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Duck Dive: California Football 2022 Preview

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

California v Oregon Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images

Special thanks to Rob Hwang of Write for California for joining me on the Quack 12 Podcast to discuss Cal’s roster. LISTEN HERE


Offense

Rob relayed an interesting story on the podcast about why Chase Garbers didn’t have the only 4-star quarterback in the room backing him up last season - when Write for Cal interviewed OC Musgrave this Spring and asked why the backups didn’t get any playing time, Musgrave responded candidly that they weren’t blowing out teams that they expected to blow out and therefore didn’t have any garbage time to put the backups in for. The Bears opened the season with a 1-5 record, finishing 5-7 with several losses to teams they were probably counting on beating, including otherwise winless Arizona.

Reviewing Musgrave’s squad for the last two years at Cal, I’ve referred to it as trying to recreate Stanford’s 2011 offense but without Andrew Luck, a dominant offensive line, or anywhere near the caliber of tight ends and receivers, and constantly creating long fruitless drives as a result. That Musgrave was surprised at Cal’s unproductive offense in turn surprised me – I think any fan of modern college football could have told the 30-year NFL veteran that would happen.

I think that, similar to Arizona, Cal has gone a long way in 2022 in turning over their tight ends and receivers and will finally have some good-looking options to throw to, and their running backs will continue to be strong and reliable. But I also think that they’re probably taking a step back at QB and offensive line (and longtime readers will recall I didn’t think those were great to begin with), and unlike Arizona, I don’t think their playcaller has learned the lesson that an NFL offense without NFL players throughout the roster doesn’t work in the Pac-12.

On paper, there are a number of options to replace Garbers, the departing four-year starter, and Ryan Glover, the Penn transfer who played the Arizona game that Garbers missed who’s also leaving despite playing in the Spring game. Cal returns the alluded-to 2021 low 4-star #2 QB Millner, 2020 low 3-star #16 QB Z. Johnson, and redshirt senior walk-on #15 QB Rowell. They’ve also added 2022 2-star Fernando Mendoza as a scholarship QB, who was in talks for a preferred walk-on offer at Alabama and was previously commited to Yale, though he wasn’t on campus for Spring ball.

But realistically this job is almost certainly going to #13 QB Plummer, a 2018 high 3-star and older brother of the Arizona QB, who transferred in from Purdue after losing a three-year running battle with Aidan O’Connell in West Lafayette. Rob and I had a long discussion about whether this situation should be considered an indictment of the coaching staff since they clearly haven’t recruited or developed anybody ready to play behind Garbers. I haven’t watched much film on Plummer but his 2021 NCAA passer rating of 143.8 was actually almost 8 points higher than Garbers’ last season. I think the best interpretation of Plummer’s time with the Boilermakers is that he was more risk averse and reluctant to throw deep down the field or put the ball in danger. That plus his experience are probably dispositive to Cal’s conservative coaching staff … though there’s a possibility that he gets pulled midseason for the third time in his career if Cal’s offense turns out to be as anemic as I suspect.

The other issue that would concern me about Plummer is that he probably lacks Garbers’ scrambling ability, which I thought frequently bailed the Bears out from poor playcalling and offensive line protection over the years. Garbers has outpaced Plummer in career net rushing yardage by exactly 1,100 yards over their careers – 1,174 to 74.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 20 Cal at Stanford Photo by Bob Kupbens/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The running back room has in my opinion been the strength of Cal’s offense for the last several years and I don’t think that’ll change in 2022. They lose their leading and third-leading rushers in Christopher Brooks and Marcel Dancy, but they return #28 RB D. Moore who was a very close second, plus two other good-looking backs in the backup rotation with Dancy in #24 RB Street and #25 RB D. Brooks, and another backup with a couple carries in #31 RB Stredick. All four returners are powerful, hard-running backs who plowed through the Bears’ frequently inelegant run blocking to pick up methodical gains with significant yardage after contact, though I don’t think I saw any with real breakaway speed and they’re all mid 3-stars in terms of talent.

The interesting question will be the true freshmen, who may be a cut above what Cal has had recently. High 3-star Ashton Hayes is coming in for Fall camp, and 4-star #6 RB Ott (a former Oregon commit) was on campus for the Spring game and he looks like the real deal. Ott already seems to be at an appropriate playing weight for his frame and I wouldn’t be surprised if he quickly became the second part of a primarily two-back rotation with Moore, or even just became the primary back.

