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Duck Dive: California Football 2021 Preview

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Going deep with the Golden Bears’ scheme, returning personnel, and unknowns

NCAA Football: Oregon at California Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Special thanks to Rob Hwang of Write For California for speaking with me on the Quack 12 Podcast during our deep dive into the Golden Bear roster. Listen HERE.


NCAA Football: Oregon at California Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Offense

Cal’s starting quarterback is well entrenched - #7 QB Garbers will have the job for the third straight year (arguably fourth, if one ignores the staff’s bizarre indecision in 2018). I’ve never thought he’s a top level passer and I think his development has been hampered by never having played a full slate of games, but I hardly think he’s a liability at this point either.

The more significant issue at the position is that they have practically zero depth behind him. Three QBs have now transferred out — Spencer Brasch, Jaden Casey, and Devon Modster — and 4-star true freshman Kai Millner isn’t on campus yet. That leaves just two other quarterbacks in the room right now: #19 QB Z. Johnson, a low 3-star from the 2020 class who didn’t attempt a pass last year but who’s “firmly QB2” according to Rob, and walk-on redshirt junior #15 QB Rowell. In the Spring game, Johnson had a couple of nice passes but due to what were obviously several freshman mistakes. Considering Cal’s recent misfortunes at the position, I’ll be closely watching the backup QB competition in Fall camp between Johnson and Millner.

Conversely, I think Cal will have adequate depth at the receiver position: they lost just one longtime wideout, Makai Polk, to transfer, and bring back #80 WR Clark, #11 WR Crawford, #4 WR Remigio, and #14 WR M. Young. Those four had 35 catches between them in four games.

The biggest limiting factor in their offense, in my opinion, is that they haven’t had any wideouts who can create separation in years. Cal’s receivers are bringing along two 2020 recruits about whom Rob has been raving for a couple years, #22 WR Baker and #10 WR Hunter, as finally adding some speed to the corps, and Rob also mentioned a couple more returners he likes in #89 WR Christakos and #29 WR Lee. They’ll also be adding two 4-stars from the 2021 class in the Fall, Mavin Anderson and J. Michael Sturdivant, and considering the general talent situation they’re walking into I wouldn’t be surprised if they got some playing time right away. In OC Musgrave’s offense Cal will likely be in 11- or 12-personnel on most snaps, so eight to ten playable receivers should be sufficient.

The most intriguing position, and by extension what direction Musgrave intends to take the offense in year two, is the tight ends. Cal returns three who have been around for awhile — #16 TE C. Moore, #84 TE Reinwald, and #85 TE Tonges — but I’ve never been particularly impressed with this unit either as blockers or pass catchers. I suspect Moore will wind up as Cal’s new fullback since Drew Schlegel transferred out after coming in as a grad transfer from Kentucky last year.

The exciting prospect is #87 TE Terry, a 4-star true freshman who could actually be the do-everything tight end whom I believe Musgrave’s offense demands, and he looked pretty good in the Spring game right up until he was injured on a low tackle by a DB and left the game on crutches. The program has been tight-lipped about his condition. If he makes a full recovery I expect that Terry will get the starting job, and he’s such a significant potential talent upgrade that he could make a qualitative difference in this pro-style offense.

NCAA Football: Oregon at California Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

I think the running backs have been the strength of Cal’s offense for several years; I really like the powerful running style and yards after contact this group brings. Cal returns three who each had 20-40 carries over their four games: #34 RB Brown (the veteran, but who was partially injured last year), #23 RB Dancy, and the breakout freshman #28 RB D. Moore, while losing another powerful back, former Wisconsin transfer Bradrick Shaw.

The fourth back in the room is a smaller, change-of-pace guy in #24 RB Street who was a high 3-star recruit in the 2020 class. Rob and I disagreed on the podcast about whether Moore is like Brown and Dancy in the thumper category or like Street in the speedster one; I didn’t see much top-end breakaway speed from Moore, but with only four games and rotating four ballcarriers it was a small sample size and I could be wrong about him.

