Cal coach Justin Wilcox catches breath after whirlwind start
BERKELEY, Calif. (AP) Justin Wilcox spent much of the past few months playing catch up after being hired for his first head coaching job at California in the middle of January.
He had to finish a recruiting class, put together an entire coaching staff and begin instituting the culture and systems he wants to rebuild a struggling program.
About a month after finishing spring practice and two months before the start of fall camp, Wilcox finally has had a chance to catch his breath before the start of his first season with the Golden Bears.
”That’s a relative term, caught up,” Wilcox said Wednesday. ”I don’t know if you ever feel totally caught up. There’s always something to do. I think we have a much better feel and grasp on our team and our staff. There are a lot of moving parts there. But I think it’s gone well.”
The biggest question facing the Bears when they begin fall camp on July 30 will be at quarterback. After three seasons with Jared Goff and one with Davis Webb, Cal enters this season with an unknown at the position.
Chase Forest and Ross Bowers emerged from spring ball as the two leading contenders for the job and will start camp in July even in the competition.
Neither player threw a single pass last season with Forest having the only college experience with 18 attempts as a freshman in 2015.
”The quarterback thing will work itself out when it presents itself,” Wilcox said. ”At some point, we’ll make a decision but right now it’s too close. Chase and Ross both had their moments. We have a brand new offense and you haven’t had a ton of experience playing quarterback. There were some rocky times there earlier in spring ball but I thought the spring game they played the best they played all spring. That’s encouraging.”
Whoever ends up winning the starting job for the season opener Sept. 2 at North Carolina will have some talented skill position players around him led by receivers Demetris Robertson and Melquise Stovall and running back Tre Watson.
But the offensive line is thin and mostly untested, although Wilcox was encouraged by the progress he saw in spring ball.
”We have very capable guys at O-line,” he said. ”They’re very smart, they’re tough, they’re beginning to work as a group together. They just need practice. I’m 100 percent confident that we’ll get that group playing as good as they can be.”
But Wilcox’s main task when he was hired to replace Sonny Dykes in January was to rebuild a defense that has been among the nation’s worst the past few seasons.
Cal ranked 125th in total defense, 127th in scoring defense and 122nd in yards per play out of 128 FBS teams last season on the way to a 5-7 record.
Wilcox said he spent little time looking at the past other than to watch a few cutups of each player to learn their strengths and weaknesses.
”We don’t talk about those things,” he said. ”We’re a lot more concerned about what we’re doing right now to improve ourselves. We are optimistic. We think we have some good players in that group.”
One of the most intriguing is freshman cornerback Elijah Hicks, who enrolled in school in January before Wilcox was even hired. He had an impressive spring and is being counted on to contribute immediately for Cal.
”His transition was very impressive,” Wilcox said. ”He’s an eager guy, very smart, very coachable, very tough. Elijah Hicks will be a major factor.”
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