By Morris Phillips
Defense ahead of the offense? Second stringers challenging the projected starters? Coaching tenets and terminology outpacing player comprehension? Chase Forrest or Ross Bowers?
Depends on who you ask. This is, after all, Spring 2017 California Football, sporting as clean a slate as anyone on the Division I football landscape. And the occasion of the Spring Game on Saturday at Memorial Stadium didn’t make things any less murkier.
New head coach Justin Wilcox, the son of former 49er Dave Wilcox, was hired from Wisconsin, replacing the fired Sonny Dykes in January. Wilcox’s arrival means defense is back in Berkeley, a necessity after the 2016 Bears surrendered more than 40 points per game. But can a defense featuring holdovers James Looney, Devante Downs and linebacker Cameron Saffold take a jump to the top half of the Pac-12 statistically?
On Saturday, during the controlled scrimmage with pads and physicality, but without tackling, corner Camryn Bynum led the Bears with six tackles and a pass breakup, and Elijah Hicks had an interception, a pass breakup and three tackles. Bynum and Hicks are part of a deep Cal secondary that also features Marloshawn Franklin Jr. and Darius Allensworth.
Offensively, the Bears are attempting to retool without quarterback Davis Webb and receiver Chad Hansen, with both expected to be chosen in the upcoming NFL Draft. Webb and Hansen combined for 11 touchdown passes in 2016 meaning that those manning their spots this season will have big shoes to fill. Forrest was Webb’s backup in 2016, but didn’t make any game appearances. In 2015, Forrest backed Jared Goff, and appeared in parts of three games, completing 10 of 17 passes, including one touchdown.
Bowers is a third-year sophomore and has very limited experience, taking a handful of snaps in the 2016 finale against UCLA. On Saturday, both starter candidates played well with Bowers gaining the edge statistically. Bowers finished 18 of 30 for 168 yards and four touchdowns, while Forrest was 15 of 30 for 168 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions.
Demetris Robertson and Melquise Stovall lead Cal’s promising group of returning receivers although neither saw action on Saturday. Robertson is a sprinter on Cal’s track and field team this spring, and Stovall is recovering from a foot injury. The pair combined for 92 catches and 10 touchdowns last fall. In the spring game, sophomore Kanawai Noa took advantage of the pair’s absence, catching eight balls for 112 yards.
The Bears figure to be plenty experienced in one area: coaching. New defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter joins the Bears after a five-year run as the head coach of Fresno State. Ironically, DeRuyter was replaced by former Cal coach Jeff Tedford at Fresno. New offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin was the long time head coach of Eastern Washington, where his Eagles engineered some eye-popping results against Pac-12 competition, including last season’s 45-42 win over Washington State.
DeRuyter promises to install a 3-4 look to this season’s defense, although it remains to be seen if the Bears currently have enough talent and depth at linebacker to make it work. Baldwin should keep the Cal offense in high octane mode, but the look will be different than under Dykes. Baldwin’s offense features fewer spread sets, and the Bears are expected to reintroduce tight ends into their scheme.
The Bears open the season on September 2 at North Carolina, with the home opener a week later against Weber State.