CALIFORNIA – Under normal circumstances, a 7-4 record would be reason to celebrate for most college football programs.
But California University is not like most colleges when it comes to football.
The Vulcans have become accustomed to better records and playoff appearances. That’s where the bar is set.
That’s also why last year, while looking good on paper, that record was viewed by the team as being not good enough.
“Our expectations are high and I don’t think anybody was excited about being 7-4,” Cal head coach Gary Dunn said. “We were what we were and we have to improve on that. We were a young team last year with a first-year quarterback. The entire team was young and I don’t think we were a mature team. We started two freshman defensive tackles, we started a freshman quarterback and we had a running back who had his first year with us. We had a team that really hadn’t been together for a long time. And it was just about immaturity.”
The good news for the Vulcans is that last year‘s starting lineup was made up of many new or relatively inexperienced players. Those same players return with a year of experience and a better understanding of what the expectations are with this team in the rugged PSAC West.
The best example might just be quarterback Noah Mitchell, who won the starting job coming out of fall camp as a freshman. He had a good season but admitted that he has to play better if Cal is to make its way back to the NCAA Division II playoffs this season after a swing and a miss 2018 season.
“Last year, I really struggled with keeping possession of the ball,” he said. “The big thing there is to hold on to the ball. People can say, ‘Oh, he’s a freshman, he can get away with those mistakes.’ But I hold myself to a higher standard. I think there was a lot of underachievement last season. We had a lot of star power on that team and it could have taken us a lot further than 7-4. We’re going to come back and prove that this year.”
Mitchell completed 56 percent of his passes for 2,759 yards and 19 touchdowns. What bothered him though was the 14 interceptions he threw out of his 390 attempts.
“The biggest thing I bought into this summer was the weight room,” he said. “I put on a lot more weight and a lot more strength. Now I’m ready to come out there and compete. I think that will be a big part to how I perform this season. … The most important thing I learned about last season was to not let past successes determine future outcomes. Just because it worked one time doesn’t mean it’s gonna be there again. That’s what I have to get better at and more mature with on the field.”
Dunn said that Mitchell has shown a ravenous appetite to improve, not only his play but that of the team.
“He’s worked really hard and put weight on. He spent the entire summer here dedicated to getting better,” Dunn said. “He’s given himself an opportunity to have a great season. You don’t have to ask him to do anything. He’s a self-motivator. He realized he needed to be a little bit stronger. He’s a football junkie. He loves to be in the office, loves to be with the coaches going over stuff. He understands his role has grown this year. He’s taken more ownership of the offense. We put a lot on our quarterbacks. We were coming in with a first-year quarterback after having a guy who was here for five years. So we’re going to ask him to do a little bit more.”
Tailback Nelson Brown also was a fresh face in the California backfield. A transfer from Lenoir-Rhyne, Brown ran for 1,201 yards and scored 21 touchdowns.
“We’re excited to get Nelson back,” Dunn said. “He’s in great shape. There’s another guy who has a year in our program.”
One of the weaknesses of this team was that no effective backup running back emerged during the season. Nick Grissom carried the ball only 35 times for 153 yards and Mitchell ended up being the third-leading rusher on the team with 124. Finding someone to give Brown a breather is imperative if the running game is going to be more effective. Brown, a senior, carried the ball 258 times last season.
Another key is the health of senior wide receiver Jordan Dandridge, who missed four games and had 38 catches for 549 yards and four touchdowns. He was second on the team with a 14.4-yard average per catch. Junior Tyson Hill led Cal with 61 receptions for 905 yards and five touchdowns.
On defense, the Vulcans are depending on two New Castle High School graduates, linebacker Julian Cox and All-American defensive back Lamont McPhatter.
McPhatter had five interceptions last season, returning one for a 100-yard touchdown. He was third on the team with 63 tackles and broke up four passes. He had 3 1/2 sacks, recovered two fumbles, and forced two fumbles.
“Lamont is the heart and soul of that bunch,” Dunn said.
Cox, a transfer from Albany, was injured in the first half of the first game and missed the remainder of the season. He will start at middle linebacker.