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"It makes it a little more difficult. Everything's easy when you win," he said, adding that the message to recruits remains the same. "Come to Cal, get the best education in the world, play winning football, live in the Bay Area, be part of a family atmosphere.

"The winning football part . . . they have to have a little bit of faith in us."

Dykes was hired to replace Jeff Tedford after a 3-9 season in 2012 and generated initial buzz because of his high-scoring teams at Louisiana Tech. So far, it hasn't translated. The Bears not only lost their final 10 games, they rarely were competitive.

Most first-year coaches who inherit rebuilding jobs show some early progress, providing validation to recruits. Since 2009, new regimes at Washington, Arizona, UCLA and Arizona State made first-year improvements ranging from two to five victories.

Cal went in the opposite direction, and recruits noticed.

"Guys want to play for winning programs," said Adam Gorney, a recruiting expert from Rivals.com. They look at Cal, he said, and "the supporting cast isn't around them." Jaleel Wadood, a four-star (out of five) cornerback from Bellflower, decommitted from Cal last month and announced this week he will sign with UCLA. Three other top Cal targets are listed by Scout and Rivals as "soft commits." Among those, running back Tre Watson, who has rushed for more than 3,400 yards and 48 touchdowns this fall for Centennial-Corona, told this newspaper he remains firm with Cal.

"They did have a rough season, but I can have a big impact and can come in and help them turn it around," Watson said. "I don't plan on changing my mind. But I'm still going to weigh my choices." Cal fans know better than most that an oral commitment isn't binding. Two years ago, the Bears were on the cusp of a top-10 national recruiting class when assistant coach and ace recruiter Tosh Lupoi left for Washington. The Bears' class took a noticeable hit.

Neither Huffman nor Gorney is convinced the Bears will hold onto Watson.

Complicating things is Dykes' mandate to recruit a higher-level student as the athletic department works to improve the football program's academic profile. "It can be done," Dykes said.

But it means being selective, particularly when combing the junior college ranks, where the Bears hope to secure talent that can provide immediate help in areas such as the defensive line and secondary.

According to Huffman, Dykes and his staff must convince recruits that 2013 was an aberration and the newcomers can be a big part of the solution.

"You tell Joe Five-Star, you have an opportunity to play right now," Huffman said.

The Joe Five-Star in Cal's recruiting sights is Joe Mixon, a 6-foot-2, 210-pound running back from Freedom-OakleyThree months ago Huffman thought Cal was the leader. Now, no one seems to know, including Mixon.

Mixon confirmed this week Cal remains among his four finalists and said the Bears' gruesome 2013 season isn't a deal-breaker. "I really don't care too much about it. ... It would be good if they had a winning record," he said.

Contrary to popular wisdom, Mixon said proximity to home won't provide Cal a decisive edge, either.

So what matters?

"Basically, life after football," said Mixon, who plans to make his announcement Jan. 4 at an all-star game in San Antonio. "I've got to do what's best for me." With Oklahoma, Wisconsin and UCLA still in the running, the Bears would seem a longshot. Gorney wondered if a 1-11 team ever has landed a five-star prospect, but tossed Cal fans a holiday bouquet when asked if Mixon could buck that trend.

"A very big possibility," he said.

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