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Cal's Pac-12 Media Day Recap
I had the chance to sit down and talk with Matthew Cindric, Jackson Sirmon, and Coach Wilcox.
Last Friday I had the honor to attend the Pac-12 Media Day in Las Vegas on behalf of Write For California, and I was given the opportunity to speak with the players and the head coach before they took the stage in the televised portion of Media Day. I’d like to extend a very gracious thank you to Matthew Cindric, Jackson Sirmon, and Coach Justin Wilcox for taking time out of their very busy day to sit and chat with me.
Because on that note, holy hell was I unprepared for Media Day. Last year, in Los Angeles, they had the coaches sit on stage for the televised segments and the media members in the audience would go up to the microphone to ask a question. The players sat at tables off to the side, and that was more of an informal back-and-forth. I ended up asking a ton of questions to the players from Stanford, Oregon State, Arizona, etc., simply because there was hardly anyone else around to ask anything. This time, the conference announced that both the coaches and the players would be on stage for televised segments, and so I wouldn’t have the opportunity to have that back-and-forth discussion with players. With this in mind, I sat down and tried to come up with the best question (question, singular) I could, since I wouldn’t have many opportunities to ask. I knew I wanted to ask Coach Wilcox about new offensive coordinator Jake Spavital, and I figured I could ask Matthew Cindric about his Golden Buddies charity clinic he put on recently. So when Rob told me that Cal was having media availability at lunch in an hour, I up and left the media room where Jayden de Laura was busy reading his sham apology letter (the balled-up note he pulled out of his pocket featured phrases like, “I’m bound by the law to not discuss this matter at all… I’m grateful to the University of Arizona for assessing the facts of the matter…” ) and headed to the lunch room, and soon found myself seated next to the Cal guys. You know, for the exact kind of informal back-and-forth chat I didn’t prepare for. Oops.
I also didn’t really think through the logistics of leaving a tape recorder on a busy table where everyone is talking to everyone. But anyway, here’s some of the highlights.
Q: With the new transfers on the defense like Nohl Williams and Patrick McMorris, who are you most excited to see that wasn’t on the defense last year?
Sirmon: I don’t know if I have a “most excited,” I’m just excited for the entire group. I’m excited to see how the whole secondary works, because all those guys, they did a really good job on bringing talented people on the back end. I think Nohl [Williams] is going to have a really good season, he’s a good football player, Patrick [McMorris] is obviously a really good football player, he’ll really help us out. Getting Lu [Hearns] back healthy will help. He was obviously there last year, but he’ll have a good season. Matt Littlejohn, he’s a JUCO transfer, he had a good spring; I’m excited to see the whole group.
Q: The secondary has a really high bar to live up to—The Takers—how do you think this secondary compares with previous years?
Sirmon: I think that’s hard to say until we get into the season, but I think as far as talent goes, they’re right up there with those guys … it’ll be fun to see if they can hit that bar or raise it.
Q: With the new offensive scheme, have you noticed any change in the defensive philosophy as to how the defense will approach games? Like in the past, when it’s a close game, the offense is playing it safe and it’s up to the defense to get stops?
Sirmon: I think it will change how we go into fall camp. The offense we have in fall camp is similar to the offenses we’ll face during the season, as opposed to last year where the offense we were playing in fall camp was a lot different than the ones we play during the season. The new offense definitely has a different philosophy, so we’ll have to match that by playing defense a little bit differently. The basics are still the same, don’t let [the offense] throw the ball, run the ball, get them off the field on 3rd and 4th down. Some of the details will change and you got to adjust accordingly on defense.
Q: What about the defensive line? Brett Johnson’s coming back? Is he doing good?
Sirmon: He’s doing great. His rehab is going well and he’s close to coming back. It’ll be great if we can keep him healthy and have on the field.
Q: How do you feel about the depth on the defensive line? There’s been some struggles in previous years with injures.
Sirmon: Right now, we feel good. Football is football, and sometimes every year it feels like a different position group gets banged up, but if we can keep them healthy, it’ll be a very productive defensive line and hopefully that’s what happens.
Q: How do you feel about the new offensive system? Is it an adjustment for you moving to an Air Raid type of offense?
Cindric: There’s definitely some principles of what I did a long time ago with Beau Baldwin, even with Musgrave, there’s a lot of the same principles, same ideas. We’re kind of shifting how we do it or how it looks, but for us as an offensive line, a lot of it is very similar. It’s just adjusting to the fine-tuned, kind of techniques that Coach Bloesch wants, which are subtle but definitely different. We’ve been working all summer on getting it dialed-in, and the O-Line guys are finally ready to put the pads on. We’ve had a long enough summer so we’re excited for a week and a half here [when fall camp starts].
