BERKELEY -- Besides THE question -- that is, who will play quarterback? -- first-year Cal football coach Sonny Dykes has others he hopes to begin answering Monday when training camp begins.
Here are three issues that must be addressed if the Bears hope to significantly improve on a 3-9 record against a schedule featuring seven teams ranked in the USA Today preseason coaches poll:
1. Can the offensive line function well enough to let the Bear Raid offense thrive?
Wracked by injuries and inconsistency, the Bears' line struggled last season, allowing 41 sacks. Dykes emerged from spring workouts surprised by a talent level that was better than he expected. Sophomore tackle Freddie Tagaloa and junior guard Jordan Rigsbee should form a solid left side. But Dykes concedes that inexperience on the line can be "scary," and said the Bears must continue to become stronger and tougher. He also believes the offensive scheme -- emphasizing quick passes and precision execution -- could help. "Most of the time," Dykes said, "if we can get in the way, where they actually have to run around us, then the ball's gone by the time they run around us."
2. Is there sufficient talent and depth at running back?
Cal lost two senior running backs who combined to rush for more than 1,500 yards last season, and went through spring ball utilizing no one likely to get many carries this fall. The key is junior Brendan Bigelow, coming off minor knee surgery and a season in which he showed glimpses of spectacular potential. He averaged 9.8 yards per carry on 44 rushing attempts. "He's certainly a guy you don't have to watch many plays to see that he's pretty dynamic with the football," Dykes said. Sophomore Daniel Lasco, another speed back sidelined by injury in the spring, has even less of a track record. Then there's freshman Khalfani Muhammad, perhaps the fastest player on the team but only 5-foot-8.
3. Can a young team with a new coaching staff and changes everywhere hold together when a murderous schedule produces inevitable losses?
This is the Bears' core question, one that cannot be answered now, perhaps not until deep into October. Cal is a youthful team with first-time starters at quarterback, running back, receiver, offensive line and the secondary. Those players are absorbing a new fast-paced spread option offense and 4-3 defensive alignment from coaches they met only eight months ago. And they are listening and learning. "The buy-in has been great," said Dykes, whose team faces Northwestern, Ohio State and Oregon before September ends. "It's easy for everybody to buy in when things are going your way. Our message to them is we'll find out about our team when we have a little adversity. It's all puppy dogs and rainbows right now. We'll find out about how tough they're going to be when things aren't easy."