BERKELEY -- The Cal defensive backfield knows what everyone is thinking: too young, too inexperienced, too injured.
"They're doubting the whole secondary," junior cornerback Kam Jackson said. "We have a little chip on our shoulder. We're going to go out and prove people wrong."
They'll have to do it against a ferocious season-opening gauntlet. The Bears debut under new coach Sonny Dykes on Saturday night against No. 22 Northwestern, which features the tag-team quarterback duo of Kain Colter (872 yards passing, 894 yards rushing) and Trevor Siemian (1,312 yards passing).
In games 3 and 4, Cal faces two top-5 teams with Heisman Trophy candidates at quarterback: Ohio State with Braxton Miller and Oregon with Marcus Mariota.
Can this secondary, without a senior starter, take a punch and remain standing?
"That's the question of our football team, quite frankly," Dykes said. "We're young. How are we going to respond when things don't go well? I don't think anybody knows. We think we'll respond well, but we'll see how it plays out."
On the defensive side, no area is greener than the Bears' secondary. Or more nicked up.
Sophomore cornerback Stefan McClure is back after missing all of 2012 with a serious knee injury. Junior strong safety Avery Sebastian hasn't resumed full practice nearly two weeks after sustaining a concussion in a scrimmage.
Dykes said this week that redshirt freshman Demariay Drew "probably" would start against Northwestern, but he believes Sebastian will be dressed and cleared to play by then.
Free safety Michael Lowe has been a part-time starter the past two seasons, but depth in the secondary is such a concern that linebacker Jason Gibson was switched to safety and wide receiver Joel Willis is being tried at corner.
"I think they're coming together great," defensive backs coach Randy Stewart said. "We're thin in numbers, so we've had a lot of everybody in at some point."
Stewart's biggest concern is the lack of continuity in practice because of injuries. Among players on the depth chart, corner Adrian Lee (ankle), safety Alex Logan (foot) and Gibson (hamstring) all have missed time recently.
During the 1980s and '90s. those four combined to pass for more than 15 miles with 193 touchdowns.
"I tried to listen as much as I could, kind of soak in what they had to say about ways to connect with former players and improve our program," said Dykes, adding that he wants to embrace Cal's football alumni.
"That's a huge resource for us," he said. "Those guys have laid it on the line and put a lot into this program. They care a lot about it. The least we can do is welcome them back with open arms."