Q: I’m guessing you can’t talk about who’s starting at QB.
Cindric: [laughs] Well, I wish I knew.
Q: I don’t know if you remember, but in 2014, Cal played Northwestern and it was a big secret who was going to play quarterback, and the Northwestern coach got all mad that Cal wouldn’t announce who was going to play before the game. If you have a very mobile quarterback like Sam Jackson, is it different or hard to keep track of where he is behind you?
Cindric: Yeah, that’s a good question. You know, I blocked for Chase [Garbers] for a while and he was pretty mobile, Jack Plummer had some mobility at times, and I think whenever you have that, it’s going to be nice for the O-Line because they get you out of some trouble. I think it’s continuing to work with him and knowing where he likes to go and what his tendencies are, but for the most part I block normally and let him work his magic. So there are some tags we have that let us know “Hey he’s going to roll out to the right” and lets us adjust our blocking to that. I’m just going to block, and if we’re doing our job right, he can just stay in the pocket all day and we’ll let him run when we design for him to run. It’s always nice when you maybe slip up a block and he still makes us look good, it’s nice to have that.
Q: Is there more of an emphasis this year to get the ball out fast?
Cindric: We definitely have the opportunity to get the ball out fast on some different reads, but we hope that as an O-Line we can block for as long as possible and we can take some of those downfield shots that we didn’t have as many opportunities to last year.
Q: What’s it been like under Spavital in general, what’s he like?
Cindric: It’s been really fun, he brings a good energy to the building. I was just saying, he’s the first guy in the building. We came in for an early workout before we came out to Vegas, and his car is already there. It’s cool to have a coach that’s not only for you, and going to do anything for you, but is also working harder than anyone else in the building. When it comes Sunday, you know he’s prepared, he’s ready to go.
Q: How do you feel about the new [offensive] tackles?
Cindric: You’re talking about Matthew Wykoff and Barrett Miller? Yeah they just came in, they’re great dudes, I’m excited to get them rolling more as they’re learning the offense. You know, you never finish the season with the same 5 you started with, so it’s always good to have depth, and we’re excited to have them in the room.
Q: Do you rib him [Miller] at all for being from Stanford?
Cindric: [laughs] I haven’t ripped him too much, I feel like he almost might rip himself more. No, but we’re excited he joined the good side.
[Note: I didn’t get a ton of time with Coach Wilcox, as most of his availability was spent with another reporter. Here are some notable quotes from that interview.]
On who the starting quarterback might be:
Wilcox: Sam [Jackson] is the starter coming out of spring ball, and I fully expect Sam to continue to improve. He is a dynamic athlete. There’s some other guys in there that have done a really good job, they had a good spring, done some good things. Fernando [Mendoza] had a good spring, done some good things. Ben Finley, who transferred in, demonstrated an ability at this level … Sam earned the right to be a starter, and now he’s got to maintain. And not “maintain” in terms of his play, but the position on the depth chart, and what he’s tasked with is showing improvement as soon as we get back on the field in fall camp, which I fully expect him to do.
On how much better the Bears will be:
Wilcox: We have the opportunity to grow rapidly as a team. Because of the experience and/or relative inexperience of some of the players that are going to be playing … the chemistry, it grows in the winter, it grows in the summer—which it has been—it’ll grow in camp, and it needs to continue to grow. It’s not like “Ok, we get to the season, and this is our team, this is what we are,” not in the least bit. Our goal is, we need to be the most improved team, from game one until the end of the season. If we do that, we’ll be happy with the results.
To briefly summarize the rest of their conversation, even though it’s been beaten to death already, Wilcox acknowledges that the win/loss record isn’t where it needs to be, and they’re tired of talking about how they could have won a number of close games, but that they just need to go out and do it instead of talking about it. “We need to win… Talk is cheap, we need to go and get it done.” Wilcox talked about the strong support they get from the university and Chancellor Christ and the administration, and about the generous contributions from the NIL Collective being critical to the success of the team. Wilcox also had a really interesting answer (to a pretty strange question) where he reflected on how he enjoys the family atmosphere of a college football team (internally, all I could picture was the Ted Lasso character Danny Rojas repeating “football is life”). Wilcox opined that “there’s a lot of those characteristics that teams with strong chemistry share with a family, but they’re not all the same. Families, for the most part, it’s unconditional love. You screw up, I still love ya… but on the team, you have to give something. You have to provide value for the team for the team to give you that love back. I like that. That’s responsibility, that’s why you want that. You don’t want freeloaders. You don’t want people who can’t get right on the team. The thing we have—and not everybody’s perfect—the guys on the team expect that of each other, and that’s really important.” It was shortly followed by an unsurprising Wilcox quote, “I certainly didn’t get into coaching to be on the radio or have a TV show.”