The other significant limiting factor in Cal’s offense the last several years, in my opinion, has been an offensive line without a lot of talent to go around. In 2020, the Bears had an absurd number of linemen who would be unavailable in their first three games, but did get all their starters back for the last. All told, Cal played ten different linemen over their four games, which if nothing else means a pretty good amount of experienced depth for 2021. The good news (or bad news, depending on how one looks at it) is that the backups didn’t strike me as much of a dropoff if at all compared to the starters.

There’s one departure, longtime right tackle Jake Curhan, but the other nine return. I think #53 C Saffell and #74 LT Craig (the unit’s only 4-star and the highest composite rated by a wide margin) have secure jobs. It will be interesting to see how the battle to replace Curhan goes since #78 RT Mello got most of the backup snaps but #62 RT Coleman is higher rated and looked just as good to me when he played, as did backup #63 LT Rohme. I also think the guard spots look pretty fluid right now, with #73 OG Cindric, #61 OG Daltoso, #60 OG Driscoll, and #72 OG Mettauer all getting meaningful playing time over the last two years, though each with significant error rates on my tally sheet.

I’m not sure what to expect from this group since former Oregon legend Steve Greatwood retired and OL coach McClure took over last year. He’s better known as a recruiter than a developer at his previous stops (Nebraska, UCLA, and Nevada), though I’ve never been impressed with his results at either duty. My best guess is that this is a high-floor, low-ceiling o-line, given all the experience but lack of game-changing talent, and I have my doubts about McClure turning this room full of mostly low 3-stars into maulers.


NCAA Football: Stanford at California Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Defense

Cal’s defensive deterioration since their remarkable zenith in 2018 can largely be traced to personnel problems on their defensive line. They haven’t had a real nose tackle to play in their 3-down front for two years, and in 2020 the covid-related opt-outs and other unavailabilities disproportionately affected the d-line.

Even though I don’t believe any played a single snap in 2020, it looks like from the Spring game that Cal will have #58 NG McKenzie and #91 NG Correia ready to play and they’re the right body types for the job, although I’m not sure about #97 NG Maldonado who’s struggled with injuries and is listed at only 275 lbs.

If they do have a nose, then that would give a lot of relief to #90 DE B. Johnson, by far Cal’s best d-lineman — I think he’s one of the best in the league and was Cal’s most talented player on either side in 2020 — who was forced to play 0-tech in 2020 because Cal had simply run out of bodies. Unfortunately, Johnson was involved in a car accident after Rob and I talked on the podcast, and reports are that he’ll miss the 2021 season.

Without him, as well as several other departures from the line, Cal is left with only one experienced returner: #47 DE Tevis, a low 3-star from the 2018 class. Rob predicted that #95 DE Calhoun, a low 4-star true freshman who enrolled early, and Derek Wilkins, a high 3-star true freshman who’ll arrive for the Fall, will play right away (and Rob made that call before Johnson’s injury).

Everyone else on Cal’s roster on the defensive line are either freshmen who haven’t arrived yet, or guys who didn’t play last year despite the fact that in a couple games the same three d-linemen took every snap and their exhaustion by the 4th quarter was obvious. Even though they made a real effort in the 2021 class to fill this unit back up, overall Cal just hasn’t recruited this position very well in either numbers or talent. I’ll be paying the most attention to this group in Fall camp, because I’m seriously concerned that the Bears simply won’t have enough able bodies to field a functional, let alone high-quality, defensive line for the second straight year.

The other position hit hard by injuries for the last couple of years has been outside linebacker, which in this defense plays up on the line. They haven’t really been able to field two highly talented OLBs at the same time to give them a double-eagle look since 2018, between injuries to the excellent #19 OLB Goode early in that season and a rash of injuries to other OLBs in 2020. Compounding this problem was the stubborn refusal (one of the most perplexing in the conference over the last three years) to put 4-star JUCO #8 OLB Deng on the outside, instead insisting for the last two seasons that he play ILB where I’ve documented serious liabilities in his out-of-position play.

