It is easy to forget that spring is a sort of beginning for the football season — people are easily distracted by the blooming flowers, nicer weather and sneezing people carrying Claritin.
But this year, all eyes will be on the lush turf of Kabam Field, where Cal football began its spring practices and a new era under head coach Justin Wilcox on Wednesday. The Bears will hold 15 practices, three of which will be available to the public, including March 24, April 8th and April 22 — the date of the annual Spring Game.
These three opportunities will be the first chance to take a look at Cal entering a new era — one without the old head coach, quarterback and star wide receiver.
But change’s inevitable dance partner is uncertainty. Let’s take a look at some of the most important questions entering spring ball.
What does this team look like with Justin Wilcox in charge?
With Sonny Dykes, the Bears’ head coach of the last four years fired, it’s Wilcox’s time to lead the program. This is his first time heading a program, but both of his coordinators have helmed college football teams in the recent past — offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin was at Eastern Washington and defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter led Fresno State.
Even with the seasoned assistants, however, all eyes will be on Wilcox. Who will he be watching during the drills? What music will be playing? How loose of an environment will it be? How involved does he get? What’s his demeanor? How will he interact with fans? After all, that’s a more integral part of the job than most new head coaches realize.
And, most importantly, how does he compare to Dykes?
These practices will be the first chance to see Wilcox in action and give the Cal community some answers.
What will the defense look like and where will players fit into Wilcox’s scheme?
Although Wilcox has made it clear that his defense will not consistently offer any one look, he has said his base scheme will be a 3-4, which means the Bears will need a nose tackle and some stand-up pass rushers at outside linebacker.
Right now, after years of playing in a 4-3, Cal will have some adjusting to do. Spring ball will give everyone the first chance to see how players like James Looney and Cameron Saffle will make the transition: will they need more time or fit right in? And if it’s the latter, where will that be?
Is Saffle going to continue rushing the passer — he had four sacks last season — or will he stay at defensive end and be more oriented to stopping the run? And will Looney be big enough to occupy linemen at the nose or is he more accustomed to the 3-4 defensive end role?
Not to mention the fact that it was hard for the Bears to find even one capable middle linebacker, let alone the two they’ll now need just to start. That’s all just scratching at the surface of what Cal will have to find out about the defense during spring ball.
Will a leader emerge in the quarterback race?
This year makes two in a row where the Bears will be looking to replace a prolific quarterback. But a Davis Webb isn’t walking through that door again (other than for Pro Day).
That’s to say, it’s not looking like Cal will be able to find Webb’s replacement as easily as they could Jared Goff’s. Instead, the Bears will likely look for a signal caller from within the program. Seems easy enough. Just promote the backup right? Nope.
With a new offense and five quarterbacks legitimately in the mix for the starting job, anything could happen.
Early buzz has redshirt freshman Max Gilliam in the mix, with true freshman Chase Garbers coming in as a highly touted recruit — though he won’t be around until fall. Then there’s the most experienced of the bunch, redshirt junior Chase Forrest — the guy who entered last spring as the favorite for the starting job before Webb’s transfer decision was finalized. Redshirt sophomore Ross Bowers and redshirt freshman Victor Viramontes, perhaps the guy who most shined on the side during fall’s practices, are just as much in contention for the job.
Wilcox has stressed the fact that he’s not worried about rushing to name a starting quarterback, but this spring could still provide some insight into the leaderboard. Namely, who will get the most reps with the starters to begin with and who will start the Spring Football Game.
If I had to wager, I’d bet on Bowers gaining some traction and Viramontes’ arm strength and athleticism turning some heads.
Is Demetris Robertson ready to be the star?
With Chad Hansen off to the NFL, opposing defensive backfields will now have no doubt about who the biggest threat on the outside is for the Bears.
Robertson came in as a five-star recruit and immediately shined with 50 receptions, 767 yards and seven touchdowns last season. Now, he’ll become his quarterback’s favorite target and the first bullet on those defensive gameplans.
Robertson’s speed alone is enough to beat most cornerbacks he’ll see but the spring could be a useful opportunity to further develop his skills as a wide receiver. Route running may be an especially important focus, with the new offense expected to have a more varied route tree than its predecessor.
But that same speed that sets Robertson apart as a receiver could be a reason he’s barely around in the spring. He competes with the track and field team as a sprinter in the spring and could have less time to devote to football practices. If he does participate in spring football, however, Robertson will get a chance to show if he’s ready to take Hansen’s mantle and become one of the nation’s very best wide receivers.