College Football Roundup: Wilcox the right choice for Cal; Stanford raising ticket prices

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College Football Roundup: Wilcox the right choice for Cal; Stanford raising ticket prices

The Golden Bears may have gotten it right this time.

Cal moved quickly to replace fired head coach Sonny Dykes with Justin Wilcox, one of the most respected defensive minds in college football. And judging from the early returns, it looks like an excellent hire.

Wilcox has earned high marks as defensive coordinator at a number of the top programs in the country -- Boise State, Tennessee, Washington, USC and most recently, Wisconsin. This year his Badgers’ defense ranked No. 7 in the nation in total defense. Cal’s, by contrast, was No. 125.

The hiring sends an important message that defense, which has been an embarrassment at Cal for the past four years, is of prime importance. For the Bears to move into the elite in the increasingly-competitive Pac-12, they can’t survive with offense alone. Witness Dykes’ 10-26 record in conference play, the ascent of defensive-minded Colorado this season, and Chris Petersen’s championship blueprint at Washington, which features one of the nation’s top defensive units.

Wilcox also is a much better fit culturally than Dykes, who’d spent most of his career in Texas and the South. Wilcox knows the Pac-12 very well. He played at Oregon and coached the linebackers at Cal from 2003-2005 prior to his recent stints at Washington and USC. Wilcox clearly understands the conference, the West Coast, and the cultural and academic environment at Berkeley, which he called the “most dynamic place in the country.”

Hiring a new coach so late in the game could pose problems with respect to assembling a staff and recruiting, but again, Wilcox is off to a great start. He lured Eastern Washington head coach Beau Baldwin, architect of some high-octane offenses at EWU, to come aboard as offensive coordinator. He also nabbed Steve Greatwood, a former colleague at Oregon and one of the most experienced offensive line coaches in the country.

Wilcox has a reputation as a strong recruiter. Indeed, three highly-regarded recruits -- defensive lineman Gabe Cherry (Bakersfield), DB Elijah Hicks (La Mirada) and WR Taariq Johnson (Buena Park) arrived on campus this week as mid-year freshman enrollees.

At his press conference Wilcox appeared smart, poised, classy and businesslike. He refused to be baited into criticizing his predecessor. He also appealed to Cal fans to support the program and make Memorial Stadium a tough place to play. The stadium was pretty noisy during the Jeff Tedford regime, but lately it’s borne no resemblance to Autzen Stadium in Eugene, where Wilcox played, and Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, where he coached this year.

If he can turn the program around, I suspect Memorial Stadium will be rocking once again.

2017 Schedules: The Pac-12 has released its 2017 football schedule, and both Wilcox and Stanford coach David Shaw are looking at some tough sledding. Both teams open Pac-12 play in September against a loaded USC squad. Cal’s non-conference games include the season opener at North Carolina and home games with Weber State and Ole Miss, followed by USC in Memorial Stadium on Sept. 23. Wilcox also has conference road games at Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Stanford and UCLA. Ugh!

Stanford, meanwhile, opens on the road (probably in Australia) against Rice, then kicks off Pac-12 play at USC on Sept. 9. However, the Cardinal will benefit from having UCLA, ASU, Oregon, Washington and Cal on the home schedule, along with Notre Dame.

New ticket policy at Stanford: Speaking of the Stanford home schedule, the Cardinal brass notified thousands of season ticket holders this week that to retain their sideline seats, they must make a substantial donation to the Buck/Cardinal Club athletic scholarship program. The “Priority Seating Expansion” means that ticket holders in 10 sections of the stadium will need to cough up about three times as much money to keep their seats. For example, a fan with two season tickets who would normally pay $1,078 for two seats this season now must ante up an additional $1,000 per seat. Bottom line: a total tab of $3,078 instead of $1,078. With six home games, that translates to $513 per game for two tickets.

Although the home schedule is attractive this season, it’s hard to fathom the reasons behind the new policy. Stanford had no home sellouts last year, and there were plenty of good seats available for every game. A similar policy was implemented several years ago at Maples Pavilion, and the result has been lots of empty seats at Stanford basketball games.

Nationally, college football attendance declined this season for the sixth year in a row. Among the many reasons were rising ticket prices, the increasing number of night games, uncertainty over starting times, and the quality of the home viewing experience.

Greed, it seems, has trumped fan loyalty. Instead of raising prices and repeatedly asking the same people to spend more money, college athletic departments might consider rewarding loyal fans by lowering ticket prices. That way, they could fill some of those empty seats, improve the atmosphere in their stadiums, and give their coaches more of a home field advantage.

Beamer Selected: The College Football Playoff folks just added former Virginia Tech head coach Frank Beamer to their selection committee. A better choice could not have been made. Beamer retired last year after 29 years with the Hokies, and he is widely regarded as one of the best coaches and finest human beings to ever grace the sport.