In 2021, Cal may well fix these problems at the position. Goode is healthy and is returning, Deng has finally been officially switched back to OLB, and backups #52 OLB Croteau, #33 OLB Jernigan, and #48 OLB Patu got a number of reps last year. They’ve also recruited a couple OLBs in the 2021 class for depth.

Oregon v California Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

There’s then some intrigue at inside linebacker. In 2020 the one I liked most was #55 ILB M. Iosefa, who I think surpassed the original starter #54 ILB Tattersall. We also saw a few reps from #51 ILB Antzoulatos and #50 ILB K. Smith, and Rob tells us that they’ve moved a bigger safety up to backer, #27 ILB Paster.

There isn’t a lot of experience here - Cal notoriously didn’t rotate their linebackers at all for most of the last four years, and between Deng taking up reps at a position he shouldn’t have been playing, Iosefa splitting time with the other new ILBs, and Paster being new to the position, none of them have more than about a dozen tackles in their careers. There are some opportunities for quality play here — Cal has a defensive system that funnels everything to the ILBs and produced several incredibly productive tacklers at the position since 2017 — but it remains to be seen if this green unit can actually do it.

The moves of Paster inside and Deng outside opposite Goode suggest that Cal may be returning to a full-time 3-4, after playing a lot of reps in nickel the last two seasons (either a 2-4-5 or 3-3-5). Their defensive backs are pretty well situated to play a traditional base with four DBs. They lose Cam Bynum but return everyone else, and I think this is a pretty good group: #7 CB Anusiem and #20 CB Drayden as the outside corners (Drayden was the nickel but would play outside when they went back to a 3-4), plus #3 DB Hicks, who’s fully converted from a corner to a safety and looks good for it.

They’ve got a number of good-looking options for the other safety: #32 DB Scott and #26 DB Woodson played pretty well last year, and they’ve brought in 4-star transfer #5 DB Woodie from Florida St as well as true freshman #31 DB Barth whom Rob likes a lot for the position. Backup corner is more of an unknown; Rob listed four potential guys on the podcast plus there are two 2021 recruits, but I haven’t seen any of them play and we’ll just have to wait for Fall camp to get any real information there.

With the caveat that Johnson’s injury may change everything (again), the conclusion that Rob and I came to on the podcast is that returning to a 3-4 and getting everybody in positions they should have been playing in the first place would be the most logical move for this defense … but truth be known Cal’s defense has stumped my logical reasoning for the past two seasons. I don’t have a good answer for why Cal has altered its structure and defensive playcaller since their peak in 2018. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to solve this puzzle, between the coaching swaps with Cal and Oregon and the general mystery of who’s actually designing the Bears’ defense with arguably three to six cooks in that kitchen, I’m not sure I ever will; the problems of which personnel are actually available present too many compounding variables to reverse engineer an answer from game film.


Stanford v California Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Accountability Corner

In last summer’s preview of Cal, I was skeptical of certain media speculation at the time that their big returning production percentage meant they were a Pac-12 North title contender, largely because I didn’t think much of their offensive line or skill talent and thought Garbers’ numbers were something of a mirage, and I think that was borne out in 2020. Assessing any team after such a screwy 2020 is tough, but all the issues I was seeing regarding the coaching staff changes and problems implementing a new scheme and developing modest talent certainly cropped up over the abbreviated season. I think noting that the running backs were the strength of this side of the ball turned out to be true as well.

On the defense, I think I made too big of a deal regarding how the coaching changes would play out. Schematically and in terms of defensive back development, I think Cal was just fine in 2020 and my hand-wringing about those things didn’t mean a lot. But my predictions about how the linebackers would go and the difficulty replacing their 2017-18 group were spot on. I think I accurately predicted the fundamental problem Cal has with not having enough quality defensive linemen to go around, though that was exacerbated by covid in ways that I can’t claim credit for.