This is the first in a four-part series previewing Cal's 2019 season. Part I looks at the Bears' All-Pac-12 contenders — their stars. In subsequent installments, we will examine strengths and weaknesses, the Bears’ schedule and key questions.
It’s no secret that the stars on the Cal football team reside on defense.
For those of you with a memory that goes back even four years, that statement is somewhat remarkable. Back during the Sonny Dykes era, the Bears’ stars were Jared Goff and a deep stable of wide receivers. If defense wasn’t entirely an afterthought, it certainly took a backseat to offense.
Not anymore. The Bears’ reality is turned upside down. Plenty of elite individual talent on defense, compared to wishful thinking on offense.
So as we examine the star power on the 2019 Golden Bears, we’re breaking it down into three categories:
Stars in Full Shine
— Inside linebacker Evan Weaver: The nation’s top returning tackler from a year ago, Weaver also delivered signature plays for the Bears, topped by his game-winning pick-six against Pac-12 champion Washington. Weaver has made an assortment of preseason All-America teams. He returns for his senior season trimmer and faster and he is almost certain to rack up big numbers again this season.
— Cornerback Cam Bynum: Perhaps the best player in a defensive secondary that may be as good as any in the country, Bynum has said repeatedly that what he and his defensive mates accomplished last season is not good enough. The bar has been raised and they are starting over. Bynum had just two of the Bears’ 21 interceptions last season, but led the team with 10 pass breakups.
— Safety/return specialist Ashtyn Davis: The former track and field All-American was the Bears’ No. 3 tackler (56) last season, their No. 2 passing thief (4 interceptions) and their No. 1 kickoff return man (26.2 yards). He scored a touchdown on a pick-six and another on an 89-yard kick return. The guy makes things happen, and his speed assures they happen quickly. (Click here for an Ashtyn Davis video.)
— Safety Jaylinn Hawkins: Hard to ignore a player who was tied for third nationally — and No. 1 in the Pac-12 — in pass interceptions. Hawkins had six of them, including three in the Bears’ 10-7 overtime loss to TCU in the Cheez-It Bowl, a game that featured nine picks between the two teams. Hawkins also had nine passes defended last season, another sign this guy was around the ball a lot.
Stars That Cal Covets
— Quarterback Chase Garbers: Evaluating his own 2018 performance, Garbers acknowledged, “I did not do so well last year.” But everyone from coach Justin Wilcox to center Michael Saffell agrees Garbers has made substantial strides since his redshirt freshman campaign. The Bears don’t actually need Garbers to become a star. They need him to run the offense, help reduce Cal’s NCAA-worst total of 31 turnovers and generate a few more big plays downfield. If he can do that, then just by virtue of the position he plays, Garbers will evolve toward stardom. (Click here for a video of offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin talking about Garbers' progress.)
— Running back Chris Brown Jr.: The 6-foot-1, 230-pound sophomore presents a different look at running back than Patrick Laird provided the past two seasons. We don’t know if he can be the type of effective pass catcher out of the backfield that Laird was and he may not survey the line of scrimmage for openings quite as patiently. But Brown is a load — with some speed — and the Bears need him to provide consistent punch to their ground game. If he approaches 1,000 yards the offense is probably healthy.
— Wide receiver Nikko Remigio: The Bears believe they have six to eight potentially productive wideouts, although only three players with any real experience return at this position. So we must wait and see. But Remigio, who got his feet wet as a true freshman last season, returned this summer looking like a guy who spent serious time in the weight room. He is quick, elusive — stronger at 5-10, 185 — and there are signs he has the “it” factor to become a dynamic playmaker. The Bears are begging for someone to become that guy.
— Inside linebacker Kuony Deng: The 6-foot-6, 225-pounder from Independence JC in Kansas is perhaps the one potential surprise Cal will unleash on defense. Deng (whose first name is pronounced Coin), will pair inside next to Weaver, but the Bears plan to split him out at times in third-down pass-rush situations. The coaching staff raves about his work ethic and potential. Long, athletic and smart, could he become an X-factor on a defense that already is very good? Cal hopes so.
Potential star seeking a home
Defensive end Luc Bequette: The Bears entered the summer believing they had a potential All-Pac-12 defensive end in this 6-foot-2, 290-pound senior. He was an honorable mention pick a year ago when he totaled 49 tackles, five sacks, forced two fumbles and blocked a kick. But with top nose guard candidates Aaron Maldonado and Siulagisipai Fuimaono absent all of fall camp so far due to unexplained “personal reasons,” Bequette was moved inside. He might be able to move back to end if either of the two absentees ever arrives or if freshman Brett Johnson continues to impress at nose guard. If not, the Bears will be forced to use one of their better players out of position, which won’t be ideal for anyone.