Cal will lose all three of their redshirt senior tight ends from 2021: Gavin Reinwald, Jake Tonges, and Collin Moore. At least one of these guys was in on virtually every rep last year in an offense that primarily used 12-, 13-, and even 14-personnal sets, and they accounted for over 80% of the receptions and yards by the TE unit. That trio was a 2-star and a couple of walk-ons and I was never particularly impressed with their level of play over the years. I think the staff showed some counterproductive loyalty to those seniors over the higher-ceiling players Cal recruited in the more recent classes.

That’s the most optimistic explanation for why 4-star #87 TE Terry only got one catch last year, and mid 3-stars #81 TE Mojarro and #40 TE Latu only got three and four, respectively. There are four other tight ends in the unit including a walk-on and a converted linebacker according to Rob, but they didn’t get any play last year and Cal took no additional TEs this cycle. Rob relayed that Terry and Latu have transformed their bodies with the former slimming down and the latter bulking up, though the official roster still lists Latu and Mojarro as 10 - 15 lbs under ideal playing weight. Terry seems like he should be good to go, however, and from what I’ve seen of these guys in the last two Spring games I think this will be a net upgrade over last year’s unit by September. I’m not wild about an offense that wants to rely this heavily on so many untested tight ends, but I don’t think they’ll run out of bodies for it.

NCAA Football: Sacramento State at California Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

The wide receiver room looks fairly similar to me – probably a net upgrade in terms of higher ceiling talent but without much experience. The departures have been mainstays at Cal for a long time: clutch slot receiver Nikko Remigio and flankers Trevon Clark and Kekoa Crawford. I’ve been writing about how Cal’s passing offense was held back by the lack of real speed at this position for several years now, and think the recruits from the 2020 and 2021 cycles look a lot more promising.

The returner with the most receptions last year was #10 WR Hunter, who I think was their best outside receiver and should have gotten more. Three other receivers got a few targets in 2021 - #22 WR Baker, #82 WR Mangum, and # 14 WR M. Young, all of whom return. But the entire returning receiver corps only had 33 catches last year, and Rob thinks that a couple of those guys’ spots could be taken by some 4-star true sophomores who didn’t get any catches last year, #17 WR Anderson and #7 WR Sturdivant. There’s also 6’4” mid 3-star #89 WR Christakos who I’ve seen really high point some balls in past Spring games, and low 3-star #29 WR Lee whom Rob thinks was set to push for serious playing time last year before he got hurt.

All told there are a dozen receivers in the room including a walk-on who got significant Spring game reps and a couple of 2022 additions. I’m sure that Hunter is playable and the law of averages suggests they’ll get four or five more playable guys out of the eleven other relatively or totally untested receivers, and that’s enough depth for an offense that usually has multiple tight ends on the field. The experience level isn’t ideal but I don’t think this unit will be the bottleneck for the offense that I believe it sometimes has been in the past.

The more likely bottleneck for this offense is going to be the offensive line. In my in-season preview of Cal last year, I noted that these guys could generate efficiency rushes simply by leaning forward on basic run calls, but were hopeless at executing any kind of complex blocking scheme and a liability in pass protection. I think that pattern will repeat in 2022 but with even less talent to do it, as they lose by far their best lineman and only 4-star in left tackle Will Craig. They’ll also lose the two starters on the right side of the line, McKade Mettauer and Valentino Daltoso.

Rob confirmed my guess that probably their best returning lineman (and highest rated currently on campus) #62 OL Coleman will be moving from starting left guard to left tackle, since he had some experience at the position in 2020 when the Bears had to do a lot of injury-based rotation. For the same reason I think backup #63 OL Rohme will take the starting right tackle spot. #73 C Cindric returns and he’s easy to pencil in as the starting center again, though I’ve never been wild about his level of play for the past few years.

Picking out the guards is a challenge since there are no real talent standouts and virtually no other experience. Based on the Spring game, where it seemed like there was a first-string and a second-string line (the latter was protecting Millner and doing a spectacularly poor job of it, preventing me from getting any good looks at his throwing form), I’ll guess that #76 OL Swinney and #77 OL E. Johnson get the starts. Interestingly, Cal took TJ Session from the transfer portal last week, who was unrated out of high school but was a starter for the Montana St team that made it to the FCS championship game last year. On the podcast Rob thought Cal might take another lineman from the portal, and he was right as two days later they picked up Spencer Lovell who started for the second half of last season at right guard for Arizona St.

