Take a deep breath, and think about California’s football season in 2013:
The Bears were last in the Pac-12 in scoring offense and last in scoring defense. They were last in total defense, yards per play allowed (7.1, with the next-worst at 6.1), pass defense, opponent first downs, pass-efficiency defense and opponent third-down conversions. They were last in pass efficiency, red-zone offense, punt-return average (with only 39 total yards) and turnover margin.
Other than that, Cal had a thoroughly satisfying first season under first-year coach Sonny Dykes.
“We were so bad last year,” Dykes says a year later, “the improvement is going to be pretty obvious.”
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Internally, the Bears say they’ve long since moved on. But their year was so much the train-wreck variety it’s natural for outsiders to wonder if there’s lingering psychic damage, and how vast the rebuilding process might be.
“I can’t stress enough how happy we are to have last year in the past, how much we’ve grown,” says quarterback Jared Goff. “It’s a different team. It’s not even remotely close to the same team as last year.”
Describing the off-season, Dykes says, “I don’t know that we necessarily blew anything up. Just a lot of screwdriver adjustments.”
That’s not entirely true. Dykes reassigned defensive coordinator Andy Buh, who had been hired to a three-year, $500,000-a-season deal, and put Art Kaufman in his place. Kaufman is a veteran of mostly Southern stops who makes Cal his seventh job in the last decade.
The Bears were the Pac-12 team most battered by injuries last year, so much that they started nine freshmen, true and redshirt, in their finale against Stanford.
“A lot of them were just freak injuries, freak accidents,” says defensive back Stefan McClure. “But it is kind of crazy to see that many injuries and how it devastates a team and puts a lot of stress on other people.
“Guys had to play more special teams, and guys who weren’t physically ready had to get out there and play. It’ll be great to see what we can do with a healthy team.”
Says Dykes, “It was tough to put out 11 healthy bodies that knew how to line up at times. We’re just so much better now because we do have depth.”
But it’s been tested already. Nathan Broussard, projected to start at middle linebacker, is out for the year with a fall-camp knee injury, and another possible starter, Maximo Espitia, has been suspended for the season. Devante Downs, a freshman from Mountlake Terrace, is expected to play.
Cal will benefit from the return of end Brennan Scarlett of Portland, who might be the team’s best defender. He missed last year with a hand injury.
Goff, who threw for 292 yards a game, gives the Bears an offensive centerpiece, and there are quality wideouts in Chris Harper, Bryce Treggs and Kenny Lawler. But the Bears must run better; 148 designed runs in 2013 went for two yards or less.
However pitable Cal might appear, the Bears last year riled their 2014 opening opponent, Northwestern, when Dykes accused the Wildcats of feigning injuries to slow his offense last year.
“I look forward to shaking that coach’s hand after we beat ‘em,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald told a booster group in the off-season.
Asked about it, Dykes took the high road. You could say he’s not dealing from a position of strength. The Bears enter 2014 with a 10-game losing streak, 14 to Pac-12 teams, and 16 to FBS opponents.
“We feel we’re in a really good spot,” Dykes insists. “Especially in the off-season, the level of commitment, reliance and trust in each other, the teamwork. All those are important elements we really didn’t have last year.
“We’ll be bigger, stronger and faster. We’ll be a different-looking football team.”
It’s not unfair to say the Bears almost have to be.
Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or firstname.lastname@example.org