BERKELEY — Cal is still waiting on definitive word whether it will move to the Atlantic Coast Conference next season. But as the college football landscape undergoes seismic change on all fronts, the Golden Bears appear to be gaining a foothold with the transfer portal.
The Golden Bears will have as many as 19 first-year transfer players on the team plane this week as they head to Denton, Texas for their Saturday opener against the North Texas Mean Green.
Nine of those — including quarterback Sam Jackson V, formerly of TCU — are listed as starters or co-starters. The newcomers hail from schools in 14 states, with at least one from every Power Five conference in the country.
“It’s just a new era — it’s different,” said coach Justin Wilcox, who started four transfers in the Bears’ 2022 opener. “You have so many new faces from where we were a year ago. But it’s exciting, too, because the dynamics change and the competitiveness certainly increased at a number of spots.
“It’s not dull. It’s been enjoyable to watch those guys come in and work and gain the respect of their teammates. There’s a bunch of them that are going to help us.”
That’s the idea. The Bears have suffered three consecutive losing seasons and the transfer portal allows teams to address personnel needs by restocking the shelves with veterans.
The Bears added two quarterbacks, four running backs (although two are currently injured), three wide receivers, two offensive linemen, four defensive backs and a punter.
Cal quarterbacks Fernando Mendoza (15), Ben Finley (10) and Luke Bottari (17) make throws during training camp at Memorial Stadium I Berkeley, Calif., on Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2023. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)
Cal, whose high school recruiting efforts can be limited by academic constraints, has made progress with the transfer portal by addressing two issues.
First, the university developed an assortment of one-year, post-graduate certificate programs to which transfers can more easily gain admission than the full-fledged Master’s programs.
“The certificate program has certainly improved that process. It can always be better,” Wilcox said. “With the number of transfers we’re seeing, you’ve got to have some availability of programs.”
The other issue impacting the recruiting process is Name, Image and Likeness (NIL), the NCAA legislation which allows supporters of the program to contribute to funds that provide cash payments to players.
“It’s the No. 1 question you get in recruiting right now,” Wilcox said. “It’s a totally different environment than it was a year, two, three years ago. The dollars that are being spent across the country are eye-opening. So having a collective and building that collective to be as robust as possible, that’s a big, big deal.”
Wilcox said he spends time all year reaching out to potential contributors to Cal’s NIL collective, seeking their financial support as he aims to keep pace with others in the Pac-12 and across college football.
“We still have some ground to make up,” he said. “The best thing we can do as a team is go play great football. And also educate the folks out there who want to support the NIL collective (on) what the environment is.”
Not everyone is cashing in. Cal wide receiver Brian Hightower began his career at Miami and graduated from Illinois earlier this year. He transferred to Cal — without any NIL inducement — in order to improve his chances of playing a major role on the field. He is listed as a co-starter for the Bears’ opening game.
“That’s really what mattered to me,” Hightower said, “just trying to achieve my dreams but also turn a great program around that’s been good in the past.”
Defensive coordinator Peter Sirmon, whose unit saw a dip in performance last fall after a series of strong seasons, has welcomed help at linebacker and in the secondary.
Florida transfer David Reese is listed as a co-starter at outside linebacker and Sergio Allen, formerly of Clemson, is a No. 2 at inside linebacker.
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There are four new players in the secondary, including starting safety Patrick McMorris (San Diego State), cornerback Nohl Williams (UNLV) and nickel back Matthew Littlejohn (Citrus College).
“We thought we needed to bring in an infusion of talent to offset some of the departures and play at a higher level,” Sirmon said.
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McMorris, the 2022 Mountain West Conference co-Defensive Player of the Year, said the prospect of facing quarterbacks Caleb Williams (USC), Michael Penix Jr. (Washington), Bo Nix (Oregon) and Cam Rising (Utah) — all regarded as future NFL Draft material — was a motivating factor his decision to come to Cal.
“It’s definitely a transition from the Mountain West to the Pac-12,” McMorris said. “You see all these guys who can really throw the ball. It’s not daunting — definitely it’s exciting, being able to prove that you belong.”
The Bears are hoping all their transfer portal newcomers can help give the team the boost it needs to belong higher in the Pac-12 standings.