I think that’s a referendum on where the rest of the unit is at, which is just six other returners I haven’t named, all of whom are 2-stars or low-to-mid 3-stars. Eleven returning linemen constitutes a pretty thin room and I’d be very concerned about the starters taking an injury or two, which unfortunately seems to happen on an annual basis at Cal. They’ve taken four prep recruits in 2022 and three of them are high 3-stars (in fact each one will be higher rated than any returner except Coleman), but none were on campus for Spring ball. While Rob tells us there’s a lot of buzz about one of them, Sioape Vatikani, given this staff’s conservatism I doubt we’ll see any freshmen this season.

NCAA Football: Sacramento State at California Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

Defense

Since their peak in 2018 with the #13 ranked defense in SP+, this squad has been in a real slump. I believe the problems first started when they lost their nose tackle and had no one to replace him in 2019, which turned their 3-down front into a shell of itself unable to stop the run. It got worse in 2020 when covid issues reduced them to only three playable d-linemen and they were clearly exhausted by the 4th quarter of games. In 2021 the Bears had shored their line up somewhat, but they lost their best d-lineman to a season ending injury, and they’d cycled out almost all the great inside linebackers and defensive backs at the other levels without much talent or experience to replace them.

In 2022, I think Cal has made a lot of progress toward fixing each of those problems. While they’re still lacking experience so it’s an open question whether these units will actually live up to it, unlike the previous three seasons the potential to have a great defense is back in Berkeley.

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

The structure of the front, when they have the personnel to run it, is three big defensive linemen in a 4i-0-4i to squeeze down any A- or B-gap running, a pair of outside backers who can alternate edging rush, outside run containment, or dropping into coverage, and a pair of inside backers to whom most plays are funneled for a ton of tackles. They’ve been forced in recent years to play a lot of 2-4-5 instead of their preferred 3-4, but with all the size now in the defensive line room I think they’ll try to switch back.

There are nine defensive linemen who weigh over 280 lbs, six of whom are 300+. They had two massive guys playing nose in the Spring game, 315 lbs #49 DL Long and 335 lbs #91 DL Correia, and they might get a third if 350 lbs #58 DL McKenzie recovers from the injury problems that have plagued his career. In a pinch they could move #94 DL Rask or #75 DL Roberts to 0-tech as well, though I think they’ll prefer to have them at 4i; both are 300 lbs and played last year. Cal is no doubt looking forward to the return of borderline 4-star #90 DL B. Johnson, who’s been playing since he was a true freshman in 2019 but missed last year with an injury – when healthy I think he’s one of the best linemen in the conference.

In the 280 – 295 lbs range they’ll have returners #99 DL Saunders, who got lots of reps last year, redshirt freshman #96 DL Wilkins, and true freshman Nathan Burrell who’s not on campus yet. There are a couple other new linemen but who are either projects or might be converted to OLBs because they’re about 40 lbs underweight for this structure, Henry Ikahihifo and Curlee Thomas. That looks like plenty of size to replace the two losses of longtime starters here, Luc Bequette and JH Tevis, though in what’s a running theme for Cal, this unit is low on experience.

Outside linebacker has been the reverse of the rest of the defensive units in recent years – pretty good continuity of play during the post-2018 slide, but now facing major questions with the loss of both great starters: Cameron Goode who’d been a standout since 2017 and Marqez Bimmage who made an immediate impact as a grad transfer from Texas last year.

Cal took a 4-star transfer from Utah in #44 DE Carlton. He was tabbed as an end in Utah’s 4-down front but didn’t have the right body type for it, and it instantly made sense to me when he got in the portal that he was looking for a 3-down defense. He’s still labeled an end on Cal’s official roster, but he was playing as an OLB in the Spring game and Rob and I both believe he’ll be a starter there in the Fall. I think in this system he can really live up to his potential as an edge rusher, though we’ll have to see how he does in coverage.

Last night, UCLA redshirt senior DE Odua Isibor announced he’s transferring to Cal; given his size and the way he was used in Los Angeles I expect he’ll be an OLB in Berkeley. I’ve watched his entire career and don’t think he ever lived up to his 2018 freshman year promise, but given how bad the defensive coaching staff has been at UCLA he may benefit from the change in scenery. I think he’ll be in a fight during Fall camp with the returners for the other OLB spot rather than immediately slotting in as a starter since he missed Spring practice , and again the new coverage responsibilities are something to watch.

