Cal football recently kicked off its training camp festivities Friday, and despite the limited scope of the team’s practices so far — the first practice in full pads is Monday — there have been quite a few important takeaways from what’s been on display for fans and the media so far.
1. Luke Rubenzer could be the real deal as a safety
Rubenzer spent last season as the Bears’ backup quarterback and saw the field in special packages where he mostly ran the ball. In spring practice, however, he started transitioning to the safety position, and he started off fast, intercepting quarterback Jared Goff twice in the the full-team scrimmages (one of which was negated by a pass interference penalty). Rubenzer has proven that wasn’t a fluke so far in training camp, as he has spent most of his time on the field with the starters. While on the field taking part in scrimmages, he’s mostly been hard to spot — no big plays but no major mishaps — but he did break up a down-the-field pass Saturday.
“It’s going well. I keep getting more comfortable back there,” Rubenzer said. “I need to make sure I’m doing my own job. Maybe it’s just for playing quarterback, where you’ve got to control everybody on every play, but I kind of get distracted on defense sometimes.”
The amount of playing time Rubenzer has received so far is partially because presumed starting safeties Stefan McClure and Griffin Piatt have been limited in play as they come back from major injuries, but Rubenzer’s current playing time means he will likely remain a second-string player. In defensive coordinator Art Kaufman’s system, which is all about keeping the players fresh, that should mean the former quarterback will still notch a decent amount of time on the field.
2. The Cal defense was passionate, played hard and looked better than expected
Cal had one of the worst passing defenses in the nation last year, and that defense had to go up against Goff and one of the best receiving corps in the nation in scrimmages and at practice. Things didn’t look good for the Bears’ much-maligned defense, but when 11-on-11 scrimmages and the third-down drills actually began, the defense surprised everyone. The defensive players were getting after Goff and tipping balls in the air, and they even came away with six interceptions over the two days.
“It’s good to see guys breaking on the ball and making competitive plays,” head coach Sonny Dykes said after the second day of training camp. “We’re just a bigger, stronger, different-looking football team than we have been.”
There were more than a few occasions when the defense dominated the offense, especially on the third-down drills.This meant some impressive plays from the defensive backs, who mostly stuck close to the receivers in their one-on-one drills, although there were a few big mistakes. The defensive line’s impressive pass rush was largely a result of James Looney’s strong play. The most important part of the initial days of training camp for the defense, though, was the level of passion that was evident, especially during the scrimmages. The defensive players could be heard cheering throughout Memorial Stadium when one of the players on their side tipped the ball or even got an interception. The big plays the defense did end up conceding weren’t caused by a lack of effort but were rather a result of miscommunication or the offensive players displaying their talents.
While the defense’s ability to stand up to Cal’s strong offense to some degree was encouraging, it is still early for making any conclusions. The regular season is still nearly a month away, so the Bears’ defense needs to ensure that it keeps up this level of effort if it hopes to elevate the team’s performance this year.
3. The offensive line needs to be shored up before the season starts
One spot where the Bears weren’t nearly as impressive was on offense, specifically the offensive line. After it became clear that presumed starting center Matt Cochran would no longer be with the team this season, Cal was left to fill some holes on its offensive line. This was done by moving Jordan Rigsbee, who was projected to start at right guard coming out of spring ball, to the center position. Who will replace Rigsbee at guard is unclear, as junior Dominic Granado and freshman Semisi Uluave both got time with the first-team offensive line.
While there are plenty of talented players on the offensive line, it is clear that the unit needs to do a lot more work before it can be as cohesive as it needs to be. Rigsbee had some early challenges adjusting to his new position. He snapped more than a few balls too low or too high, and Goff had to work to catch them.
“(The offensive line) made a ton of mistakes. We’ve obviously got to clean up a lot of that stuff,” said Brandon Jones, Cal’s run game coordinator and offensive line coach, after the first day. “They played hard, and the effort is good. It’s my job as a coach to minimize (the mistakes).”
With the rest of the offense stocked full of players returning from last year’s high-scoring group, the offensive line will need to be sure that it is a steady, reliable unit so that the Bears can reach their potential on that side of the ball.
4. The offense looked shaky overall, but the plays where it came together were impressive to behold
For the most part, the first two days of training camp were not as impressive as expected for Cal’s offense. While it’s hard to get a read on the running game when the players aren’t in full pads, this caused much of the attention to be devoted to the passing game. There were more mistakes than the coaches had hoped for, especially on Day 1.
“Offensively, we turned the ball over way too many times. There were too many balls on the ground. Our snaps got to get better,” Dykes said after the first day. “I think we looked out of sorts early, and as the practice progressed, I thought we settled in and performed much better.”
And when the Bears began performing better offensively, it was clear why the offense is projected to be one of the highest performing ones in the NCAA. There were sequences in which the defense didn’t make any mistakes, but the offensive players went up and made huge plays that were simply not possible to stop. On the first day, Maurice Harris and his down-the-field catches were the source of most of the excitement from Cal fans in attendance, while Bryce Treggs supplied his fair share of spectacular plays on the second day.
Throughout the first two days, the reason for all the hype surrounding Goff — who is on the preseason watchlists for awards ranging from the Maxwell Award to the Manning Award — was also fully on display. While he did throw a couple of interceptions, he was impressive for the most part, and it’s clear that the Bears won’t have to worry about him being at his best heading into the 2015 season.