Year One of the Sonny Dykes era as head coach at California did not go as well as hoped.
The Golden Bears finished without a win in the Pac-12 and just a 1-11 record, overall. Cal's sole victory was a 37-30 win over FCS Portland State on September 7.
Despite the struggles (or perhaps because of them), several of Cal's most talented underclassmen choose to leave early for the NFL. Cal, in fact, tied with Alabama and Southern Cal for second among all universities last year in early entrants to the draft with five each, two behind LSU. Only two Cal players of any eligibility were ultimately drafted - tight end Richard Rodgers and linebacker Khairi Fortt, both juniors.
Another year of recruiting players to fit Dyke's innovative spread offense should help bring up the overall talent level but with a senior class gutted by last year's early entrants, 2015 could be a another lean year for the Bears. Some intriguing underclassmen dot the roster. Unfortunately, many of them also come with durability concerns.
California's top NFL Draft-eligible prospects to watch in 2014:
1. OG Jordan Rigsbee, RS Junior (6-4 | 310 | 5.32 | #73)
The good news for Cal fans isn't just that their top-ranked prospects are underclassmen but that due to their position and size limitations, they're less likely to gamble on declaring for the NFL early. Rigsbee, projected to start his third consecutive season on the inside, could be an exception. His aggression and upper body strength have stood out at left guard the past two years and with these traits should help him perform well at center, where he lined up in the spring for the Bears.
On tape, Rigsbee looks shorter and stockier than his listed size. His stout frame and tenacity is well-suited to the interior, where the battles are won and lost with leverage and power. Rigsbee plays with heavy hands, jolting defenders with his initial punch and shoving them off the line when run blocking. He plays with a nasty disposition, scrapping through the whistle's echo.
While Rigsbee's wrestler's mentality makes for some exciting de-cleaters, he's far from a sure thing as an NFL prospect. Rigsbee is so consumed with knocking defenders back that he gets over-balanced, leaving himself vulnerable to over-arm swim moves and light-footed pass rushers able to slip past him on counters. This is especially true when he's asked to block at the second level, where his average change of direction and speed are exposed.
2. WR Chris Harper, Junior (5-11 | 170 | 4.53 | #6)
Though he hasn't received much help from Cal's collection of quarterbacks the past two seasons, Harper has quietly established himself as one of the Pac-12's most explosive and versatile weapons, earning a "poor man's DeSean Jackson" by one scout familiar with the program.
Harper does not possess Jackson's straight-line speed but possesses a similarly wiry frame with good lateral agility, hands and determination to maximize the yardage gained. He wasn't an especially highly regarded prep but quickly rose up Cal's depth chart, earning five starts as a freshman and ranking second to only Keenan Allen in catches (41), receiving yards (544) and touchdowns (two) in 2012. Harper followed that up with 70 receptions for a team-leading 852 yards and five scores as an encore.
Dykes' scheme spotlights Harper, allowing the diminutive receiver to gain easy releases out of the slot and getting the ball into his hands in the open field where his elusiveness, vision and burst make him most dangerous. His light feet and balance make him a very efficient route-runner and he possesses soft hands, though size limitations are a obvious concern when projecting him to the next level.
3. OLB Jalen Jefferson, RS Junior (6-2 | 230 | 4.67 | #7)
While some the prospects that former head coach Jeff Tedford brought to Berkeley are relatively poor schematic fits for Dykes' systems, Jefferson's agility and speed make him an intriguing candidate as a chase linebacker in the 4-3. Jefferson lined up at strongside throughout much of his sophomore campaign, racking up 64 tackles (three off the team lead), 6.5 tackles for loss and tying for tops in sacks with three.
Jefferson could use more time in the weight room, playing last season with a relatively slim build for linebacker. He possesses very light feet and good balance to beat backs to the edge, as well as avoid blockers and break down to make the effective open-field tackle. He isn't an explosive hitter but wraps his arms securely to drag ball-carriers to the ground.
Jefferson is prone to over-aggression, however, too often over-committing and leaving cutback opportunities to savvy runners. The junior needs polish but the tools are there to develop.
Other Cal prospects worth watching:
S Avery Sebastian, Senior (5-10 | 195 | 4.59 | #4)
Sebastian was one of several crippling injuries to the defense last season, tearing his Achilles in the season-opener. He earned Honorable Mention all-conference honors in 2012 as a part-time starter and looked like a future standout. He has some 'tweener traits but showed off the combination of athleticism and awareness in the past that could generate interest if he returns to health.
DB Stefan McClure, RS Junior (5-11 | 200 | 4.53 | #21)
McClure signed with Cal as a highly touted prep and looked like a future standout, starting twice as a true freshman. He's suffered two ACL tears and undergone microfracture surgery on his knee since, missing all but five games last year. His previous experience came at cornerback but McClure is currently listed by Bears as a safety.
DE/OLB Brennan Scarlett, Senior (6-3 | 260 | 4.97 | #17)
Scarlett suffered from an infection in his surgically-repaired hand a season ago and missed the entire 2013 campaign. Used as an OLB in former defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergrast's 3-4 scheme, Scarlett recorded 40 tackles, six tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks in 2012. Like his teammates in Cal's secondary, with a return to health, Scarlett could help spark a defensive turnaround this season for the Bears and intrigue NFL scouts, along the way.
WR Bryce Treggs, Junior (5-11 | 180 | 4.49 | #1)
Though he didn't produce as many big plays as Harper, Treggs actually led the Golden Bears with 77 receptions (for 751 yards and a score). He possesses a slim build but good agility and speed. His father, Brian, also played at Cal and spent one year at receiver with the Seattle Seahawks.