The three returners with some experience last year were backups #52 OLB Croteau, #33 OLB Jernigan, and #48 OLB Patu, all mid 3-star recruits from the 2019 class. I think they were playing at a notable step down from the starters last year, and I think it’s telling that Bimmage came in and jumped all of them right away on the depth chart. There are four others who were freshmen last year and didn’t see the field: #38 OLB Hisatake, #57 OLB Ieremia, and #92 OLB My. Williams, all mid 3-stars, plus 4-star convert #95 OLB Calhoun who came in with last year’s class as a DE. Rob told a funny story about interviewing Calhoun on the podcast regarding the challenges and possibilities of switching from the d-line; I think the main issue is that at his current weight of 280 lbs he might be too big for effective coverage responsibility.

That means plenty of bodies and new OLB coach So’oto (previously USC and Virginia’s d-line coach where I think he was pretty effective) should have no trouble assembling a two-deep at both spots and having plenty of backups in case there are injuries. Rob says he’d bet on Patu getting the other starting job. Overall I think this unit has some promise if Carlton and Isibor can maintain the high level of play from Goode and Bimmage, but they still have to prove they have something not seen at their last schools and I have a hard time believing this unit won’t take at least a small step back given the quality of the departures.

NCAA Football: Colorado at California Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports

For the first three years under the current staff, Cal essentially didn’t rotate their two inside backers at all, and they produced some guys with incredible numbers like Jordan Kunaszyk and Evan Weaver between the defensive structure and simply being in on every single snap. I think the Bears made a misstep by forcing natural OLB and #1 rated Juco Kuony Deng to play ILB starting in 2019; I don’t think he ever learned the position properly, finally switched back to OLB in 2021 but made little impact, and has now left the team. That meant for the last two seasons they haven’t had an heir apparent at ILB and went the other way the last two years with their rotation pattern, switching through up to six guys at the position trying to find an answer.

I don’t think they really have yet, and last year they had five ILBs with between 25 and 49 tackles apiece. Only one of them has left, Evan Tattersall, so they return more than 80% of their production, but none of them were real standouts. Both Rob and I really liked the true freshman debut of #55 ILB M. Iosefa in 2020, but he had something of a sophomore slump last year despite being the leading tackler here, and I still think he’s about 15 lbs underweight for the job and was run over a lot.

Lack of raw talent and size is a problem I see throughout this unit - they’re all low-to-mid 3-stars and most could really benefit from bulking up. That’s why I think Rob is right that #43 ILB Oladejo has a starting job locked up; he’s up to 250 lbs now and is the only returner from last year’s five-man rotation over 230. I also wouldn’t be surprised if #59 ILB Puskas gets a crack at the starting spot despite only having a handful of reps last year just because he’s 245 lbs and this staff has shown a real preference for bigger backers in the past, and I believe he was playing with the ones in the Spring game. Converted safety #27 ILB Paster and former greyshirt #42 ILB Rutchena round out last year’s rotation. There are also three other bodies in the room who didn’t get playing time last year so there’s plenty of depth. Of them, Rob says to look out for #51 ILB Antzoulatos who apparently was identified (including by himself) to be the next Evan Weaver before an injury sidelined him, but I didn’t see him in the Spring game.

The wild card here is #8 ILB Sirmon, the starter from UW who transferred to Cal for this season. I have been deeply unimpressed with the Huskies’ entire ILB group for the last four seasons under former coach Bob Gregory (now an analyst at Oregon), and that certainly includes Sirmon who I don’t think ever played at his 4-star billing. I really have no idea how he’ll do with the Bears – maybe his development has been permanently wrecked by Gregory, or maybe he’ll thrive under new direction. There’s also some family intrigue here – he’s the son of Cal’s DC Sirmon who’s also the ILB coach. He’s another coach I’ve been very unimpressed by during his stops at Louisville and Mississippi St, and I could see the dynamic of the son playing for his father going in several different ways.

The Bears’ secondary loses three guys who were starters: Chigozie Anusiem, Josh Drayden, and Elijah Hicks. They also lose three guys who didn’t have many reps: Isaiah Humphries, Jaylen Martin, and Brandon Smith. Hicks was the last member of that fantastic 2018 secondary which had just about every passing offense locked down. Drayden was pretty good roaming across the entire defensive backfield on a defense that frequently had to play a 4-2-5, in fact I believe he subbed in at cornerback some last year when they started moving some pieces around.