I did eventually have the chance to ask my own questions.
Q: Everyone keeps talking about the close games. Historically, you’ve leaned really hard on the defense—UNC, BYU, UNLV, so many close games—I feel like hiring Jake Spavital has been a departure from that, has your coaching philosophy changed in terms of—?
Wilcox: Here, I will say this. That’s a good question, I see where you’re coming from… I think there’s a lot of ways to skin the cat. There’s a couple things that have shifted to me. Obviously, you have got to score points. In the Pac-12… we did a study, in the past 5 or 6 years of Pac-12 play, the winning team averaged 30 [points] and maybe last year, it might have even been 34 or 35. You’ve got to put the ball in the endzone. Now the defense has to get stops, and in order for the defense to get stops, they need to create field position and you got to keep them on the other side of the field. Special teams needs to be involved in that, create field position. The defense has to take the ball away to create more opportunities for the offense, and the offense has to put the ball in the endzone. I also believe in this era of college football with ‘the movement’ that the system has to be friendly for a transfer or a freshman. That doesn’t mean it’s a basic system, but the implementation and the verbiage and the words are friendly to learn. The challenge to us as teachers and coaches is to make sure that players can get it quickly, because the last thing we want is to be on the sideline with someone standing right here and saying he’s a better whatever, receiver or DB or linebacker than the guy playing, but he doesn’t know the system yet. That’s a bad answer, we cannot have that. With ‘the movement’—and we’re involved in it, we got a ton of new players—we want to make sure that the system, offense/defense/special teams, are as friendly to those newcomers as can possibly be without being basic. Does that make sense? And I think Jake [Spavital] has history in that, he’s scored points with different types of quarterbacks, the system is friendly, and also Jake has a great rapport in the recruiting world, especially at the quarterback position. So all those things played into that. So in terms of “philosophically”, yeah I guess we are always adjusting and adapting philosophically; you still have to play great defense, special teams needs to be a weapon, and offensively you have to create explosive plays and get the ball into the endzone.
Q: Do you think it will change the way you call games? It’s 24-21 Cal with a couple possessions left—
Wilcox: Oh, you’re talking about 4th downs and going for it and all that?
Q: I mean like in 2018 with a great defense that pulled through so many times, I’m just wondering if, with a stronger offense, it will change the way you call games.
Wilcox: I think you’re always going to lean on what gives you the best chance to win, that’s how I think about it. Hell, if it was up to us, or Peter [Sirmon] and I, you’d blitz and play man every play, because that’s what we want to do. However, that’s not always what’s best. So in those moments, there’s context to that— how’s the game going, how are we doing, what are the matchups like, and then you make the decisions during the game that in my estimation or in our estimation give us the best chance to win the game. Certainly you mentioned it, and we know this, we got to put the ball in the endzone, defense has to limit explosive plays and take the ball away, and we need to have special teams become a weapon for us.
With that, Wilcox was quickly ushered off to a radio interview. It probably won’t come across in text or the selection of quotes I’ve chosen here, but I was really struck by what a genuine, down-to-earth, and likeable dude Coach Wilcox was. He’s really easy to root for, and even though I think the top of the Pac-12 will be very tough this season (e.g. Utah, USC, Oregon, Washington; all of whom Cal plays this season), I’m really hoping Coach Wilcox can help turn it around for Cal this season.
I was able to ask another question during the televised segment though, although I completely forgot that you’re supposed to breathe while talking, and I wasn’t prepared for what it was like to talk into a mic and not be able to hear myself speak. I guess I’m not cut out for the radio or a TV show either.
You can find the full Justin Wilcox TV appearance here:
Matthew Cindric and Jackson Sirmon’s TV appearance can be seen here:
The softball question I wanted to lob to Matthew Cindric about Golden Buddies was quickly usurped by TV host Yogi Roth, first in the Wilcox interview, and then again once Cindric was on stage. Oh well. I would have been happy to highlight the positives of Cal’s football program, and as a Cal alum I’m proud that Cal’s leaders are exemplary both on and off the field. It’s much better than listening to some other team’s coach talk about what a leader a certain player is because of his X yards and Y touchdowns, as that same player reads a PR/lawyer-approved apology letter for his off-the-field conduct.
I’m not sure if we’ll be having another Pac-12 (10? 9? 8?) Media Day next year, but I am thankful I was able to attend, and again I am super grateful to Matthew Cindric, Jackson Sirmon, and Coach Wilcox for their time and patience. This season might be the last time we see USC and UCLA (and perhaps other conference members) for a while, so I hope Cal can make this a memorable season.