I can speak from personal experience as a bowl director. Virginia Tech played in our first post-season game in San Francisco back in 2002, when it was known as the Diamond Walnut San Francisco Bowl. Coaches can bring a lot of baggage -- and ego -- to a post-season game. Some might have viewed a bowl game in its infancy as something of a comedown for Beamer, whose team had played in the national championship game two years earlier. But not Frank. He treated everyone associated with our bowl with the same warmth, graciousness and respect, enthusiastically did everything we asked of him, and was a total delight to deal with.

His wife, Cheryl, was another class act. A week after the bowl game, I got a thank you note in the mail from Cheryl, along with a $20 bill. She apologized for not having gassed up her rental car before returning it, and didn’t want to saddle me with the bill.

People like that just don’t come along every day.

New Cal coach Wyking Jones ready to prove critics wrong amid changes

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New Cal coach Wyking Jones ready to prove critics wrong amid changes

Even the most passionate Cal fan might struggle to name a single player on the current basketball roster. The team's top five leading scorers from last season have all departed. Ivan Rabb and Jabari Bird moved on to the NBA, Grant Mullins graduated, and both Charlie Moore and Kameron Rooks elected to transfer.

But perhaps the most significant change is on the sideline. Out is Cuonzo Martin, who agreed to a massive seven-year contract with Missouri, worth a reported $21 million. Replacing him is 44-year-old Wyking Jones, a longtime assistant coach, who spent the past two seasons as Martin's top aide in Berkeley.

Jones' promotion was met with heavy criticism from many in the media, both locally and nationally. Skeptics believe Cal settled for the cheap option, rather than the best option. But why can't both be true? There's no denying that salary played a factor in the hire - the athletic department's financial troubles have been well documented in recent years. But Jones impressed Athletic Director Mike Williams in other areas too, reportedly acing his job interview with a detailed plan for the program moving forward. And unlike the other candidates, Jones already has direct experience dealing with Cal's unique set of circumstances.

“It's not something that you can walk into and just get a really good grasp of,” Jones explained. “It's a learning curve that, if you walk into this situation for the first time, it would take you a tremendous amount of time. Knowing who to go to when you need things, who's in charge of this, who's in charge of that, just having a familiarity of how to really get things done around here.”

Jones also discovered the challenges of recruiting at a school like Cal, where not every athlete can qualify academically. While many coaches would view that as a negative, Jones chooses to embrace it.

“In my mind, that's what makes this place special,” he said. “It's the number one public institution in the world for a reason. Your recruiting pool shrinks quite a bit, but that's okay because typically what happens is if you get a kid who has a lot of discipline on and off the court, you're not going to run into troubles on the weekends when they're in the dorms. They're usually kids who have a lot of respect for the community and other students.”

From a coaching standpoint, Jones has unquestionably paid his dues in the world of college basketball. Prior to joining Cal as an assistant in 2015, he made stops at Louisville, New Mexico, Pepperdine, and Loyola Marymount, where he also played from 1991-95. Now, after nearly 15 years in collegiate coaching, Wyking Jones is a head coach.

“I think initially it's very exciting to have an opportunity to coach, have your own program at a storied program like Cal, to follow in the footsteps of some great coaches,” he said, smiling. “But now the smoke has cleared and it's time to get to work.”

That work has already begun. As previously mentioned, Jones will have to replace his top five scorers from a year ago, who accounted for nearly 56 points per game. The Bears will count on increased production from senior center Kingsley Okoroh and junior guard Don Coleman. They will also rely heavily on redshirt senior forward Marcus Lee, who sat out last season after transferring from Kentucky.

“It's an adjustment, for sure,” Jones admitted. “But you have 13 scholarships for a reason. It's just an opportunity for the guys who are still here to earn their scholarship. It's an opportunity for them to make a name for themselves and have an impact on this program.”

Under Cuonzo Martin, Cal established itself as one of the best defensive teams in the country. Last season, the Bears ranked 18th in the nation in scoring defense, allowing just 63.4 points per game. Jones hopes to continue that trend while also implementing a full-court pressure defense, similar to the one he coached at Louisville, which resulted in a national championship in 2013.

“It's a process,” he acknowledged. “In year one, hopefully we can be good at it. In year two, look to improve. In year three, hope to be great at it... It's a type of defense, when you're talking about pressing, it's reading all the other guys on the court. It's never scripted. It's being able to read when is the right time to go trap, when is the right time to go switch, when is the right time to bluff and stunt at a guy to slow him down. So there's a learning curve in it.”

Jones knows there will also be a learning curve for him personally as a head coach, especially with such a young and inexperienced roster. He expects his team to be overlooked and undervalued by much of the college basketball world, but that's just fine with him.

“I think a lot of people will probably guess that we won't be very good, and that's motivation right there. That's motivation for my staff, for our managers, for the support staff. It's motivation for everybody that's a part of this program to exceed those expectations. So I think that makes for an exciting season.”

Stanford star McCaffrey boosts NFL Draft stock with special teams skills

Stanford star McCaffrey boosts NFL Draft stock with special teams skills

INDIANAPOLIS -- More and more college coaches are putting their starters and even their stars on special teams as they seek to pile up every possible point in an era of pedal-to-the-metal shootouts and never-safe leads.