As we discussed on the podcast, that was largely because the staff wasn’t pleased with how Anusiem was playing his cornerback role in the first half of the season, and eventually he was benched in favor of a couple young returners, #21 CB Gamble and #15 CB Hearns. Rob raved about Hearns on the podcast and I think it’s impressive he picked up the starting job as a true freshman, but on my tally sheet he’s still got some room for improvement. Gamble was hurt this Spring so I haven’t seen him much lately, as has been backup #28 CB Higgins who’s the highest rated of the unit as a high 3-star. They also return #41 CB I. Young who got a few backup reps last year, and #11 CB T. Williams who looked playable in the Spring game. Rounding out the group is walk-on #39 CB McLurkin who I think was practicing with the ones in Spring, plus a couple of mid 3-star true freshmen not yet on campus.

It’s good news for Cal that they’ve got both their returning (late-season) starters back, and they shouldn’t have trouble identifying their backups and depth players. But this group is pretty green – all eight guys are from the last three cycles and very short on playing time outside the starters. I have a hard time seeing them recreating that 2018 defense, and with only two interceptions in all of 2021 probably haven’t earned the “Takers” title.

NCAA Football: Sacramento State at California Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

The safeties return #32 DB Scott, an old hand from the 2017 class and the team’s leading tackler, a very steady and reliable piece to have back. There looks to be a pretty intense battle for the other safety spot, probably coming down to #13 DB Mi. Williams and #5 DB Woodie. If I had to bet I’d take Woodie, he’s a former 4-star transfer from Florida St and seemed to flash a bit more in the Spring game. I think #24 DB F. Iosefa will get Drayden’s nickel/rover job.

There are three other guys in the room, though no 2022 recruits or portal additions (so far, I think they may take another DB this Summer). These returners didn’t get any reps last year, but there were a lot of injuries in the unit: #31 DB Barth, #23 DB Butler, and #26 DB Woodson. Everybody here except Woodie is a low-to-mid 3-star, and they should have enough bodies for depth, but in my opinion the real issue here is that the experience gap between Scott and everybody else is massive – he had 82 tackles, every other safety combined had 11. It’s hard to predict that this group of largely untested DBs is going to replace Hicks’ and Drayden’s excellent play, and I expect a modest step back here if not a devastating one. If the Bears are in fact going to play a 3-4 more often now that they have the d-linemen to do it, and therefore just four DBs on the field most reps, the secondary is going to face a lot of pressure to do more with fewer personnel and we’ll have to see how this group handles it.


Accountability Corner

In last Summer’s preview of Cal, I noted that despite my gripes with Garbers, the only real problem at QB was the lack of any preparation behind him, and I think that showed up in the Arizona loss. I thought the returning WRs would still struggle with production and was calling for Hunter and Baker to get more reps even then. I predicted that Terry would supplant the returning walk-on TEs given how big of a talent gap there was and how central TEs were to Musgrave’s offense, and that didn’t happen at all – it may be that he had a lingering injury they kept under wraps as I speculated last Summer, or it may be that I severely underestimated this staff’s conservatism. I thought the running backs were all good looking thumpers and I think that proved true, and Rob graciously conceded on a disagreement we had last year about Moore’s top-end speed. I predicted the offensive line personnel correctly with the exception of their center, who had to medically retire after publication, and I think predicting a mediocre performance out of Steve Greatwood’s replacement at OL coach was pretty safe.

On the defense, I gave a mixed review to the line because I thought they weren’t ready yet to get back to their 2018 form, but they were starting to fill out after a scary nadir in 2020. A couple of guys stepped up who I didn’t see coming, but a couple of guys I was counting on essentially didn’t play. So I think I got some of the particulars wrong because I was basically firing blind, but the overall picture I think I had right. I thought they would fix some problems they had at OLB and indeed they did, but I didn’t see Bimmage coming at all while I was excited about Deng finally playing in his proper spot. So again – right on the big picture, a miss on a certain pair of personnel. I think I nailed the uncertainty at ILB exactly. For the secondary, I think calling Scott staying at safety and Hicks’ move there from corner to be good ones worked out, but my guesses at corner didn’t at all – Drayden moved to nickel and Anusiem got benched, while I didn’t even mention the very young Gamble and Hearns. But given the hectic midseason experimentation at the position, it seems I wasn’t the only one confused at cornerback.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 05 Cal at Oregon Photo by Brian Murphy/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images