely.
Then there’s Mason Starling, who is 6-foot-4 and caught 19 TD passes in two college seasons. Tommy Christakos, also 6-4, appeared repeatedly last spring and during fall training camp.
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— SECONDARY DEFENSIVE: Quietly, this has been a Cal strength for most of coach Justin Wilcox’s tenure. The proof came on draft day, where four times in the past three years an NFL team picked a Cal DB.
Elijah Hicks is the latest to turn pro, but Cal’s secondary still features preseason All-Pac-12 safety Daniel Scott and cornerback Lu-Magia Hearns, who was good enough as a true freshman. to work his way into the starting lineup for half a season.
The coaching staff believes the combination of Miles Williams and Craig Woodson will provide an answer at the other safety spot, with junior Collin Gamble filling the other corner spot after starting eight games a year ago.
— OFFENSIVE LINE: As much as the Bears’ strengths are projections, we’re also waiting to see if the revamped offensive front can pull it off. The coaching staff touts more depth and there are two solid pieces in center Matthew Cindric and tackle Ben Coleman.
But three starters from a year ago are gone, including two originally expected to return: guard McKade Mettauer (traded to Oklahoma) and tackle Will Craig (retired). As Wilcox talks about in the video at the beginning of this story, there is inexperience here.
New quarterback Jack Plummer appears to be a solid replacement for Chase Garbers, but he doesn’t have the same mobility and if the line can’t protect him or open up lanes for the running game, the rest won’t matter.
— OUTSIDE SUPPORTER: This translates into concerns about the Bears’ quarterback pressure. Cameron Goode brought that quality to the defense in recent years, with 20.5 career sacks from him among his 36.5 tackles for loss.
The Bears also got a nice boost last season from Texas transfer Marqez Bimage and are hoping to get similar contributions from UCLA dropout Odua Isibor. Coaches have talked about him, but with the Bruins he totaled just nine tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks in four seasons.
Veteran Braxten Croteau got leaner — and presumably faster — in the offseason, and Utah transfer Xavier Carlton can play both end and OLB. But we’re also wondering if we could see someone from the deepest ILB group moved overseas before the season gets too far ahead.
– DEFENSIVE LINE: Yes, I had to get back to this. Johnson would have given the Bears a versatile force up front, but without him, Cal will rely on a variety of players with far less impressive credentials.
Ricky Correia should be solid at nose tackle and junior end Ethan Saunders has some experience. But Jaedon Roberts, Darius Long and Gunnar Rask have a combined nine career tackles, and Akili Calhoun and Nate Burrell have never played in a college game.
Could this position group be what the Bears think they have at wide receiver: inexperienced but talented? Maybe, but we’re going to need to see some evidence.
Cover photo of Cal’s new inside linebacker Jackson Sirmon with his father, defensive coordinator Peter Sirmon by Kyle McRae, Cal Athletics
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