Sporting a gray, long-sleeved Cal football shirt, with his dark brown hair slicked across his forehead, Zach Kline took his seat behind the microphone. He settled his gaze on the view in front of him — a collection of recorders and iPhones strewn about on the table and a group of about 20 reporters waiting in blue-leather seats. In the far reaches of the room, a camera centered itself on Kline.
The quarterback looked to his left, then to his right, running his right hand through his hair. He waited for someone to ask him a question, but there was nothing — just morose silence. Sensing the room needed some livening up, he decided to speak first.
“Nothing?” he mused to his audience. “Alright. Sweet!” He pretended to stand up to leave, clapping his hands as he spoke the words, breaking into a laugh soon after.
The room echoed his laughter. A member of the press corps asked Kline a question about an interception. He answered. Kline’s postgame press conference resumed for another eight and a half minutes.
It was a scene that seemed well rehearsed for Kline — a quarterback handling prodding questions about a 49-17 loss to Oregon State, exercising complete control and command throughout the exchange, using his charm to fend off any negative inquiries.
But for Kline, this was an entirely foreign experience. He was the backup quarterback on a one-win Cal team. The only reason he received playing time on that particular Saturday was because of starting quarterback Jared Goff’s poor performance. And the only reason he felt the need to kick off his press conference with a joke was because Goff had just answered a question about an interception with this: “There was two guys kind of open. And I threw it right at the wrong guy. And that’s about it.” Goff then exited the room.
“It was really quiet,” Kline says today, a little more than a year since that press conference. “And I felt like I had to lighten the mood a little bit. I do remember that.”
Kline’s performance against Oregon State, when he threw for two touchdown passes, was the highlight of his Cal career. Despite being touted as Cal’s quarterback savior when he arrived in 2012, Kline’s Cal career was limited to just 82 pass attempts. After two seasons largely spent on the bench, Kline announced his intent to transfer in December of 2013. Then, he was gone.
The start to Kline’s Cal career seemed to promise greatness. As a four-star recruit who played high school ball 20 miles to the east at San Ramon Valley High School, Kline was recruited by schools such as Oregon State, Michigan and Cal. The choice was easy for Kline, a lifelong Cal fan.
When Kline arrived on campus prior to the 2012 season, he was branded as the cure to Cal’s quarterback woes that had plagued former head coach Jeff Tedford since the days of Aaron Rodgers. In Cal’s spring game in April of 2012, Kline provided the game-winning 40-yard touchdown pass and two-point conversion. And despite redshirting in his first season, he still traveled with the team to away games.
“They definitely had a lot of stake in me,” he says. “I feel like Tedford wanted to bring me along at the correct pace. … I think that they definitely trusted me, had faith me, and that was the important part.”
But after a 3-9 season, Tedford was axed in November 2012. And in came head coach Sonny Dykes. Current starting quarterback Jared Goff also arrived at Cal that spring. Suddenly, Kline found himself in the middle of a quarterback competition between himself, Goff and Austin Hinder.
The trio went head to head throughout spring. At the start of fall camp, the competition narrowed to Kline and Goff. By the end of the summer, Dykes announced his intention to start Goff over Kline.
“I can’t say who deserved what,” Kline says. “Jared thought he should have played. I thought I should have played.”
Throughout the season, the Bears were repeatedly squashed by their opposition, only knocking off an FCS opponent, Portland State. And for the most part, Kline could only stand and watch from the sideline as his team limped to a 1-11 record.
“He handled it the best he could,” says former Cal football player Damariay Drew, who has played with Kline at both Butte and Cal, and has been friends with Kline since junior high school. “I don’t think he got mad about it. He just went about his business.”
Kline would fill in for Goff six times throughout the season. He completed 52 percent of his 82 pass attempts for 443 yards, three touchdowns and four picks. After his two-touchdown performance against Oregon State, some wondered if Kline would get the start against Washington the following week. Still, it was Goff handling the snaps in a 41-17 loss in Seattle.
Despite the coaching staff’s loyalty to Goff, Kline says he maintained a good relationship with Dykes and offensive coordinator Tony Franklin — whom he credits in his development as a quarterback — as well as Goff.
“Jared’s a great QB,” Kline says. “The kid played his butt off. And he did great. He did awesome. And I hand it to him.”
When the season ended, Kline sat down with Franklin. He told Kline that Goff was their guy going forward. Kline, who still appreciates Franklin’s honesty in that meeting, mulled it over with his family. Ultimately, he decided to move on from the school of his dreams so he could pursue other starting quarterback opportunities.
Cal Athletics, which denied requests for interviews with players and coaches, offered a written statement from Dykes.
“We appreciate the time and effort Zach gave us as a Cal student-athlete and member of our football program,” Dykes said in the statement. “We supported him in his decision to transfer after last season and wish him the best as he moves forward with the continuation of his football and academic endeavors.”
Kline moved on from Cal, but today, he still calls California home. After initially deciding to transfer to Oregon State and then attending a few spring practices, Kline opted to play at Butte College instead, a community college located roughly 150 miles northeast of Berkeley. Despite having the option to join another Division I program, Kline chose Butte — where Aaron Rodgers played prior to his Cal days — because he didn’t want to spend a third consecutive season on the bench. He wanted to regain his confidence.
At Butte, Kline would be able to play immediately. He did, leading Butte to a 7-4 (4-1) record and the postseason.
“Confidence-wise, he’s a little down on himself right now,” Drew says. “But it’s hard, going from Cal to the JC level and coming out of high school as highly recruited as he was. It’s just hard to take a step back in that situation — anybody in his shoes would be a little less confident. But throughout the season, he was gaining it back, and towards the end of the year he started to play like the Zach I knew.”
More importantly, Kline continued to progress and develop as a quarterback from coaches he says are “just like Division I coaches.” Coming to Butte also allowed him to gain a deeper appreciation of the game.
“Playing at Butte has gotten me to love football and love school and life in its purest form,” he says. “I started playing when I was 8 years old because it’s fun. Here at Butte, it’s the same thing.”
But Kline’s dream isn’t to just play football for fun. He left the school of his dreams to pursue his dream of starting at a university.
Drew — a defensive back — thinks Kline has the ability and skill set to achieve that goal, as long as his confidence isn’t shaken from his experience at Cal.
“Zach can be as good as his mind wants him to be,” Drew says. “I mean, he has all the intangibles, he has a great arm, he can get away from the pocket, he can run a little bit, but it’s all a mindset. When it’s clicking for him, it’s really clicking.”
Kline hopes recruiting will pick up in December, once the regular season is over for most universities. He says he’s attracted the interest of a few schools such as Indiana State, South Alabama and Sacramento State.
Still, there’s no guarantee he’ll get to accomplish his goals. It was just a few years ago he was being groomed by Tedford. Today, he’s searching for his third school to play at in as many years. He says it’s been a humbling experience, going from the best public university with sweet uniforms and thousands of screaming fans to a community college located in Oroville. Still, Kline insists he’s not worried about his future. He thinks everything happens for a reason. And he’s intent on making it to the big stage.
“I want to be a starting quarterback at a university,” Kline says. “I want to play big-time college football.”