BERKELEY — The difference in attitude at California is stark heading into coach Sonny Dykes’ second season.
The players are excited about practice, focused on football and eager to put last season’s disappointing one-win campaign far in the past.
“It’s a whole different environment,” receiver Chris Harper said. “Everybody is pumped up, everybody is energetic, everybody wants to be here. There’s no one on the team that I can say doesn’t want to be here. Last year there were a couple of guys that weren’t feeling it.”
Whether that improved attitude will lead to improved results remains to be seen.
The Golden Bears’ only win last season came in Week 2 against lower-division Portland State. Cal lost its final 10 games and has dropped 16 straight against FBS opponents.
“Obviously, we have a bad taste in our mouth from last season, and we want to get it out of our mouth as quickly as we possibly can,” Dykes said. “The only way you can do that is by getting out there and competing and playing and improving. We’re excited about the opportunity to do that.”
The Bears come into 2014 with better health, more depth and a deeper understanding of Dykes’ “Bear Raid” offense, which showed flashes last year but lacked consistency.
The defense has also been overhauled with coordinator Art Kaufman implementing a simpler system after taking over from Andy Buh following a season when Cal allowed 45.9 points per game and was outscored by more than 27 points per game in conference play.
“We weren’t very competitive last year a lot of times, and I think that’s going to be our biggest issue,” Dykes said. “Getting in the game and giving ourselves an opportunity to win. I think it will be obvious to everybody.”
Here are five things to watch at Cal this season:
GOFF’S GAINS: Quarterback Jared Goff was a rare bright spot as a freshman, breaking the single-season school records for yards passing (3,508), total offense (3,446), passes completed (320) and passes attempted (531). He is fully recovered from offseason surgery on his throwing surgery and is showing signs of being stronger and more accurate, as well as having a much deeper understanding of the offense.
“Everyone pretty much knows what we’re doing, knows all the little tricks of the trade that comes with this offense,” Goff said. “It’s a lot smoother.”
RUN THE ROCK: Cal’s offense lacked any sort of balance last season, ranking fifth in passes and 104th in rush attempts as defenses were allowed to tee off on Goff. With the additions of freshmen Tre Watson and Vic Enwere to returning backs Daniel Lasco and Khalfani Muhammad, the Bears have many more options in the backfield and should be able to force opposing defenses to respect the run.
“All of a sudden a position that had a lot of question marks has some potential answers,” Dykes said.
SCARLETT’S RETURN: Cal’s defense was devastated by injuries last year with a season-long hand injury to defensive end Brennan Scarlett being one of the most crucial. The Bears are counting on Scarlett to be the impact pass rusher that was sorely lacking on last season’s defense.
SEARCHING FOR SECONDARY: Cal will need to have major improvement in a secondary that often looked overmatched last season in the pass-happy Pac-12. Former cornerback Stefan McClure is expected to move to safety alongside Avery Sebastian and the Bears are hoping junior college transfer Darius White can step in right away at cornerback.
STRONG SCHEDULE: With a nine-game conference schedule that includes games against potential powerhouses Oregon, Stanford, UCLA and Southern California, the Bears will have a hard time piling up wins. The nonconference schedule features the season opener at Northwestern and the season finale at home against BYU, as well as a game against lower-division Sacramento State.