While any coach worth his salt would tell you Cal football’s quest for its first bowl in the post-Jared Goff era will be determined by the team’s cohesion as a single unit, for any casual fan, a lot of the fun of the season will come from seeing what heights the Bears’ biggest stars can reach on their own. And if the preseason watchlists for college football’s major awards are any indication, Cal will have quite a few players competing to prove they’re among the best at what they do in the nation.
Senior running back Patrick Laird is leading his team in the number of award watchlists, and perhaps in the prestige of those lists as well. After a quiet beginning to his career as a walk-on, Laird exploded onto the national scene last season with more than 1,500 total yards and 10 touchdowns after starting out third on the depth chart. Putting up numbers like that in such a short time was good enough to make Laird a contender for the Maxwell Award, a positionless award for overall achievement that often mirrors the Heisman Trophy and the Doak Walker Award for the top running back in college football.
Laird’s two other nominations, however, are more than a product of his performance. His reputation as an off-the-field reader and do-gooder followed quickly from his on-field success. After visiting more than 20 schools as part of the Patrick Laird Summer Reading Challenge, he was placed on the watchlist for the Allstate AFCA Good Works Team and Wuerffel Trophy, both of which have a focus on community service and academics.
With the departure of defensive stalwarts such as James Looney and Devante Downs, senior inside linebacker Jordan Kunaszyk will have his work cut out for him in keeping his unit together, but his place on three watchlists should inspire a lot of faith. He’ll be in the running for the Butkus Award, Bronko Nagurski Trophy and Lott IMPACT Trophy — the first for the best linebacker in the nation and the latter two for defense in general.
“I’ve stepped more into a leadership role, and I’m really embracing it,” Kunaszyk said. “It’s something that I feel is natural to me. … I feel like I’ve earned the respect among my teammates and my coaches, so it feels natural to step up into this role.”
A pair of Bear receivers, redshirt senior Vic Wharton III and redshirt junior Kanawai Noa, are among the 50 named on the Biletnikoff Award Watch List for the top receiver in football. Neither put up massive totals last year, so this honor seems to be coming on the strength of their talent and potential to put up big numbers in offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin’s system. Wharton broke into the Cal top 10 for receptions in a season while putting up 871 yards and handling punt return duties as well. Noa had almost 800 receiving yards last year in nine starts and is additionally on the watchlist for the Polynesian College Football Player of the Year Award.
Offensive line play has been an issue at Cal for years, so it’s probably a sign of positive change that two of the big men up front have been recognized for important watchlists. Senior center Addison Ooms, the only Bear to have started each game over the last two seasons, was named to the Rimington Trophy watchlist, a center-specific award, and senior tackle Patrick Mekari got the nod for the Outland Trophy, which is awarded to the best interior lineman on offense or defense. Mekari’s play grew to be excellent as last season progressed, and he was an honorable mention for the All-Pac-12 teams.
To round out the list of nine Bears to earn preseason honors, redshirt junior quarterback Ross Bowers will compete for the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award (an award for quarterbacks that takes character into account), senior tight end Ray Hudson (who missed last year because of injury) will be up for the John Mackey Award and junior safety and kick returner Ashtyn Davis will have a shot at the Paul Hornung award for high performers from Louisville, Kentucky.
Preseason rankings and watchlists are not guarantees of success, but Cal’s impressive placements on these lists speaks to expectations for the new season.