“I think the whole defense didn’t practice at all last year,” said an onlooker in the stands at Cal football’s sixth practice. Many may share his sentiments, but Cal’s defense, now led by Tim DeRuyter, showed some promise on Saturday. Getting their first taste under the lights this fall camp, the Bears were hyped and energized to finally get their pads on and get down to business.
“Now it’s about refining the techniques and creating muscle memory and training our mind and body for what it’s going to take to have success,” head coach Justin Wilcox said. “By no means are we ready, we got work to do, but I know their mindset is in the right spot right now and we just gotta keep pushing.”
For half of practice, the offense worked in with the defense on various drills, but the real fun came when the Bears went into live action.
Redshirt junior quarterback Chase Forrest, in competition with redshirt sophomore Ross Bowers for the starting spot, took the helm for the first drive of the day. Following a pass and a hand-off to senior running back Tre Watson, he threw two incomplete passes, but the receivers were largely at fault. While it was not the strongest opening drive, Forrest showed off his arm strength and made it clear that he is not afraid of the deep-ball downfield.
Bowers, too, struggled on his first drive and threw two incomplete passes but he displayed his ability to scramble and buy himself time in the pocket to make a play. He had several nice passes as practice went on but his outing was not spectacular enough to separate him from his competition.
While there is still the lingering question of who will be the starting quarterback, there is no doubt that the running backs will be at the core of Cal’s offense. Whether it was Forrest or Bowers, it was not uncommon to see the backs receive back-to-back handoffs and/or passes. Both Watson and senior Vic Enwere were the workhorses throughout practice.
With a less experienced presence at quarterback, and a one-two senior punch at running back, the emphasis to make plays on the ground as opposed to the pass-heavy offense Cal has run in the past, makes sense.
“I think we (Watson and I) have brought our games up to a level to where we can have a change of pace in terms of keeping the offense fresh and having fresh legs,” said Enwere. “I think the best thing we do for each other is give each other the ability to rest.”
Redshirt junior Patrick Laird and redshirt freshman Zion Echols also saw action at the position, but it is likely that the senior duo is going to see most of the snaps.
While the backs have established go-to guys, the wide receiver position runs deep and has a plethora of options. Sophomore Demetris Robertson, one of Cal’s top receivers, did not see much action during practice, but that opened up opportunities for other players, such as redshirt senior Jordan Veasy and sophomore Jordan Duncan.
“We are a very cohesive group,” Veasy said. “We actually work as a unit, we depend on the next man just like the others. Here it’s like a ‘pick your poison’ type of thing.”
On the opposite side of the ball, the defense managed to put solid pressure on the passer during live-play and the safeties stole the show. Redshirt senior defensive end James Looney relentlessly pursued the quarterback and safeties redshirt junior Derron Brown and redshirt senior De’Zhon Grace both recorded sacks.
Redshirt senior cornerback Darius Allensworth had solid coverage on his men throughout practice and there were a couple of interceptions by safeties Brown and redshirt sophomore Malik Psalms.
The defense, however, struggled in the red zone, an area where the Bears were terrible last year, ranking last in the Pac-12 in red zone defense and allowing 50 scores on 54 chances. Redshirt sophomore safety Jaylinn Hawkins had an excellent tackle during the last red zone drive of the day, but his efforts simply delayed the inevitable as the offense worked its way into the end zone.
The play was a crude reminder that while there were patches of potential, the defense still has much work to do before it can remove itself from its reputation of being half-rate when compared to the offense.
Placekicker redshirt senior Matt Anderson was only called upon once to take on the goalposts, and in typical Anderson fashion – it was good. While Bowers was not happy as he jogged to the sideline after failing to reach the end zone, the kicking staff got to see some action that it otherwise would not have.
Like Wilcox said, Cal is by no means ready to take on the gargantuan task that is the 2017 season, but fortune favors the prepared mind, and the Bears are continuing in their hard work.
Christie Aguilar is the assistant sports editor. Contact her at [email protected].