Fading fast are the days when superstars would catch their breath on the sideline when the kicker or punter trotted onto the field with the scrubs.

NFL teams love it.

Watching how players handle themselves as a blocker, gunner or returner provides a glimpse into a prospect's range, selflessness and versatility. It also delivers a sneak peek into how coachable he'll be, says Phil Savage, the SiriusXM NFL Radio host who spent two decades as an NFL coach, scout and executive and now oversees the Senior Bowl.

"I think because of the landscape of college football where scoring is at a premium, you've got to figure out a way to put points on the board not only on offense but through your special teams and defensively, as well," Savage says. "These coaches want to get these young players on the field as soon as possible, and a way to do that is utilize them on special teams."

These tapes provide a bonus to pro scouts.

"Now you have a vision of what that player might forecast to in the NFL as a young player and, specifically, as a rookie," Savage said.

Offensive and defensive coaches have a better idea of the types of players they're integrating into their schemes, and special teams coaches no longer get blank stares and blank canvases from the rookie class.

"Not only do you like the fact that they come in and have experience doing it, but you love the mentality if you're a coach and a decision maker that this guy isn't a diva, he's got no ego about it, he understands the team and puts team before self," says ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay.

"And he comes in with the mindset of 'What can I do to help the team and how can I contribute?' Those are the guys that seem to make it and last longer in the league because they're just willing to do different things and whatever it takes."

The prime example in this year's draft class is Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey , a "dynamic player than can do it all," according to Broncos GM John Elway.

McCaffrey gained more than 5,000 yards from scrimmage in his college career and added almost 2,000 more as a returner.

"There's just a lot of big plays open in the return game," McCaffrey says. "You see special teams have such an impact on the game today. Any time I can have the ball in my hands, I feel like I can do something dangerous, and that's really why I love the return game."

Other highly touted draft prospects who polished their resumes on special teams include Michigan safety Jabrill Peppers, LSU safety Jamal Adams, Washington wide receiver John Ross, and USC cornerback Adroee' Jackson, all of whom are projected as high selections.

McShay says "we're seeing more and more programs put an emphasis on special teams and having their key players contribute in one or more areas on special teams."

He pointed to Ohio State, where Urban Myers coaches special teams himself.

"It's a major emphasis there, and so you'll see some more guys typically lined up and contributing that are starters and stars," McShay says. "It's an honor to be on special teams."

Not a burden.

"It is not uncommon now to see people that are going to be picked in the first round having 100-plus special teams plays," suggests NFL draft consultant and former Dallas Cowboys executive Gil Brandt.

He pointed to the University of Florida, where Gators defensive backs cover kickoffs as well as they do receivers.

"Everyone's always trying to get their best guys on the field," Brandt says.

That's a change from years past when coaches feared exposing their star players to the extra hits.

The added value benefits the players, whose multiple talents allow NFL general managers to address many needs.

"We're seeing more emphasis on it in college, and I think NFL teams love to see it because if just means you're getting a bit more for your buck," McShay says.

Top talents who bolstered their value by playing special teams:

CHRISTIAN McCAFFREY , RB, STANFORD: He shined at the combine working out with the running backs and was as impressive running routes. Asked if there was anything he couldn't do, the son of former NFL wide receiver Ed McCaffrey said then: "I can't sing."

JABRILL PEPPERS , S, MICHIGAN: He worked out with safeties and linebackers at the combine, where teams talked of him playing RB and WR in addition to returning kicks. "The bottom line is I'm a ballplayer and I'm a hell of a ballplayer," Peppers said.

JOHN ROSS , WR, WASHINGTON: He caught 81 passes with 17 TDs last season but actually posted more return yards (2,069) than scrimmage yards (1,924) in his college career.

ADOREE' JACKSON , CB, USC: One of the best special teams coverage players in the NCAA, Jackson also scored eight TDs on punt and kick returns in college. His punt return averages rose from 6.0 yards to 10.5 and 15.8.

JAMAL ADAMS , S, LSU: Another star in coverage, Adams' defensive mentality extends to special teams. "I love being on the field and just playing football," said Adams, whose father, George, was a first-round pick by the Giants in 1985.

ALVIN KAMARA , RB, TENNESSEE: In a deep running back group, Kamara separates himself with his special teams acumen. "A lot of teams have been bringing up special teams," Kamara said.

DESMOND KING , CB, IOWA: He had eight interceptions as a junior and three as a senior. "I had a really good special teams season," King said. "Not being targeted as much, I still went out there and competed the best I could and was still making plays."

CHRIS WORMLEY , DE, MICHIGAN: Wormley touts playing for Jim Harbaugh as one of his attributes. "Coach Harbaugh came in and ran our program like an NFL program, like he had with the 49ers," said Wormley, who blocked three kicks his senior season.

ZAY JONES , WR, EAST CAROLINA: Like McCaffrey, he has good NFL bloodlines (son of Robert Jones, brother of Cayleb Jones). He caught 158 passes as a senior, but spent his first two seasons in college also making his mark as a returner.