CU opponent preview: Cal making progress under Justin Wilcox

  • Thearon W. Henderson / Getty Images

    Cal quarterback Ross Bowers started all 12 games last seeason but will face a quarterback competition this season.

  • Thearon W. Henderson / Getty Images

    California running back Patrick Laird is one of 10 returning starters for the Bears on offense.



California Golden Bears

Date with CU: Nov. 24, time TBA, at California Memorial Stadium

Head coach: Justin Wilcox, 2nd year (5-7)

Series: Cal leads 5-4

Golden Bears in 2017: 5-7, 2-7 Pac-12

Returning starters: 18 – 10 on offense, 8 on defense

Offensive players to watch (2017 statistics): LG Kamryn Bennett, Sr. (12 starts in 2017); QB Ross Bowers, Jr. (272-of-461, 3,039 yards, 18 TD, 12 INT); RT Jake Curhan, So. (12 starts in 2017); RG Valentino Daltoso, So. (9 starts in 2017); RB Patrick Laird, Sr. (191 att., 1,127 yards, 8 TD; 45 catches, 322 yards, 1 TD); FB Malik McMorris (10 starts in 2017; 6 att., 13 yards; 5 catches, 39 yards, 1 TD); LT Patrick Mekari, Sr. (10 starts in 2017); WR Kanawai Noa, Jr. (56 catches, 788 yards, 4 TD); C Addison Ooms, Sr. (12 starts in 2017; 24 career starts); WR Vic Wharton III, Sr. (67 catches, 871 yards, 5TD).

Defensive players to watch (2017 statistics): DE Luc Bequette, Jr. (27 tackles, 2 sacks); CB Camryn Bynum, So. (58 tackles, 2 INT, 8 PBU); S Ashtyn Davis, Jr. (33 tackles, 1 INT); OLB Alex Funches, Sr. (36 tackles, 10.5 TFL, 4 sacks); OLB Cameron Goode, So. (46 tackles, 5.5 TFL, 1.5 sacks, 1 INT); S Jaylinn Hawkins, Jr. (41 tackles, 1 INT); CB Elijah Hicks, So. (38 tackles, 3 PBU); ILB Jordan Kunaszyk, Sr. (74 tackles, 6 TFL, 3.5 sacks, 2 INT).

Notable: Cal has not had a winning record in conference play since 2009. … The Bears have lost 13 consecutive Pac-12 road games. … Over the last three years, Cal is 9-1 in non-conference games and 9-18 in conference games. … Standout receiver Demetris Robertson, a former five-star recruit and 2016 freshman all-American, left the team this summer and will transfer. He’s expected to announce his new school soon. … Laird was seventh in the Pac-12 with 102.5 rushing yards per game last year. He’s fourth among returning players. … Cal was third in the Pac-12 in turnover margin last year, at plus-4. The Bears have been on the plus side three years in a row. … Sophomore Gabe Siemieniec and freshman Chris Landgrebe are expected to battle for kicking duties. Siemieniec was the kickoff specialist last year. … Junior Steven Coutts takes over at punter after Dylan Klumph transferred to Arizona. The full-time punter at Louisiana in 2015, Coutts had five punts last year. … This is the first time since joining the Pac-12 in 2011 that Colorado will conclude its regular season against a team other than Utah.

Justin Wilcox’s first season as the head football coach at California exceeded many outside expectations.

Heading into his second season, however, he’s hardly satisfied.

“We won five games last year, so that’s not good enough,” Wilcox said this spring. “We have to improve physically, we have to improve our understanding of the game, we have to build on the chemistry in our locker room, which I think we got a really good start this offseason.

“I’m excited with the way guys are working and some of the gains we’ve made, but we have to continue to get better because it’s obviously a very competitive conference and the teams we play are good football teams and we have to do a better job.”

This month, is previewing each of Colorado’s opponents, with this final installment focusing on the Golden Bears, who will host the Buffaloes on Nov. 24.

Cal (5-7, 2-7 Pac-12 in 2017) was widely expected to struggle last season, but started 3-0 and nearly achieved bowl eligibility. The Golden Bears went 1-4 in the last five games with three losses by three points or less.

Prior to last year, Cal had an explosive offense and porous defense, but last year, the defense was dramatically better, while the offense sputtered at times, finishing 10th in the Pac-12 in scoring, at 27.8 points per game.

Ten starters from offense are back, including junior quarterback Ross Bowers. A first-year starter, Bowers had some very good moments, but he certainly wasn’t like his predecessors, Davis Webb and Jared Goff, who are both now in the NFL.

Although Bowers started all 12 games, he’ll go into the fall fighting for his job.

“Ross Bowers played a lot of football for us last year and he’s improved this offseason, which is great to see,” Wilcox said. “There’s some other guys in there … who have also shown some improvement in the offseason.”

Sophomore dual threat Brandon McIlwain, a transfer from South Carolina, will push for the job. As a true freshman in 2016, McIlwain played in eight games for the Gamecocks, starting three. (Current CU quarterbacks coach Kurt Roper was McIlwain’s position coach and coordinator).

Chase Forrest and Chase Garbers are also in the mix, and Bowers believes the competition is benefitting the entire group – and the team.

“It’s really brought the best out of me in terms of what type of competitor am I trying to be, what type of leader am I trying to be?,” Bowers told local media after the spring game in April. “Now I have to be on top of my game. I have guys biting on my heels and you saw today they can make a lot of plays. It’s going to be a good summer for me to keep on pushing and trying to figure out ways I can stay ahead and keep getting ahead and how we can help get the team better as a group.”

Around the quarterbacks, all five starters on the line return, as does running back Patrick Laird and seven of the top eight pass catchers from last year.

Defensively, the Bears have made dramatic strides. They gave up 42.6 points per game in 2016 (127th nationally) and improved to 28.4 (78th) last year.

Eight starters are back on defense, and it’s a group that is much more physical and enjoys getting better.

“We want our guys to feel like we’re competing to be the best defense in the Pac-12,” coordinator Tim DeRuyter said after the spring game. “Our guys take a lot of pride in trying to be a great defense, which gets them up early in the morning, working hard, watching film and doing to the extra things.”

That’s a mentality that Wilcox, a defensive coordinator for 11 years before coming to Cal, wants throughout the roster, as the Bears seek just their second bowl appearance since 2011.

“We kind of talked about taking that next step as a team, and in order to do that, it takes every single player, every position, every coach to challenge themselves,” he said.

Contact staff writer Brian Howell at or