Classes have come around for Cal students, and that means that the season has come around in earnest for Cal football. Summer camp is over, and with just a week until the Bears embark upon Cal head coach Justin Wilcox’s debut season, preparation for their first opponent has begun. Positional battles have for the most part been won or lost by now, but one big question still remains, and in a big way. When the Bears offense gets the ball against North Carolina on Sept. 2, who’s coming in at quarterback?
“We’re not ready to name a starter right now — when that time comes, everything is on the table with that position,” Wilcox said a week ago. “(That) doesn’t effect our team in a negative way — I know that’s a real popular question right now, and I understand why. But our team is practicing really hard, and whoever’s in there, the guys will rally around whoever is taking the snaps.”
For four years, regardless of what have been the on-field results, Bear fans have been spoiled in terms of signal callers. Three years of Jared Goff, who went from starting for a 1-11 Cal squad in 2013 to being the No. 1 pick in the 2016 NFL draft, and one year of current New York Giants quarterback Davis Webb ensured a big-time aerial attack at all times. Now, with the position unclaimed so close to the start of the regular season, the chances of the offense running through the quarterback in the same way seem greatly diminished.
There are technically four contestants — transfer Brandon McIlwain, freshman Chase Garbers, redshirt sophomore Ross Bowers, and redshirt junior Chase Forrest. But McIlwain, despite having received as much summer practice time as anyone else, will most likely be ineligible to play this season, per NCAA transfer rules.
Garbers doesn’t have anything as serious as ineligibility holding him back, but as a freshman recruited by former head coach Sonny Dykes, it would be a major coup for him to win Wilcox’s confidence. His play has mostly been as good as the older players, but it would certainly be unorthodox to see a new head coach gives the reigns to a true freshman he did not recruit.
That leaves Forrest and Bowers as the duo truly fighting it out to take the first snap of the season. Forrest took the initial playing time in Cal’s spring game back in April, but both finished with similar yard totals and completion rates, with Bowers throwing four touchdowns to Forrest’s one. The competition seems to have been similarly deadlocked since, with neither ever creating a considerable separation from the other.
Forrest has more experience, but the difference in terms of playing time is almost negligible. He put on the final touches in a 2015 blowout of Grambling State after Goff had blown the game wide open, appearing in two more games that season without completing another pass. Bowers then split the No. 2 spot on the depth chart behind Webb with him last year, with Bowers making an appearance, albeit without attempting a pass, and Forrest riding the bench the whole way.
Wilcox can’t be overly happy about being in this situation so deep into the preseason, but he’s not simply talking a big game about being relatively unconcerned with the uncertainty. For many teams, even some bowl contenders, undecided quarterback competitions stretching into the regular season are a common occurrence. Additionally, as a defensive-minded coach coming in after years of the pass-worshiping Dykes tenure, part of his job is to retool fans’ expectations of the team’s priorities.
Refusing to treat the quarterback position as something holy that must be helmed by the team’s unquestioned leader, as is the case for many fan bases and some coaching staffs, is a step in that direction. With some starters in other spots left to be decided, and decisions to make regarding who to redshirt, Wilcox has enough on his plate without making the quarterback duel a major story.